In Our Magazines
- A Video Interview with Charles Blackstone
- The Sun is Down: Rereading Krapp's Last Tape
- AN INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL ALARCÓN
- An Interview with Dror Burstein
- When Do We Start Becoming Writers?
- An Interview with Trisha Low
- Gift Ideas for Curious Minds
December 20, 2013
I was very troubled today to learn about the death of Ned Vizzini. He was a friend and a colleague and a contributor and someone I admired. I don't know if I had ever before met someone who was so genuinely enthusiastic and supportive of people's writing and creativity. He was truly one of the most open-hearted people I have ever known.
He is missed, by both myself and Charles Blackstone. Our only regret is that we didn't have the chance to know him better.
His death is being reported as a suicide, and these things, they tend to spread. The suicidal brain fixates, that is what it does. For people in dark places, and tomorrow is the Solstice, so it's a lot of us: Get yourself safe. I have been where you are, and the only thing is to breathe and keep yourself around until something breaks through. And it does. There are hotlines and your friends love you more than you know. If you feel like you don't have anyone, come find me. You are cared for.
December 19, 2013
Image: Untitled by Louise Bourgeois
I wrote this for the Spolia tumblr, but it seems relevant over here as well.
A year ago, I referred publicly to a woman’s blog post as “hysterical,” and was shouted down by a few people for using a misogynist term. I wasn’t being flip, I tried to explain. To me, being hysterical online is a very specific thing, when you don’t really read the piece you are responding to, and are instead responding to some perceived insult that may or may not truly exist, and then you inflate your own sense of hurt and wear your injuries around in order to protect yourself from any sort of logical response. Taking an argument out of the realm of logic and taking it to this heightened, and personal, emotional state and deliberately blocking a person’s ability to argue.
No one cared. I would have used the same word if a man had written the piece, and it’s not like they don’t. Nerd dude culture is soaking in these responses, just read any blog posts responding to negative movie reviews of The Avengers or responses to women claiming sexism in video games. They get hysterical.
But it started an argument with a colleague: whether or not I was allowed to use the word “hysterical” in reference to a woman. It is too historically loaded, I was told. But the word fits so wonderfully, it is such a wonderfully specific and useful word was my argument. This colleague, a man, also refuses to use the word “bitch.” I use the word bitch a lot.
I understand that the term is loaded in a particularly gendered way. But I also think because it is more often a feminine tactic than a masculine tactic — not because women are more emotional or less prone to logic but because it’s a behavior that is encouraged in women by being rewarded. And any sort of emotional behavior or display is still discouraged in men. It’s not to say the hurt or the injury is never there, it’s that online culture really does encourage this type of response. The “I am right — and the victim! — so any argument is a form of bullying.” And the comment sections fill up with echoes of support, and dissent is shouted down.
(More common on sites like The Wall Street Journal and more male-dominated conversations is the blank refutation of “facts” they picked up by whichever warped source happened to agree with them, and claims of logic that do not in any way exist, and that is a different thing from what I am talking about. Neither one is a better or worse way to have a conversation, they both are horrible.)
Take the 19th century French hysterics at Salpêtrière. They had obvious problems, all of them. Abusive families, rapes and assaults, emotional disorders, PTSD, etc. And that caused physical symptoms, as it tends to do. So off to the asylum they went. Where they were responded to if their physical symptoms lined up with the expectations of the doctors. If they convulsed, they were rewarded with attention. If they contorted, they were asked to perform and found a level of fame. Soon their physical symptoms, which had been chaotic and very wide-ranging, aligned with what the doctors believed about hysteria.
The problem was, the emotional problems and past traumas were never addressed and dealt with. The physical symptoms were all anybody saw. Most of the women were lifelong inpatients. The performance becomes a distraction, a way to keep the conversation or our train of thought or psychotherapy sessions from hitting the real source. It allows us to “win,” an argument or a belief or whatever our rewards are, and that is often times the only thing we want.
Maybe I shouldn’t use the word “hysteria,” maybe using the word is its own form of shutting the argument down. I do use it, though. But I thought I perhaps needed to clarify what I mean when I use the word.
December 18, 2013
What We're Reading
Hugo Claus: The Sorrow of Belgium
In advance of a trip to Belgium, I dutifully got hold of The Sorrow of Belgium, by Hugo Claus, which, I had been assured, was the national novel of the country. I was not looking forward to reading it. The book was over six hundred pages. And the title suggested not only suffering and but self-pity, sounding excruciatingly like the World War I propaganda term, “the rape of Belgium.” But in the spirit of doing my homework, I began to read and now I am astonished that I -- and I expect most non-Belgians—have not heard of this fabulous book.
I have now learned now that the book is compared to Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. This, I suppose, is because there is a young male narrator, and because it is set immediately before, during and after World War II. But I am reminded much more of James Joyce than Günter Grass. Joyce brings you to live with him in Ireland for a time, takes you along on his rambles, shares with you the subtle turns of language and humor. Now, almost to the end of Sorrow, I feel as if I've lived a life in Flanders, one full of delicious, hilarious, peculiar and horrendous intimacies.
Louis, the idealistic, pedantic, sex-obsessed young narrator, begins his story as a student at a convent school; then, when the war begins, he returns home to parents who are Nazi sympathizers and would-be collaborators. His father’s motivation seems to be a combination of Flemish national sentiment, ancient enmity with the British and the French, and hatred of the Communists who are said to have violated nuns in Spain. Along with this goes a wishful sense of self-importance which prompts him to hint that he has Gestapo connections. Lewis’s pretty mother, meanwhile, bored and unhappy in her marriage, enjoys the company of her well-dressed, well-fed German. What with all these complications, Louis is often shipped off to an extended family of villagers, an earthy group with no intention of letting total war get in the way of time-honored obsessions and feuds.
The book doesn’t excuse collaboration with the Nazis, or those who don’t grasp the full horror that is unfolding. The truth is there for those who are able to make the effort to see, who are willing to see. And some do see, even before the house of cards collapses. (When the springy, “dancing” American GIs arrive in Belgium, Louis realizes that the stiff, leather-clad Nazis will not have a chance against them.) Still I am fascinated by the way in which the events of World War II, which can seem so obvious to Americans, are so complicated when placed within the context of ancient alliances, enmities and the simple need to get your hands on some jellied pork.
Image: The saddest owl in the world, painted by Albrecht Durer
Thoughts on Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch after abandoning it 2/3 of the way through:
1. Even when I am fed up with Donna Tartt, and rolling my eyes as I'm reading, I still want to turn the page. She had that whatever quality, that has coined a thousand unfortunate PR-language words that show up in reviews: unputdownable, a real page-turner, etc.
2. So I'm rooting for her, because she can write, even though I don't think she's yet written a successful novel.
3. I loved The Secret History for the first half. The second half was a mess. She did such a good job with the first half getting us on her protagonists' side, getting us to hate Bunny and to cheer for his demise, but then utterly failed in rehabilitating him so that we should ever care that he had died, other than you know it's sad when people are pushed off cliffs in a general sort of way.
4. And that ending! That ending that comes out of nowhere and just shows up in a "well, I need to end this" kind of way, despite it being so out of context of the story, despite it not fitting with what we know about the characters. She couldn't hold the tension anymore, so why not just write in a dramatic flourish that feels like it came in from Mars to take over the story.
5. While The Secret History at least gets one good half, the problems of The Goldfinch start immediately. I kept arguing with the book, even as I couldn't stop turning the pages.
6. I mean, really, if you're going to use a terrorist bombing to kill off a character don't you then have to follow-through with the ways in which a bombing would differ in consequences from an accident? And why does the book refer to the bombing as an accident later? Placing a bomb in an art museum -- and that is never thought through either, why terrorists would bomb an art museum on a weekday morning in a special exhibit where the potential victims will be mostly Flemish paintings rather than people -- is not an accident. And things follow a terrorist bombing -- hearings and crazy publicity and stalking tabloid photographers and settlements and manhunts and political ramifications -- that show up nowhere in The Goldfinch. And the glamour of this book is patchier than The Secret History, so I couldn't hold any disbelief. I needed it to make sense and it didn't.
7. Really? Now we're throwing in a drug addiction narrative? There's nothing new to add to that storyline, now I know exactly how the rest of the book goes, and that's the exact moment I discarded the book.
8. Tartt is a hell of a propulsive writer, but I never really remember any of her descriptions, not a nice turn of phrase, a line of dialogue that sticks in the heart... But that power, of making you keep going, despite those lags when she spends 100 pages writing about two teenage boys drinking too much vodka and huffing glue, is really something else.
9. But now that it's over and I've given the book to a friend, I miss that feeling of anticipation, when I get to go take a bath and read Donna Tartt. It's complicated when you like the writer but not the books.
December 16, 2013
Image: Radio Waves by Kizuki Tamura
In this month’s Bookslut, Daniel Alarcón talks briefly about telling stories in and across multiple mediums. Alarcón, author of two novels and a graphic novel, also has a radio project, Radio Ambulante, which broadcasts Latin American stories told in Spanish from the many places where Spanish is spoken. For those interested in hearing more oral storytelling, here are some links:
The New Yorker fiction podcast
The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman hosts this monthly podcast in which a writer reads and discusses a story they’ve selected from the New Yorker archives. Some favorite episodes of mine include Edwidge Danticat reading Jamaica Kincaid, Lauren Groff reading Alice Munro, and Monica Ali reading Joshua Ferris.
NPR radio show Snap Judgment is a weekly storytelling series in which ordinary people from all over the world share extraordinary stories from their lives. Check out The Atlantic’s article on Snap Judgment host Glynn Washington: “NPR’s Great Black Hope”
Welcome to Night Vale
A unique blend of horror, sci-fi, and comedy, this bi-monthly podcast takes the form of a community radio show in the fictional desert town of Night Vale, where bureaucratic infighting, local gossip and deadly paranormal phenomena make up a typical week.
Too Much Information
Benjamen Walker, who also hosts the radio show Theory of Everything, shares ruminations, stories and interviews on current events, culture, technology and other things in WFMU’s Too Much Information.
Started by writer George Dawes Green, New York-based organization The Moth runs a series of storytelling events featuring true stories told live without notes. Green founded The Moth to recreate the atmosphere he grew up with in Georgia, where friends and family would sit around on the porch on summer evenings swapping stories and watching the moths circle the porchlight. Participants come from all walks of life and have included well-known figures such as Dan Savage, Margaret Cho, Ethan Hawke, Suzanne Vega and Garrison Keillor, among many others. Below you can watch a video of my personal favorite Moth storyteller, Edgar Oliver.
The Moth also puts out a weekly podcast featuring stories from their events.
December 13, 2013
I keep getting this question emailed to me, so I thought I would answer it here.
Now that I am doing the tarot readings and the tarot column, people are emailing to ask what books they should read in order to learn the tarot. And I always feel a little bad answering: none of them.
I read some tarot books when I first started learning seven years ago, but oh my god they are so dreadful. Almost all of the new ones are stuck in this woo-woo self-help language, all misty and ultimately meaningless. They don't tell you anything you can't learn simply by studying the imagery. I do like some of the really old books about the tarot, because they are insane. I remember reading once that the 3 of Wands meant someone was going to die and leave you a house in France, and I am someone who gets the 3 of Wands a lot, and I was just thinking, there's no way that happens every time you get the 3 of Wands in a reading. But how marvelous if it did and all of these houses in France are just piling up.
Also, if I actually liked any books about the tarot, I would not be writing one. And I am, don't ask me why. (Did you know that Italo Calvino wrote a book about the tarot? Never stocked in occult shops, why is that? Other than the fact that Calvino didn't actually know anything about the tarot, he just apparently liked the imagery and the stories. And normally I would scoff at someone doing something like that, but it's Calvino, he can do whatever the fuck he wants.)
The best advice I can give to someone who wants to read the tarot is to pull one card every day, every morning. And then see what happens that correlates. I still do this. Today I pulled the Tower. Let's not think about that too much.
But also: read everything. I went to an occult bookshop today because I wanted some Madame Blavatsky, and they actually had it. Which is surprising. Because most occult bookshops have a shelf on UFOs but no actual books about mysticism. They have stacks of those shitty small crystals, most of which are not even what they are labeled, but no medicinal herbal teas. But I liked this place, even if that occult shop incense smell permeated.
Every time I'm in any bookstore, though, I am restocking it in my head. And I learned how to read tarot not just by reading those horrible modern wiccan books or whatever, but by reading a whole shelf of psychology books and Varieties of Religious Experience and CS Lewis and reams of mythology and Henry James novels and physics books and sociology and who knows what else. I don't understand places that narrow their focus so tightly, and I don't understand people who only read one thing. "Oh, I only read supernatural YA with werewolves and mermaids but never vampires." People like that exist! You know they do. I have nothing to say to them. The world is so marvelous, why cut out so much of it?
December 11, 2013
Announcing Chicago's Orphan's Christmas (Turducken Salon)
December 27th, 7:00 pm
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
RSVPs REQUIRED: email@example.com
Yes, we are serving Turducken and other holiday treats. (BYOB)
A night for those of us without homes to go back to, or would just rather not. In that lonely lag where everyone else has scattered for holiday cheer. Readings, socializing, and very good food.
We promise zero Christmas music and no screenings of It's a Wonderful Life. (Although I do watch that every year, and cry like a crazy person from about minute ten to the end.) Just three talented writers and all the food you can possibly put in your body.
MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE is the author of The End of San Francisco, one of my favorite books of the year. Her writings on desire and community, of choosing a life on the margins, break my heart every time.
ZAK MUCHA is one of my favorite Chicago writers. He has a beautiful essay forthcoming in the next Spolia, and Heavyweight Champion of Nothing is one of those books that defy categorization and expectations.
CHARLES BLACKSTONE wrote a novel called Vintage Attraction and is the managing editor of a literary magazine called, um, Bookslut? I don't know, I've never heard of it.
* We are holding this salon in my living room, hence the being coy about the address. (I have a shitty ex-boyfriend with stalker-like tendencies, if you must know.) You'll receive the address when you RSVP.
December 10, 2013
What We're Reading
I consider myself a faithful monogamist when it comes to my reading habits: one book, one time. However, I found myself taking a more adulterous turn, when a package of three books arrived at my door, each begging me to read it first. The radical solution? A Mess of Greens became my morning subway book, Chasing the White Dog became my evening commute book, and The Weiser Field Guide to Ghosts became my bedtime book. What can I say, other than we humans crave variety.
Chasing the White Dog and A Mess of Greens explore the gendered sphere of southern staples; places where “woman” means a kitchen and “men” means back shed distilleries.
Both are hidden worlds, where secrets are traded, truths are told, and social norms and expectations get boiled down into rich, distilled liquor or runoff potlikker. Both books are eager to ask the question of whose food and why? As a southerner, I’m quite defensive towards the easy notions about our food being yoked into the realm of cheap Paula Deen spin offs and one-dimensional views of unhealthy trigger trinities of “fatty, salty, and fried.” Our food and spirits, as well as our attitudes toward such enjoyments, is so much more about class, scarcity, and how the legacies of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, pushed women together in kitchens and men into bootlegging operations.
Meanwhile, The Weiser Field Guild to Ghosts offers a lighter approach to the many spirits of history out there, less a dive into history and more a layman’s approach to the unknown. Ghosts too have suffered the pangs of being cast into one-dimensional boxes, suffering the affects of a culture that has little to no concern for the vast difference between ancestral ghosts versus a psychopomp. But like the previous two books, Buckland offers a link to the past if we are just willing to take it. “If death is the end of everything, if time stops dead in its tracks for the deceased, there would be no such thing as ghosts. But it is the very appearance of a ghost that signals that death is not the end; that some form of energy connected to the deceased continue.” If we can’t understand our pasts, how will we ever come fully into the present? More so, can we ever place our faith in the unknown?
All these books are chasing ghosts in one way or another: Watman is chasing the ghosts of white lightning, eager to revive the imbibing spirits of the South, Engelhardt is seeking the ghosts that haunt the cultural implications, memory, and misplaced nostalgia of southern cuisine, and of course, Buckland is the man that implores us to really look for and believe in the ghosts that walk around us. Each book is a small dedication towards walking backwards into a past, touching on the need for survival whether through blind faith in the unknown, tender biscuits made by hands hanging tightly to social norms, or keeping alive a great-uncles recipe for moonshine.
December 09, 2013
Image by Giovanna Garzoni
"I know the right word is 'widower' but everyone turns into a girl when the person they love most dies. Their bodies get small and they make small sounds. They don't know what to do."
Can we talk about how amazing Rebecca Brown is? I don't even remember how I first discovered her, it was just like her books were suddenly there in my apartment, tearing me apart.
So above is from her magnificent essay in The Stranger, and a friend valiantly brought me a print copy of this from her travels, just so I could have a version of it on my hands and not just on my screen.
"But then I actually read some of the work (an autobiography called Story of a Soul, letters, poems). That word "little" she uses is about her awareness that most of us are never going to do huge, important things—we'll never be crusaders or heroes or write as great as Virginia Woolf; we'll never have to make a choice as hard as Sophie's or probably any choice that's truly a matter of life and death. We'll mostly just lead forgettable little lives. These are lives in which you'll be irritated by someone fidgeting next to you when you want them to be quiet, or by someone splashing water on you because they're clumsy. There will be times you'll want, if you're like Therese, to glare, or if you're like me, to throttle whoever is bugging you. But also, if you're like Therese, there will be times you will decide to not. Part of Therese's "little" way is to recognize that though you are both insignificant and often very petty in your head, you don't have to always act like that."
That's from her essay about relics and St. Therese, and reading it made me want to be a better writer and reader.
And I remember when I was reading her book The Last Time I Saw You, this line that burned into my head that I have carried around since: "Want will not undo itself."
And then in the new issue of Spolia, we got to publish an amazing poem by her called "The Thing."
they and/or it desired things they and/or it saw or not saw they wanted deep and longed and wanted in the mouth
the thing had a mouth
It is creepy and messy and so wonderful.
You should be reading Rebecca Brown. I feel about her the way I feel about Kathy Acker, despite the difference in style and approach, just like they both have a direct line in. Maybe start here.
December 06, 2013
Bookslut is doing an Audrey Niffenegger giveaway. Go here for details.
"Oh yes, they're all at it now, you know. It's not enough to be stinking rich, land yourself one of the most powerful jobs in television and have two million readers paying good money every week to find out about the dry rot in your skirting-board: these people want fucking immortality! They want their names in the British Library catalogue, they want their six presentation copies, they want to be able to slot that handsome hardback volume between the Shakespeare and the Tolstoy on their living-room bookshelf. And they're going to get it. They're going to get it because people like me know only too well that even if we decide we've found the new Dostoevsky we're still not going to sell half as many copies as we would of any old crap written by some bloke who reads the weather on fucking television."
His voice rose almost to a shout on the last word. Then he sat back and ran his hands through his hair.
"So what's it like then, her book?" I asked, after he had had time to calm down a bit.
"Oh, it's the usual sort of rubbish. Lots of media people being dynamic and ruthless. Sex every forty pages. Cheap tricks, mechanical plot, lousy dialogue, could have been written by a computer. Empty, hollow, materialistic, meretricious. Enough to make any civilized person heave, really." He stared ruefully into space. "And the worst of it is that they didn't even accept my bid. Somebody tipped me by ten grand. Bastards. I just know it's going to be the hit of the spring season."
From Jonathan Coe's The Winshaw Legacy
December 03, 2013
Image: Boar Hunting by Wolfgang Beurer
I always used to like advent calendars, but only when they were all closed up. Once you started opening the things, you'd find some dusty chocolate, a plastic thingy that didn't make any sense, maybe a broken candy cane. But all of those wonderful closed doors, all of that potential.
(Someone told me there was a whiskey advent calendar somewhere in the world that you could buy, but in such small drams. Like trying to get drunk by going to communion.)
Anyway, it is December, and here is the new issue of Bookslut, all closed up and filled with potential, but I swear there is no dusty chocolate in sight. Here are three marvelous things to get you started:
He means to attach us again to the world we thought our thinking removed us from by showing us that the world too thinks. He is enchanting the real world or reifying the enchanted one: "If thoughts are alive and that which lives thinks, then perhaps the living world is enchanted. What I mean is that the world beyond the human is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans."
Is Kohn simply redrawing the boundaries, redefining self, live, think? It's possible. But the imaginative possibility counts for us poets, or for anyone who uses words, or thinks in symbols, or interprets at all -- which, Kohn shows, is everyone, by which I mean everything.
Divola was driving and he had a camera, and the dogs out the window are fierce and graceful, black lines against the sand. They look like lines of type. They remind me how I learned to walk differently, once I moved to a city. The girl’s lines and these dogs have a similar seriousness. I write in my notebook every day and sometimes feel like the dog, sometimes it’s John inside the car, and others it’s the desert, once everyone’s gone. I wish I knew how Krapp really felt, listening to his tapes. He kept doing it so either he was bluffing or he liked the pain.
Nicholas Vajifdar's column about the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven:
That's a bit out of joint from the wilting follow-ups of today's literary strivers, most of whom would be remorselessly tasered if they tried something similar. The Little Review was a small shop, but off of its sawdust floors strode the Pantheon of Modernism. Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, James Bloomin' Joyce -- all spent their hour or two in Anderson's pages, which lasted only fifteen years, no longer than a terrier. Even that infernal busybody Ezra Pound served as its "international editor," the pointy end of his goatee gesturing toward a brave new Future all the while. And yet, for all the transience of her magazine, Anderson's heresies would become orthodoxy in mere decades, as if in her tiny office she had been watering the seed of a new Christendom. Today, literature departments around the earth dutifully administer the doctrines hatched in The Little Review; but back then Anderson must have seemed (at times even to herself) like a lone prophet, whose duties included humoring visitors tricked out with ice-cream-soda spoons. Talk about thankless work.
December 02, 2013
Mairead Case has written a really lovely essay for Bookslut on loss and reading Akilah Oliver. For more on this revolutionary poet/performer/activist whose legacy as both an artist and a queer woman of color continues to inspire, here are some links:
“Akilah Oliver: Good Grief” by Susie DeFord | BOMBLOG
In this 2009 interview for BOMBLOG, Akilah Oliver and Susan DeFord discuss grief, graffiti and poetry and Oliver’s collection A Toast in the House of Friends.
A poem by Akilah Oliver in Trickhouse #2, from her collection The Putterer’s Notebook.
PennSound at the University of Pennsylvania has a collection of audio recordings of Akilah Oliver reading.
“Hold the Space: The Poetics of Anne Waldman” by Akilah Oliver | Jacket
Akilah Oliver examines queerness and the disruption of binaries in the work of fellow poet Anne Waldman in this essay for Jacket.
“The teachings of Akilah Oliver remembered” | Poetry Foundation
Friends and colleagues share their memories of and appreciation for Akilah Oliver.
From YouTube, some videos of Akilah Oliver reading:
Akilah Oliver - In Aporia/The Stand Still World (audio set to slideshow) | youtube.com
Akilah Oliver reading at PARACHUTE: The Coney Island Performance Festival | youtube.com
(Thanks to Akilah Oliver’s author page on the Coffee House Press website for many of these links!)
November 26, 2013
Image: The Morgan Greer 8 of Swords, the bustiest (busty-est?) version of this card available
My latest column about the tarot was the Eight of Swords, and I wanted to write up a little accompanying reading list. From the column, an explanation of the card:
It looks pretty dire. Until you see the blindfold is loose. Her hands are not tied so tightly. There is a gap in the swords. “Pick up one of the swords and get out of there, lady!” you want to yell. “No, that’s okay, I’m fine here,” she replies. “There are some berries on that bush right there, I’ll just eat that, you go on without me.”
The eight of swords in a reading is a shaking. The world says, “You can leave.” You say, “There’s no possible way.” And whether that is a job, a situation, a relationship, a family, a room full of scientists and their electrical wiring, it doesn’t matter. You’ve probably struggled and failed in the past. You know by now the open door just up ahead is a spiteful trick by the universe, it’s just Lucy’s football over and over. And you will not humiliate yourself with your optimism again.
Cupid's Knife: Women's Anger and Agency in Violent Relationships by Abby Stein
If you've ever known anyone in an abusive relationship, the one question that seems impossible to answer is, why don't they leave? The conversation about people trapped in violent relationships tends to focus on the material side: they will need housing, legal assistance, income, maybe there are children. But sometimes a person can be seemingly ready for independence as far as the material situation goes, and yet still just stay there.
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
And speaking of bad relationships a person won't leave... I threw this book across the room the first time I read it, because she goes back to him at the end. Is that a spoiler? Surely we all know the ending by now. Someone once told me they were reading Anna Karenina, and I made a joke about the train, and they got so angry that I ruined the ending. HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ON THIS PLANET FOR THREE DECADES AND NOT KNOW ABOUT THE TRAIN. Anyway. Hey everyone, at the end of Portrait of a Lady, she goes back to her horrible marriage. Which is probably pretty likely, if she was a person up and walking around. God damn Henry James and his inability to do wish-fulfillment endings, which is why I cry like a crazy person at the end of every Washington Square reading. SPOILER: SHE BECOMES A SPINSTER.
Regeneration by Pat Barker
The 8 of Swords can also be a kind of PTSD loop, where the trauma is over but you are still reliving it on a daily basis. And this is the most wonderful book about shell shock and PTSD that has ever been. Bless Pat Barker.
Hikikomori: Adolescence without End by Saito Tamaki
Hikikomori focuses on Japanese culture, and the prolonged state of adolescence that is trapping young men. They stay at their parents' houses, being cared for, refusing adult responsibility, physical or emotional, way past what we socially find acceptable. And also what their parents probably find emotionally acceptable. But hi, look at our culture, just because we have fewer childhood bedroom dwellers doesn't mean we're sallying proudly forth into adulthood in the United States. The book is fascinating, and part of why I've been so smitten with the University of Minnesota the past couple years: they do very good work.
(By the way, did you know there are a million romance novels about PTSD? And romance novel PTSD reading lists? Where the guy is suffering from PTSD and then the woman heals him with her love? Puke gag yuck gross. #nothowitworks)
November 25, 2013
Image: A Street in Venice by John Singer Sargent
This month’s Bookslut features an interview with Anna Somers Cocks, whose article in the New York Review of Books spurred a public debate on the eminent threats facing Venice and the incompetency of the city government’s solutions. For more information on the dangers facing the Floating City, here are some links:
Venice Backstage: How Does Venice Work? | vimeo
Although not directly to the rising flood levels, this short video provides a fascinating look at Venice’s history and infrastructure. If you’ve ever wondered what goes into the upkeep of Venice’s defense against the sea, this video explains it all.
“Sinking City of Venice” | PBS’ NOVA
The companion site to the 2001 NOVA program, “Sinking City of Venice,” has some further information on how the rising water level will affect the city, including an interactive feature called “Venice Under Siege” in which users can click on different points on a map of Venice to identify the different hazards the city faces. John Keahey has an accompanying article, “Saving Venice from the Sea,” that summarizes the issues outlined in the program.
“The Venice Syndrome,” a 2012 documentary on Venice’s struggles with the tourism industry, which threatens to turn Venice into a ghost city. Watch the trailer below:
“Venice Under Water” | The Atlantic’s In Focus
This photoset of Venice flooded during acqua alta, a periodic high water, shows Venetians and tourists attempting to carry on as usual through flooded streets and stores.
Also, Italy has started to limit the number of cruise ships going through the Venice lagoon. Cruise ship traffic will be reduced by 20% by January, and the largest cruise ships will be banned from November 2014.
November 21, 2013
Thursday, November 21, 2013, 6:30-8pm;
Doors open at 6pm, reading/Q&A starts 7ish
National Hellenic Museum, 333 South Halsted Street, Chicago, Illinois 60661
November 20, 2013
The Greeks believed that libraries were places of great healing, and that poetry and literature revealed deep spiritual truths. I still believe that today, that seeing alternatives played out in a novel can give you an idea of what to do in your own life, and that sometimes a made up story has more insight into heartbreak, despair, loss, frustration, and failure (and joy, and hope, and love) than any life coach-supplied affirmation or self-help to do list. Every other Wednesday, I will be answering questions about life's quandaries with a little bookish insight. This is an extension of my Kind Reader column, and you can find past entries here. You can submit your own questions by emailing me.
I recently graduated with a fairly useless undergrad degree, and its uselessness has made me doubt my grad school plans. However, I also just moved to Denver, and the University of Denver's summer publishing program actually seems (as repetitive as this word is already getting in this email) useful. I've read Bookslut regularly for the past few years, and I really respect the way that you seem to have established yourself as an independent but respected participant and critic of the publishing industry.
So I ask: is it worth it? Part of my trepidation stems from reading (based on Bookslut's recommendation) Sarah Schulman's The Gentrification of the Mind. Is what she says about the homogenization and sort of pointlessness of MFAs true for something like this, too? Is something like this program the best way to break into this industry? What other avenues are there?
In almost every culture, there is a story or a myth of a young man who is sent by his family to infiltrate and destroy an enemy of some kind. A tyrannical king, a fearsome dragon, whatever. But when the son arrives, the king greets the warrior with wine and women, or the dragon lulls him to sleep with alluring songs. He enjoys himself so much, that over time, he forgets who he is, what his mission is, and the family he is supposed to be defending.
I am not comparing the publishing industry to a tyrannical king, or okay, maybe I am. Because everyone who gets into a business like publishing -- by which I mean a business that is not going to make you rich or more attractive to people you want to get into bed with or make your parents think you are making rational decisions and are a fully functional adult -- is doing it in this idealistic, totally from the heart kind of way. But they're often times lulled to sleep. Not by wine and women, god knows. There's wine, but it retails at $3.99 a bottle if you are lucky, and the sex you can have in publishing is the equivalent of that wine you find at readings. Mostly you are lulled to sleep by fear. Fear of profit margins, of layoffs, of living with roommates for the rest of your life and never being able to afford a trip to the dentist ever again. And so you focus not on what you love, but on what you can sell.
But that's reality! Or that is what people will tell you. People will tell you there is no other way to do things, that idealism is childish and self-destructive. They will tell you that if you have high standards you are being pretentious. If you're good at it long enough and actually manage to accomplish a few things, some of those people who gave up their idealism for fear will send you private messages saying how brave you are, but they're not going to publicly support you or spend their money on your projects. Instead, in public they'll gossip about your sex life or call you arrogant or ignore you entirely. So, is it worth it? Absolutely.
When your email came in, I was writing about Margaret Anderson, who in her early 20s started the literary magazine The Little Review. It seemed an appropriate match to your question. She suffered poverty and ostracism and persecution by the law. She also was the first to introduce James Joyce's Ulysses to an American audience, decades before a mainstream New York publisher would touch it. She championed radicals like Emma Goldman, she published Djuna Barnes and Ezra Pound and Jane Heap and Gertrude Stein when they were still considered to be commercial poison, she argued for beauty above all things. Almost every single writer from the modernist era that we read today was published by Margaret Anderson. And when she was brought up on obscenity charges for publishing James Joyce, the publishing industry let her hang. They offered no financial or even moral support during her trial, but when the publicity increased the marketability of Ulysses, they were quite happy to poach it.
Now that she is dead, she is named as an inspiration by a lot of people in publishing. All of her memoirs are out of print, but they talk nicely of her. In her memoirs, she does not talk nicely of them. But she talks nicely, passionately, of her life. Because she was beloved by her writers, and by her friends, and she had created from whole cloth the life that she wanted to live. That that life came with a few consequences, like having to live in a tent for six months when she could not afford rent, that was just a thing that happened. Better that, she implies, than trading in your soul and passion.
So to answer your question, I reply with a question of my own: what is your ambition? Is it to live a life of your choosing, and be willing to live a life others will say is mad, is it to create art and beauty? Which is not to say that if you sign up for this program you are signing up for a lifetime of conformity and mundanity. I'm saying that sometimes it's easier to remember your identity and mission if you don't go into the city. There are a million ways to kill a king, and a million ways to live a life. (The most obvious one being, just start something and see what happens. It's the scariest of all options, but it is often the most exciting.) What I've never understood is why so many feel the need to shame you if you choose one of the stranger, more winding ways. Luckily for us, Margaret Anderson was shameless, and her memoirs are reminders of all the different, insane lives a person is allowed to lead.
Submit your own questions for the Bibliomancer column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 19, 2013
What We're Reading
Jorge Luis Borges: Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature
I have never been more than lukewarm about Jorge Luis Borges's stories, steeped as they are in philosophy and aesthetics. The experimental tone they often take surprised me the first time I read them because my first experiences with Borges were This Craft of Verse, a series of lectures on elements of poetry, and The Book of Imaginary Beings, a whimsical bestiary augmented by the useful illustrations of Peter Sis. Both of those critical works are written (or spoken, in the case of the former) plainly, adorned only with facts, opinions, and the odd anecdote. They are lovingly nuts-and-bolts, and for me they are essential.
Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, out for the first time anywhere this past summer, is my new love affair. It is a series of 25 lectures delivered extemporaneously by Borges at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966. A group of students recorded him and then rotated the duty of transcribing those recordings for the rest of the class. The tapes no longer exist --Katherine Silver translated from the hasty and often mistaken student transcriptions.
The result of Silver's heroic effort is a book I open with a child's joy. Every lecture yields several stories: accounts of battles, synopses of long poems, biographical introductions and asides -- as those of you who are familiar with his stories well know, Borges is a master summarist. As a cultural narrator he is learned yet fanciful, and often irreverent, as when he takes obvious delight in recounting the sheer human ugliness of Samuel Johnson. Do not mistake this "Course on English Literature" for a comprehensive look at a national canon (he mentions, for example, Shakespeare and Milton only in passing). These are the recollections of an old reader's heart, the more dearly professed for the lately blind lecturer's inability to read them as he once did.
Special thanks to the heedless librarian who left it all alone on a reshelving cart for me to find.
An excerpted lecture can be read here.
November 18, 2013
Image: Victor Tausk
This month’s Bookslut’s includes an interview with poet Peter Cole, in which he discusses his latest collection, The Invention of Influence. The title poem refers to psychoanalyst Victor Tausk’s “influencing machine,” the malevolent machine featured in the paranoid delusions of his schizophrenic patients.
For more on Victor Tausk and the influencing machine, here are some links:
“The Influencing Machine” by Christopher Turner | Cabinet
Christopher Turner’s article in Cabinet magazine has more information on the origins and history of Victor Tausk’s influencing machine.
“The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media” | W.W. Norton on Vimeo
This animated short by Benjamin Arthur from the book The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media also briefly tells the story of Victor Tausk’s influencing machine, which was the inspiration for the title of Brooke Gladstone’s book on the history of the media.
“Sign Language” | The New Yorker
Vladimir Nabokov’s short story, “Signs and Symbols” (published as “Symbols and Signs” in The New Yorker in 1948) focuses on the parents of a boy with a condition resembling apophenia -- he assigns sentience and malicious intent to the inanimate objects around him. “Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme,” Nabokov writes. In the link above, Mary Gaitskill reads the story and discusses it with Deborah Treisman for The New Yorker’s fiction podcast. For the text of the story as it originally appeared in The New Yorker, click here.
November 15, 2013
Image: Medieval Scapini tarot
My latest Reading the Tarot column is now up, this one about the 8 of Swords. Which is one of those "Hey, you are about to have a really bad day" cards. So I prattle on about learned helplessness, indecision, castration, capitalism, and whatever other fucking things:
Here we have a woman. Her hands are tied. Her eyes are covered with a blindfold. She is alone on a mountain, and she is surrounded by eight swords.
It looks pretty dire. Until you see the blindfold is loose. Her hands are not tied so tightly. There is a gap in the swords. “Pick up one of the swords and get out of there, lady!” you want to yell. “No, that’s okay, I’m fine here,” she replies. “There are some berries on that bush right there, I’ll just eat that, you go on without me.”
The eight of swords in a reading is a shaking. The world says, “You can leave.” You say, “There’s no possible way.” And whether that is a job, a situation, a relationship, a family, a room full of scientists and their electrical wiring, it doesn’t matter. You’ve probably struggled and failed in the past. You know by now the open door just up ahead is a spiteful trick by the universe, it’s just Lucy’s football over and over. And you will not humiliate yourself with your optimism again.
And, I should mention, after a month without wifi, I am taking tarot appointments again. I am currently in Chicago, and so if you are in Chicago too and prefer to do the readings in person, I can now do that. Email me for more information.
November 14, 2013
Image Goldfischfang by Jeanne Mammen
Events, we are doing some events.
November 21 - Interviewing Charles Blackstone at the National Hellenic Museum
"Charles will be joined by Bookslut’s editor-in-chief, Jessa Crispin, for an intimate Question and Answer session." It will be super intimate! We will only discuss intimate things. I will question, he will answer. There will be wine.
November 24 - Chicago Book Expo
We will have a table, where we'll sell our chapbooks, and I'll read tarot if you like. We are also doing a panel, at some point, and at some location. It will not be specifically intimate.
December 10 - Ohio Edit’s Global Holiday Extravaganza in New York
I'll be reading with a bunch of people, from the tarot column I write for Ohio Edit. Jim Behrle will be there. A lot of other people as well, but I don't love them like I love Jim Behrle. I've never done a reading before! Isn't that strange? I ran that motherfucking reading series at the Hopleaf five times a day for eighty years, but I've never read myself. So that is not terrifying or anything.
December 27 - Super Secret Salon in Chicago, details to come
It'll be in my temporary living room. There will be food and wine and writers. We are thinking that maybe the only entrance fee will be that you are obligated to take an armful of review books away with you when you leave, because we are all drowning in them all of the time. Or, you can bring scotch.
November 13, 2013
"Contemporary audiences, inoculated against splattering brains and shattering lives, know when to peep between their fingers, when to look away. How, then, is a writer to convey horror to an audience inured to horror? What tools can the writer use to shock us out of our complacency?
Daphne Gottlieb chooses form."
Necessary Fiction reviews our chapbook, "Bess" by Daphne Gottlieb.
"Bess" is available from our store for $6, plus shipping.
Diane di Prima's San Francisco Notebook 1
Now that every publisher has a reprint imprint, and every reprint must now come with a new introduction by a contemporary writer, I have read a lot of really blah introductions. The template is basically the same always, let's book this book into "historical context" and give the same biographical information and quote a passage or two and probably give away the ending. And you can skip them. Almost all of them.
The reprint introduction serves the same purpose as the blurb, which is "if you like this maybe you will like this," meaning it is a consumer function. And that's fine. It still doesn't make them interesting, though.
But I was reading the reprint of Ammiel Alcalay's from the warring factions, and it was at least interesting that Diane di Prima wrote the intro. And her Recollections on My Life as a Woman is already a thing that everyone should have. So I didn't skip the intro. And it's like she was possessed by the book and had to write this in about five seconds:
I stood in the middle of my study, surrounded with my usual clutter: manuscripts, correspondence, junk mail and debris, notebooks, mostly un-typed and un-transcribed, tapes ditto, books half-read, for which there was no shelf space -- which seemed the disarray of centuries -- and I felt the familiar annoyance, the "can't you ever do anything right" surge through me again, but this time the feeling hesitated, it paused slightly, lurched sideways an imperceptible inch.
I had just been reading from the warring factions, and came with those eyes to my room, to some particular writing project, but the imperative I carried from my warring factions was that I had to somehow reconstruct my life, to see it differently. To tell myself a different story. For perhaps the first time I saw that from birth I had been at war, and that instead of blaming myself for "my mistakes," berating myself for the many losses: friends, work -- mine and others' -- (paintings, manuscripts, etc) that had disappeared, been sold or destroyed or lost along the way -- I needed to lighten up. I saw it was a miracle that anything at all had survived, myself included. Any of the past. The work. The children. That anything had made it through at all.
And I love how it seems di Prima could not in a million years fake her way through a "this is the year this person was born isn't that interesting?" introduction if her life depended on it. I miss her.
(And the book she's introducting: wonderful.)
November 12, 2013
What We're Reading
I'm reading Calvin Trillin's 1985 book Killings. The stories, each about a murder, were part of Trillin's New Yorker series from the 1970s, "US Journal." It's a beautiful little book, more about America than anything else. By focusing on a murder case in each chapter, Trillin manages to encapsulate gorgeous vignettes of American life in ten pages that always go by too fast. He is a master of the three-sentence profile, and as his attention trails from character to character across the contours of each murder, the American landscape and way of life become characters in their own right, unique and whimsical and drawn incredibly precisely. Trillin's tone, whether describing the mountain-folk who shot the Canadian filmmakers or the drunk who stabbed his friend, is playful yet respectful, a lesson for any writer, but perhaps especially for those wishing to honestly portray this grand country's far reaches, in all its whimsical and macabre glory.
November 11, 2013
Image: "Mad Kate" by Henry Fuseli
With contributions by Rebecca Brown, Ana María Shua, Andrei Codrescu, Sjón, Suzanne Scanlon, and more.
In 1518, in Strasbourg, a woman began to dance in the street. She danced for days without stop. Soon, other people joined her in the dancing, and found that they too either could not stop or had no desire to stop. The crowd slowly grew over the days, until by the end of the month, the crowd still dancing, the numbers were in the hundreds. People were dropping dead from exhaustion, and yet the dancing continued.
A group of high school cheerleaders in Le Roy, New York, just a few years back, found themselves the center of attention when it was revealed they had all developed a complicated series of twitches and spasms. The twitches started with one cheerleader, and then slowly spread through the squad and then the high school and then the town. Doctors were called in, but no physical basis for the ailment was discovered.
There was a cemetery in 18th century France, where a religious sect would gather. One of their martyrs were buried there, and when the followers consumed the earth from the man’s grave, they would fly into convulsions. The gravesite became such a popular destination, with men and women crawling and twitching and flailing and convulsing, that the King ordered the cemetery closed, posting a sign that said, “By order of the King: God may not perform miracles on this spot.”
A troubled young woman came under the care of a manipulative and attention-hungry psychologist. The therapist would administer sodium pentothal, hypnotize her patient, and drag out stories of dissociation and other personalities inhabiting her body. The case became wildly popular in the book Sybil, and soon doctors’ offices were crowded with women claiming to also have multiple personality disorder. Thousands of cases were reported.The Sybil case, which started this diagnostic craze, has been debunked as a completely invented disorder, and yet women — as the cases are predominantly women — continue to believe they are sharing their bodies with multiple identities.
This is the land of hysteria. When we think ourselves to be coolly rational, wholly understandable humans, the dark recesses of the unconscious reach out to fling us back down into the darkness.
November 06, 2013
Image: Heavenly Body in the Night Sky by Albrecht Durer
It's that time of year, when everyone is compiling their Best Of 2013 lists, and I keep getting asked for mine, and having to turn them all down.
Because I mean let's face it, those lists are terrible and DonnaTarttThomasPynchonBookAboutJFKorSomething is going to dominate and being the one person who is like KATHRYN DAVIS DUPLEX I DON'T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR DONNA TARTT is not an emotionally healthy place to be. And have I even read Kathryn Davis's Duplex? No. I read the excerpts in Little Star, and I heard her read part of it at a party I threw for Bookslut's 100th issue, and that seems like enough to say it is the thing from this year that should be celebrated. I'm still waiting to get to a place where I have an address so I can obtain a copy. (Soon!) I also believe that there are certain people like Kathryn Davis and Iain McGilchrist and Mary Midgley and Jarvis Cocker who we should all just be in a constant state of gratitude and beatitude for inhabiting the same space and time as them, so it doesn't matter if I read the whole book yet or not.
There's also the problem of I don't worship at the same altars as most everyone else, and oh my god it is tiring to be the eccentric weirdo who is invited along to play the role of the eccentric weirdo. I have a complicated belief system, that it is okay to read reprehensible people once they are dead, but we should not do things like give them our money when they are living. And so I refuse to separate out the art from the artist while they are up and walking around. And so I refuse to read their books or mention their names to draw attention to people who, say, write things that make it clear women don't deserve even the same quantities of air as men. I'll read Koestler, who raped women, because he is dead, and my buying his books does not give him money to gain access to more women. But I'm not going to give my money or attention to the category of writers I have internally labeled Ugh.
This is a surprisingly not-okay stance to take in the literary world.
But, some of my favorite writers and people released books this year. Like Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's beautiful book about queerness and community and lack of and disappointment and marginalization and gentrification and sex, The End of San Francisco. God, I love that book, on a sentence level it is just heartbreaking.
And two of my favorite men released books this year. One is obviously Charles Blackstone, my managing editor and dear friend. And his Vintage Attraction made me so proud of him. Because even if one of my favorite men had not written it, I would have loved it anyway. The other favorite man is my on again off again super complicated love interest, so he'll have to go nameless and the book titleless. But it is a stunner.
And Jamaica Kincaid, one of my favorite writers, released a beautiful new book See Now Then, and was trashed for it thoroughly by gossipmongers, because writing about a man in a kind of unflattering way who may or may not be based on your ex-husband is a way worse act than, say, degrading with your descriptions the impoverished prostitutes you pay for sex in the Global South. (One of the Ughs.) And I got to write the introduction for two books this year, Ella Maillart's The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939 and Mary MacLane's I Await the Devil's Coming. And dear whoever will oversee the inevitable Freya Stark second coming, I am available to write that crazy woman's introduction, too. I like being even slightly associated with women who throw down.
Do we even need to say again, that Sarah Schulman wins the year with Gentrification of the Mind? If I ever finish writing this fucking book, I am starting work on the Literaturhaus of Sex and Death. I am serious.
(It is also hard to stay in one year, what with all of the wonderful years that already happened. I have been really excited about Albrecht Durer all year long, and he happened a while ago.)
And of course, the nicest thing to happen in 2013, other than the guy in Lausanne who played the Brazil theme song on clarinet under my window every day for a week, was the publication of Spolia and our chapbook series, Spoils. Oh, and signing a contract with the University of Chicago for my book that I need to fucking finish writing, that was nice too.
I don't know why we're doing this now. We have a lot of weeks left. Let's see what they'll bring.
November 05, 2013
Bookslut recently featured an interview with Bernardine Evaristo, whose 2008 prose novel, Blonde Roots, tells an alternate history of the slave trade, using satire to reframe and dissect existing racial attitudes. Although Evaristo is not typically a speculative fiction writer (her first book, Island of Abraham, was a collection of poetry -- Mr. Loverman, her seventh and most recent novel, is described as “a coming-out story set in the Caribbean community”), Blonde Roots falls into a tradition of writers using speculative fiction to explore ideas about race.
In the same issue, Sessily Watt, in our new column featuring fantasy and speculative fiction, profiled the Neveryon series by Samuel R. Delany. Delany has been producing some of the most thought-provoking writing on the topic of queer sf, racism in sf, and genderbending in sf.
For more on the topic of race in speculative fiction, here are some links:
The Black Literary Imagination: Black Science Fiction and Fantasy | NPR.org
As part of a monthlong NPR series on the black literary imagination, Farai Chideya sits down with fantasy author Tananarive Due, science fiction author Steven Barnes, and editor Sheree R. Thomas to discuss black science fiction and fantasy.
“Beyond ‘Game of Thrones’: Exploring diversity in speculative fiction” by Mindy Farabee | Hero Complex
Mindy Farabee, writing for the LA Times’ Hero Complex, talks to several sci-fi and fantasy writers of color about diversity in speculative fiction.
“How Long ‘til Black Future Month?” by N.K. Jemisin | NKJemisin.com
N.K. Jemisin, author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, writes, “How Long ‘til Black Future Month?” in which she discusses Janelle Monae and the creation of alternate realities, and how speculative fiction can be used to comment on the present as well as imagine future possibilities. The final version of this essay can be found in the anthology, ADVENTURE ROCKETSHIP! Let’s All Go to the Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright.
“Racism and Science Fiction” by Samuel Delany | New York Review of Science Fiction
Samuel Delany’s essay, “Racism and Science Fiction,” mentioned in Jemisin’s essay above, in which he discusses his own emergence as a black science fiction writer (and his thoughts on being placed in that category).
“The Comet” by W.E.B. Du Bois | Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, via Project Gutenberg
An early example of black speculative fiction, W.E.B. Du Bois’ short story “The Comet” depicts the disintegration of racial boundaries in the aftermath of a natural disaster that kills nearly the entire population of New York City.
Invisible Universe, an in-progress documentary by M. Asli Dukan, looks at the history of blackness in speculative fiction. Watch the trailer below:
The Invisible Universe website also has a great list of black writers of speculative fiction:
November 04, 2013
It is November, and there is a new issue, and I swear to god there is a cloud of noisy crows descending upon Berlin to take it over. Everyone stood still, staring up into the sky, some filming the coup on their phone, marveling at the noisy birds swirling and fighting and surely plotting war over downtown Berlin. And everyone there was thinking the same thought, "This is the moment we all knew it was over for us." So if you don't hear from me for a while, probably it was the crows.
But yes, please go wandering through, before the corvid plague spreads. We have an interview with Peter Cole, translator and poet, about Leviticus and Freud case studies and why people freak out at the word "wisdom." Mairead Case continues Dignity & Tenderness, her reading diary, and the books one turns to in grief. (Queer science fiction in this particular instance.) And then Susan Stinson talks about writing fat characters and writing historical fiction in totally unsexy eras. It is incredibly charming.
The Thousandfurs strikes up a conversation with Cotton Mather, but as one might imagine, Cotton Mather does not give a shit. (Puritans had the best names. Cotton was the son of Increase. He lived in the same city as Handmaid and Lament. Someone was once named Kill-sins. Bring back Puritan names. Anyway. In The Forgotten Twentieth Century we remember Louis MacNeice, Irish poet and get a little embarrassed for Keats. Cookbookslut looks at what the modernists were eating and cooking (something called creamed cucumbers, I am dubioius), and Jenny McPhee tells us about the very strange sleeping arrangements of Marianne Moore.
And, as always, there is more.
October 30, 2013
Image: Green Passage by Jane Freilicher
This month’s Bookslut features a review of Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets by Jenni Quilter. Freilicher’s friendships with several New York School poets (including John Ashbery, with whom she was especially close) feature prominently in both their work and hers. Freilicher described the artistic influence of her poet friends as “a sympathetic vibration… an intimate expression.” For more on Jane Freilicher and the connections between painting and poetry, here are some links:
“Jane Freilicher, a Painter Amid Friends” by Ginia Bellafante | NYTimes.com
The New York Times covers Jane Freilicher’s 2013 show at Tibor De Nagy Gallery.
“By implication, the show is an exercise in anthropology as well, an exploration of an ever-receding way of social life among successful creative people in the city, one in which the friendships built and circles configured seemed more firmly rooted in genuine affection, in affinity, in shared notions of whimsy, than in the prospect of mutual professional advantage.”
“The Views from Her Windows Are Enough” by Dinitia Smith | NYTimes.com
The New York Times 1998 profile of Jane Freilicher, in which Freilicher discusses her life and her art.
Sometimes criticized as ''a domestic painter,'' Ms. Freilicher was, for many years, ''hard to sell,'' as she has said herself. ''I have always gone my own way,'' she said the other day in an interview at her apartment. ''In a way it's been a kind of relief. Balthus once said of himself, 'I am a painter about whom nothing is known.' Of course, that's not really true of him. But it is true of me.''
“Jill Krementz covers Jane Freilicher” | New York Social Diary
New York Social Diary attends the opening of Freilicher’s 2013 show at Tibor De Nagy; click through for photos of the attendees, images of Freilicher’s work, and some shots of the exhibition catalog.
“The Painter and the Writer” by Frank Moorhouse | The Griffith Review
Novelist Frank Moorhouse observes his friend, painter Joanna Logue, at work and ruminates on the relationship between painting and writing in this essay for the Griffith Review.
“Wallace Stevens: The Problems of Painters and Poets” | Poets.org
A short essay on Poets.org on Wallace Steven’s view of the relationship between visual art and poetry.
October 29, 2013
Last year I discovered the work of Marion Milner, when Routledge (whom I love so very much) reissued several of her books. It was A Life of One's Own and On Not Being Able to Paint that I really connected with. A Life of One's Own in particular touched me. It is a psychological examination of what actually makes a person happy. Not what society tells them will make them happy, not what their family thinks will make them happy, but the activities and moments on a daily basis that actually bring a person fulfillment and joy. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it's something I think we all struggle with. Her hunt through her own past and present, and as she worked even to allow herself to be happy, is an inspiring read.
On Not Being Able to Paint is exactly what it sounds like, a philosophical and existential examination of creative blocks. I don't know why it's not canon at this point for aspiring writers and artists everywhere -- or not even aspiring, as even the most established of us find ourselves banging our heads against a blank piece of paper or canvas sometimes.
Routledge has now published Marion Milner: The Life, Emma Letley's biography of this unjustly forgotten psychologist. It turns out her life is as interesting as her work, and Letley takes us through her time spent with such figures as DW Winnicott, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and other important mid-century psychologists, her travels, her work with patients, and her artwork. I asked Letley if she would mind answering a few questions about Milner and her new biography.
The first question has to be: How were you first introduced to the work of Milner, and why did you choose it, and her, as an area of research?
In my 20s, working in the humanities (in English and Scottish Literature), and suffering from writer’s block with a Ph.D, I came across On Not Being Able to Paint, and its views on the creative process, changed my way of thinking about all kinds of blocks – on not being able to………(paint, write, connect, make relationships, be a mother and many others). I wanted to work further in biography and Milner was a key choice. ONBAP made a profound difference to me and to my writing. I love the combination of artist and analyst and her brilliantly original "take" on our creativity.
In Milner's reading of Job, she warns about contemporary society's prizing of rational thought above all else. It seems like since she wrote this, we've got swinging even harder in that direction, particularly with the rise of the New Atheists. We certainly seem to think the unconscious is where only superstition and ignorance lives. So how does one present Marion Milner to a contemporary audience, which sees less and less value in the sub- and unconscious, the dream life, mysticism, etc?
Milner, above all, wanted as a recent reviewer states, "to get past the cant idea that the unconscious mind is a kind of dustbin of the soul." She and her friend and colleague D.W.Winnicott were deeply committed to righting the misconception that the unconscious mind contains only bad things. This, for Milner, was a radical misunderstanding of early Freud. In the biography I draw attention to this in, for example, the view of the poet Kathleen Raine. I think the dream life and the unconscious have a large contemporary place in aesthetics, painting, poetry and drama as well as in psychoanalysis in Britain and in Europe. Recent exhibitions at the Freud Museum in London are but one example and in the work of the Californian artist and analyst Desy Safran-Gerard.
And, related, what would Milner think of a psychiatry that is increasingly reliant on strict diagnoses and psychopharmaceuticals, and increasingly wary of talk therapy?
As the biography makes clear Milner was never one to be hide-bound by diagnoses; her treatment of the patient named Susan in her great book Hands of the Living God, celebrates her open-mindedness. Characteristic of the British Society (as opposed to the American or European Psychoanalytical societies) Milner had very little interest in diagnosis and would never have refused to take someone into analysis on the grounds of absence of diagnostic naming. Though she was linked with the anti-psychiatry movement in Britain, and vehemently opposed to ECT for example, she would, today as then, I suggest, have had her characteristic pragmatic and humane attitude to the use of medication were it required.
I found Milner's books A Life and On Not Being Able to Paint a revelation for me as a writer. There are of course a million "how to be creative" books on the market at any given time, but hers seemed like the first serious consideration of the topic, rather than, here are some tricks that worked for me. But I'm new to Milner's work, so I'm wondering, did Milner have an influence on writers and therapists that followed her? As in, are there writers working in her vein today?
She had considerable influence on those analysts (and therapists) of the British Independents, influenced by Winnicott and R.D. Laing, Bion and others. She was also actively involved (and influential in) the brilliant, charismatic, but disturbed, analyst Masud Khan. Her influence continues today with the work of the Independents and that of great analysts, with international reputation, such as Christopher Bollas and Adam Phillips. A conference is being planned in Los Angeles for 2014 celebrating her work following one in London last week (October 2013) at the Psychoanalyisis Unit, University College London.
Writers today who work in the field of diary, journal-making and life writing attest to her continuing and renewed popularity. She is read and taught in the universities here in the UK and in the United States.
October 25, 2013
"He liked the journey. He sleep well in a sleeping-car and was not disturbed if a sudden jolt waked him; it was pleasant to lie a while smoking a cigarette and to feel oneself in one's little cabin so enchantingly alone; the rhythmical sound as the wheels rattled over the points was an agreeable background to the pattern of one's reflections, and to speed through the open country and the night made one feel like a star speeding through space. And at the end of the journey was the unknown."
From the Ashenden short stories by W Somerset Maugham
October 24, 2013
I have completely run out of books. And I have one week left before this mad travel is over and I am reunited with my library. (Don't worry -- I hired a booksitter, to sing them songs and make them tea so they wouldn't get so lonely in my absence.) So I am reliant on my e-reader, which I hate, and on the books that are available as ebooks, which is surprisingly limited when you start backlist surfing. So I am stuck with a factually inaccurate (like, really, really inaccurate) book about Hannibal and the Punic Wars, because it was the only Hannibal book I could find as an ebook.
I switch between that and a buggy free download of W Somerset Maugham ebooks, which are probably seriously illegal, but I'm desperate. And I don't know who runs the W Somerset Maugham estate, but maybe I have given them enough of my money as it is.
It's pretty difficult to run a book blog when you have run out of books. So let's supplement! Like with this picture of the elephant a group of researchers took over the Alps in 1959 to see if it could be done. They made her little elephant boots! They tried to name her Hannibella! But she wouldn't respond to that name, so they had to keep her named Jumbo. She apparently was a prankster and would knock the researchers down and laugh and laugh and laugh.
When she got to the other side of the Alps successfully, they gave her cake and Chianti. John Hoyte, the man whose crazy idea this was, wrote a book about it, called Trunk Road for Hannibal. There is no ebook available.
At any rate, I can tell you without a doubt that you should not read John Prevas's Hannibal Crosses the Alps, even if it is available as an ebook, and even if you are now watching television shows you told yourself you would never watch, because you ran out of books and it is either that or having conversations with the goats again, or, god forbid, buying the only English book on this island, which is one paperback copy of one of those awful George RR Martin books, and television is less bad than George RR Martin's "a woman earns her place in the world by violent rape" books.
If you are in the Ionian, consider floating a life raft full of good nonfiction my way, will you?
October 23, 2013
What We're Reading
Some people can’t do anything without reading a book about it first. So when I decided to spend my next vacation at a European heavy metal festival, my first step was to grab a copy of Choosing Death by Decibel Magazine’s Editor in Chief, Albert Mudrian.
Black and white collages of old concert posters and band photos give the book a fanzine appearance, but Mudrian gives the text proper journalistic treatment. Without personal commentary or music writer’s bombast, Mudrian traces the evolution of the genre from its roots in British punk through near-commercial success and into the current century.
The genre was developed mostly by alcohol-fueled adolescent males in a pre-internet era, so it’s no surprise that early death metal is not well documented. As a result, Mudrian relies heavily on interviews with pivotal artists to track down historical moments like the development of the blast beat and the invention of the death growl.
Keeping track of the genealogies in Choosing Death is as tricky as it is in Game of Thrones, but Mudrian provides a “Cast of Characters” list as an aid. A chronological discography of essential listening at the back of the book is an even better tool for anyone who wants to understand this niche genre. Or go to a festival.
October 22, 2013
It is Charles Blackstone's publication day! And even though he's being interviewed everywhere (even interviewing himself, and that one is my favorite), I wanted to check in and see how he was doing. So we did a quick publication day chat interview, posted below.
Charles Blackstone, it is your publication day. How do you feel?
I feel like having a glass of wine or two. It seems like the occasion calls for a little drinking, right?
It does. I bought a bottle of wine in your honor. Greek wine, of course. I have no idea if Peter Hapworth, your dashing hero, would approve, though. It cost $4 and was one of approximately four choices in the village's market.
I've always said the best wine is the wine in your glass, or soon to be in your glass, so, by that logic, I think it's an excellent choice to pair with right now.
It's funny that it is just going on sale now, because you got the galleys in while I was in Chicago visiting, so I got to read it back in April. Is the delay weird for you, too? Especially when you're used to working online, when we write something, edit it the next day and publish it the day after?
I can't get my mind around any of the time. Taking notes in Greece in 2008, finishing the first draft in 2009, the ARCs last April, it all feels like so long ago and also only five minutes ago.
I think the story, and the storytelling, needed time to develop, a lot more time than I'm used to spending on a book, so I'm actually glad that I had years, instead of hours, to work on it.
Let's talk about Greece. Which is where I am. Greece says hi. Was it something in particular about that trip that sparked the novel, or was the novel looking for some place to be, and when you went there, Greece made sense? (For the record, I have decided to pair the $4 wine with barbecue flavored Ruffles potato chips.)
It was the first time I'd gone on a wine trade trip, and so I felt there was a story in that, an outsider who finds himself among these industry insiders.
And I was shocked about how little I knew about the country before going.
I was also annoyed with how little wine fiction (such as there is) was set anywhere other than in France or in Napa.
Right, I realized that, too. I knew its ancient history, and I know Byron's version of Greece, and other than that it is kind of a weird blank to me.
And I am trying to think of wine in fiction and all I am coming up with is Sideways, which I did not read and only saw the film.
It's largely neglected, which is also strange to me. Writers are very technical and precise when it comes to sports or boating or detective work, but for some reason, novelists seem to think Chardonnay (which they often leave uncapitalized) is a synonym for wine and that their characters should drink only that.
Or they cue that their female protagonist is especially sophisticated by having her drink Sauvignon Blanc.
Speaking of sophisticated! I think one thing I was most struck by was how sophisticated the book is. You know, very well structured and not going in for any of the metafictional or post-post-modern tricks that contemporary writers are supposed to do now. But then you're a very sophisticated man. You dress very well and always greet your guests at the door with a glass of something sparkling.
And I think sophistication is undervalued in literature today, don't you?. Or, it is too often confused with cynicism.
I got bored with postmodernism. I was reading it and writing it and thinking about its concerns a lot ten years ago. Now I just want to read stories. But in terms of the writing of this novel, I think this shift has more to do with these particular characters and this particular story.
I've always liked reading about sophisticated characters, but lately they're harder to find in literature. Popular culture seems to prefer the fetishizing the downtrodden and disheveled. Is that an effect of reality TV?
Yes, I miss the Waugh or Wodehouse or Mitford characters. We fetishize superior health via yoga cults, but no one is really supposed to be smarter than anyone else, or at least not admit it out loud, I think.
Nobody's allowed to be smarter or better dressed or having fun anymore. But why not?
We're all terrified of being called "pretentious." I mean, people get really mad at you if you don't like the television show they really like, you know? Or the author they like.
Maybe that's one of the reasons I liked Peter so much, was that he saw that he was being called to a better life and then he fought like fuck to earn it and keep it.
Characters, like people, shouldn't be afraid to take chances.
I think it's not so cool to "try". If you do get something, it should be luck or a surprise or you should acknowledge your "privilege" or whatever other awful thing.
Anyway! Enough diagnosing our larger culture. You have a long task of promoting your book. Have you enjoyed the interviews and the appearances and all that? Or is it a misery that you have to drink your way through?
[enter 10 minute silence]
I just had to do a radio interview for a station in Kentucky.
It was supposed to be at 10:04.
How was it?
And it was enjoyable!
The host called the book "absolutely phenomenal." This is nice to hear.
It's always nice when the person interviewing you reads the book! I know from a lot of the writers I've interviewed, that does not always happen.
What are your big plans for your publication day? Besides wine.
Another radio interview. And the pug has a dermatologist's appointment.
This is a fancy life!
Well, thank you for chatting with me. I'm sure we'll be doing this a lot more in November at events.
October 21, 2013
Image: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins by William Blake
This month’s issue of Bookslut features a review of Pamela Erens’s The Virgins, whose setting -- an elite upstate New York boarding school -- situates it within a literary tradition of school stories, although with updated concerns.
For more contemporary school stories, here’s some recommended reading:
The Secret History
Donna Tartt’s first novel depicts some typical collegiate concerns alongside very atypical ones (i.e. how should one cover up the murder of a classmate?). When California kid Richard Papen moves east to attend Hampden College in Vermont (partially based on Tartt’s alma mater, Bennington College), he unexpectedly befriends a group of precocious, sophisticated Classics majors and is drawn into a world of darkness. The story is part Greek tragedy, part thriller, and part bildungsroman. Despite the unusual events that occur, Tartt’s portrayal of the insular world of a private liberal arts college feels familiar.
Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel follows the lives of three friends who spend their childhood at Hailsham, a fictional boarding school in the English countryside. Hailsham appears somewhat unconventional--its students are encouraged to create art, rather than learn any practical life skills -- until it is later revealed that Hailsham is a boarding school for human clones who exist solely to provide organ donations.
David Foster Wallace’s postmodern epic is set in the near-future and takes place primarily between Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA), an elite tennis boarding school outside of Boston, and the halfway house down the hill (Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House). The school is known for its academic as well as athletic rigor, and several of its students anticipate entering the professional tennis circuit -- also known as “the Show” -- after graduation. Needless to say, pressure to succeed is high, and ETA has its share of eccentricities, rivalries and secrets. Although Infinite Jest only partially focuses on the boarding school (which is home to high-achieving tennis prodigy, protagonist Hal Incandenza), ETA plays a prominent role in Wallace’s depiction of the tragedies and absurdities of contemporary America.
Francine Prose’s novel about a writing professor’s midlife crisis is also a sendup of ultra-PC university politics, as its protagonist, professor and stalled novelist Ted Swenson, becomes embroiled in a controversy in the wake of the school’s new sexual harassment policy.
For further reading in a more scholarly vein, Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers examines the academic novel in relation to changes in university culture and society over time.
October 18, 2013
It's your Charles Blackstone Vintage Attraction update. Above is the trailer with his lovely wife Alpana Singh.
And here is an interview with the Rumpus about why despite the basic storyline being reminiscent of his own life, you shouldn't read it as strictly autobiographical. Charles Blackstone is not Peter Hapworth. (I love his characters' names. A friend and I wanted to get some sort of t-shirt saying WE LOVE HUNTER FLANAGAN from his first novel, just because we love the name so much. Sometimes when Charles is not around, we refer to him as Hunter Flanagan. Don't tell him that.)
"Fiction has always seemed more honest to me, ironically. I don’t see the world in terms of memoir, probably mostly because I’ve never read a lot of memoir. The memoirs I have enjoyed “read like fiction,” as the saying goes. I don’t really believe in a difference between novel and memoir—all narrative is invented, as far as I’m concerned—and see the distinctions as little more than marketing labels. The nonfiction label is a popular one. Passing the story off as a memoir would have perhaps made for an easier sell—even before writing much, since you can sell memoir with only an outline. But it just wouldn’t have been right for me. I wanted to be able to rearrange chronology, turn some characters into composites. I wanted to revise history. I wanted to invent characters’ perceptions. (All of this takes place in memoir, but we pretend it doesn’t, or apologize for it, if we admit to it.) If I’d edited out the more obviously invented parts, I wouldn’t have been able to tell a story that felt worth telling."
October 17, 2013
What We're Reading
Mary Wesley: A Dubious Legacy
I can only stomach Mary Wesley’s acid wit every few years. Sourer than Nancy Mitford and more snobbish than Barbara Pym, her comedies of bed-hopping among the leisured classes are still excellently entertaining if you don’t mind your cookies with a dab of arsenic.
A Dubious Legacy is a mid-20th century Jane Eyre where the missus isn't so much mad as she is cruel, making her ersatz Rochester's life a carnival of misery. It's refreshing to have the woman in the attic (or the mirror-lined master bedroom) a villain and not a victim. Margaret was swept up by Henry Tillotson at the end of WWII, as he white knighted himself to save her. Brought back to his stately home in England, she rewards him with a sock in the eye and retires to the bedroom.
Years after the war, two young couples arrive for a weekend at Henry's pile. They understand that you're not meant to mention his wife, the one who never gets out of bed, but she ends up involved in their visit anyway. And for the next forty years, Henry Tillotson, his lovely house and awful, beautiful wife become part of their growing lives.
It's constructed with such off-handed beauty that when one of the character's secrets is revealed it seems to fall right in your lap. Wesley famously didn't start publishing novels until she was 70, and she wrote with great comfort about the unfairness of life and our dogged commitments to the pettiest needs.
October 16, 2013
The Man Booker Prize for 2013 has been awarded to Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. Catton is the youngest ever Booker-wining author with the longest ever Booker-winning novel, the formally experimental 800-page story of the New Zealand gold rush that you've always longed for. On behalf of booksellers the world over who've spent the day schlepping hardback copies of it around, let me say, "Oof."
October 15, 2013
Image: Woman by William de Kooning
I rarely read contemporary thrillers all the way through, unless they are written by Megan Abbott or Gillian Flynn. And I know Gillian Flynn has entered her backlash phase, according to online comments and that whole Mary Gaitskill piece. And while I disagreed with Gaitskill's conclusions about the novel almost entirely, I thought the people who tried to chastise Gaitskill in a pro-Flynn urge were idiots. She is Mary Gaitskill. She gets to say whatever the fuck she wants. She wrote Veronica and Bad Behavior and she is just better than you, so shut it.
I am so easily distracted. I was trying to talk about something else.
I ran out of novels, here in my last two weeks of travel before I am reunited with my books (I am paying someone to sit with them and sing songs to them once a week so they don't get lonely), and while I could read The Painted Veil for the eighth time, I thought maybe it make more sense to ask a publisher for an egalley to stick on this ereader that I hate so very much but carry around with me for some reason. I should have just reread The Painted Veil, because I found myself reading The Silent Wife and Jesus Christ that is a bad book.
It's not that it is badly written. It knows what it is doing. It has a sound structure, it builds tension, it knows what to reveal and what to keep in shadows. Fine. But thrillers seem mostly based around stereotypes about gender. Men are predators, they cheat and lie and think of their women as jailers and nags. Women are the victims of their men, and also they are lazy and materialistic and enjoy being supported financially and if that financial support is threatened they become homicidal.
And whatever. It's entertainment, right? It does not at all affect us in any real way, it's not like having this information fed to you in every form of media does anything to reinforce nagging dark thoughts you have about women. (Or men. I read too much lazy bullshit about what men are "like.") And sure, because it is well written, it gets reviewed well, because we apparently can not ask our critics to look at larger issues, like what pollution do these ideas do to our culture? And that's why I liked Gone Girl, because Flynn used your gender expectations against you, the reader. I have always liked an aggressive writer.
Anyway, I kept hoping that the wife would die somehow, that her dog would accidentally push her off the balcony. Alas.
October 14, 2013
What We're Reading
Patrick James Dunagan
While at work on break I recently read (via library loan) The Holy Grail: Charles Bukowski and the Second Coming Revolution by A.D. Winans (Dustbooks, 2002). This is a hokey, patched together memoir by Winans about the 1970s heyday of publishing his journal and press imprint Second Coming that's loosely hung round reflections and memories of Bukowski. Winans has randomly included me on his email list, I think from lifting my email addy off of group emails he too receives from Neeli Cherkovski... one time he emailed a terrific bit of prose recalling the poet Jack Micheline which is supposed to be included in an upcoming collection of other such prose of his from Punk Hostage Press.
Winans is hit and miss. The Micheline is a sure fire hit as are small swathes of The Holy Grail, which seemed to contain some of the same or similar material. Winans is great when he's on, but often there's far too much of what I've come to refer to as being a North Beach damaged element to the work. Poets of the future: beware becoming North Beach damaged.
October 13, 2013
Image: Europa and the Bull by Gustave Moreau
If we were going to write up a Three of Wands reading list to go along with my Reading the Tarot column, and why wouldn't we do that, especially since we climbed to the top of a hill today and stood on the fortifications of a Medieval castle and why am I suddenly referring to myself in the third person, it must be the olive oil cocktails I've been drinking, then this is what would be on it:
A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton by Mary Lovell
There was never a man who better embodied the Three of Wands card than Richard Francis Burton, so in love as he was with the horizon. He conquered and named mountains, he looked for the source of the Nile, he learned every language and wooed every woman. And I like this biography because Lovell doesn't treat his wife Isabel like an idiot or a doormat. Most of the others do.
The Child, the Family, and the Outside World by D W Winnicott
Attachment theory, hey ho. There is all this stuff in attachment theory about whether a person feels secure in the outside world or not, and how that relates to the mother-child bond. If your mother is a chaotic monster, you think the world is a chaotic monster, etc. It kind of doesn't match up with experience, though. All the great travelers I have met and have read about had hideous family relations. But maybe I deal too frequently in extremes. It's still interesting to think about.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
Speaking of hideous family relations and absent parents and the adventure that comes with that...
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso
The Three of Wands is tied to Jupiter, who is Zeus, and both of them had some control issues when it came to women. Calasso gives my favorite reading of Zeus and Europa, which highlights the downside of what is an otherwise spectacular card: what are you leaving in your wake? Who are you leaving behind? Who is cleaning up the mess that you're walking away from? What are you running from exactly?
Bonus book that explains bird brain hemisphere lateralization: Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary, which you should already have anyway.
Also, here I'll put in a soft reminder that I do tarot card readings, for writers and for non, that come with recommended reading lists based on the stories that play out in your cards. More info here.
October 11, 2013
Image: Salvador Dali's Three of Wands
My latest Reading the Tarot column is up at Ohioedit.com. This time it's the Three of Wands under discussion, and the card's inability to keep it in its pants. Also, for some reason, the evolution of the hemispheres of the brains of birds comes into play.
"In birds, each eye has a primary function. The left eye is connected to the right brain, and as the bird is going around, doing birdy things, the left eye scans its environment, on the look out for predators, for other birds it might need to do business with. What are the possibilities that surround him? The right eye, connected to the left brain, filters all of that information about environment down. Is that a tiny rock or is it a seed? Is that lady bird a good mate or is she actually just a colorful flower that is sort of shaped like a bird?
Put the world’s tiniest little eyepatch over the left eye, and by shutting off the wider lens the bird risks getting surprised by a hawk, or maybe hit by a bus, so focused as it would be on the smallest of details. But switch the eyepatch over to the right, allowing everything to look like limitless possibility, and you’ll mistake an enemy for a lover, or you’ll starve to death from chasing bright glimmers on the horizon without ever remembering to come down for a good meal."
Who else is recovering from an Alice Munro-related hangover? If not, what the hell is wrong with you? Leave work STAT. Or, if you have to get some desk time in, read through the New Yorker's selected archive of her stories, go through some emotional turbulence, question everything about your life, and then get yourself one or four of these.
In Bookslut’s interview with Antoin Laurain, author of The President’s Hat, Laurain touches on the transformative power of clothing in his novel. The eponymous “president’s hat” (which belongs to François Mitterrand) passes through the hands of of four strangers, each of whose lives are changed upon wearing it. While the transformations in the book may be purely coincidental, the idea that “clothes make the man” brings dandyism to mind. As Thomas Carlyle defines him, “A dandy is a clothes-wearing man, a man whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of clothes.” For the dandy, clothing is imbued with a specific type of transformative power -- the ability of its wearer to pass for, and thus belong to, high society. Although the dandy’s aim is not necessarily to imitate wealth, but rather to achieve beauty, the dandy’s lifestyle necessitates the luxuries of wealth -- i.e. expensive outfits and accessories, leisurely activities, etc. While the dandy may be primarily in pursuit of the aesthetic, the associations between beauty and wealth are not arbitrary.
For more on dandyism and the transformative power of clothing, here are some readings:
“The Painter of Modern Life” by Charles Baudelaire, trans. Jonathan Mayne (.pdf)
Baudelaire’s section titled “The Dandy” from his essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” describes dandyism as an institution similar to a religion. The dandy plays a spiritual role in his devotion to grandeur, which is not to be confused with the vulgar desire for money, or simply having expensive taste -- as Baudelaire writes, “For the perfect dandy these things are no more than symbols of his aristocratic superiority of mind.”
“Beau Brummell” by Virginia Woolf | via Dandyism.net
Woolf’s essay chronicles the rise and fall of Beau Brummell, the archetypal dandy. Brummell moved among and was admired by the aristocratic class despite having been born to a middle class family and having relatively little inheritance. “Brummell owed his ascendency,” Woolf writes, “to some curious combination of wit, of taste, of insolence, of independence -- for he was never a toady -- which it were too heavy-handed to call a philosophy of life, but served the purpose.” His impeccable fashion sense, cool composure and lively wit maintained his popularity and influence among the aristocracy until he fell into debt and was driven into exile.
“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather | via The Willa Cather Archive
Willa Cather’s short story of a disaffected Pittsburgh youth whose love of fine things contrasts painfully with his ordinary upbringing has strong echoes of dandyism. Paul’s passion for splendor and contempt for his drab surroundings come to a tragic reconciliation after, in a desperate attempt to live his ideal life, he escapes to New York City with $1,000 of stolen money.
How Dandy Are You? | Dandyism.net
Answer this questionnaire from Dandyism.net to figure out your “dandy score” -- are you the “ideal of modern dandyism,” a “faithful myrmidon,” or just an “affected provincial?”
October 10, 2013
Cross-posted from Spolia, written by Gus Iversen, our chapbook series publisher, in regards to our latest chapbook. You can find this chapbook, and Daphne Gottlieb's "Bess," in our store. (You can now buy the chapbooks together at a reduced price and save on shipping.)
In Light of Tragedy, Mia Gallagher's "Quasimodo"
“Quasimodo” begins with two sisters doing something they’ve done a hundred times before: entering their parents’ house. But something is different. The lighting is wrong. The normally soft hues and gentle lamp-lit shadows have been washed out by hard fluorescent overhead bulbs. Carpet stains– once hidden– are exposed and the wallpaper is peeling. It isn’t pretty but it’s the truth. What is light after all, if not revealing? Their father has been left in charge after their mother’s stroke. He does not share her knack for ambiance.
Ann, one of the daughters, knows about strokes. Her husband suffered three of them. The story takes its title from the way they left his face partially paralyzed, half-melted like that of Notre Dame’s famous hunchback. It’s a bitter association that Ann keeps to herself. And yet, the phrase quasi modo means ‘almost the standard measure,’ which connotes the skewed shape of relationships in crisis. Everything is almost how it’s supposed to be. The pieces are there but nothing looks quite the way you need it to.
The light in Ann’s parents’ house is without magic, like when the auditorium lights pop on after a play. The story itself points a flashlight into the mouth of a cave and asks how deep people will go for the sake of their loved ones. When is it selfish to distance yourself from a situation? When is it foolish to keep getting closer? “Quasimodo” offers no certain answer to those questions, except to say there is a time and place for everything.
Purchase “Quasimodo” here to see for yourself.
October 08, 2013
Image by Brian Eno
Here it is October, and we know it is October because we have traded in our alcohols. And also now publishers just fling 650 page novels at our heads as we are passing by, trying to get on with our lives. Also because we have a new issue of Bookslut up.
And we are really quite pleased to have Mairead Case, superstar, joining us to write a reader's diary. And even more pleased that she chose to quote Brian Eno in her first submission, because honestly, I wish Brian Eno would just call me up every morning and impart wisdom. His book A Year with Swollen Appendices, I believe, can be used for bibliomancy, except that the last time I tried, and I think I was asking how to prevent a friend's wedding, I pointed to a passage he had written about farting. Results may vary. But Mairead, she writes about music and Kenneth Patchen and trying to read while trying to write.
And we continue our journey into becoming a Natalia Ginzburg fanzine, with Daniel Shvartsman taking his turn to write about the Italian writer. We just like her so much I don't know what to tell you.
And a billion other things as well! It's fall publishing, so it's a little jam packed. Packed with jam? Who knows what that means. Enjoy the diversity while it lasts, because next month I think we are doing wall to wall Charles Blackstone Vintage Attraction, we'll just set up a Big Brother situation in his Chicago home or something. We are all so very excited and pleased and proud.
October 07, 2013
Image: "Quasimodo" back cover image, by Kirsten Stolle
Announcing Bookslut and Spolia's second chapbook: "Quasimodo" by Mia Gallagher, illustrated by Kirsten Stolle
Our latest chapbook is the story of illness and family, Mia Gallagher’s “Quasimodo,” with full color illustrations by Kirsten Stolle. The chapbooks are limited to 100 copies, and each one is numbered and stamped with our secret Spolia sigil. The chapbooks are $7 each, plus shipping, and we do ship internationally. They can be purchased in our store.
Read an excerpt from “Quasimodo” below.
The door of the box-room is a few inches ajar. Through the gap I see darkness. The smell is stronger here, seeping out like a bad cloud. I can almost taste Conor, standing beside me, pulling me back. Somehow I force myself over the threshold, closing the door behind me. I lower myself onto the bed, feeling my way with my hands. I can’t help thinking I’m going to sit on her by mistake and the thought makes me want to giggle. In the end I settle without making any contact. She must be curled up tight, like a foetus.
I adjust. I catch the sound of her breathing first; slow and even. Then I see her humped shape under the duvet. On the little table beside the bed, the shadowy forms of her untouched breakfast. My mother; lady of dissimulation, keeper of secrets, perpetual avoider of the Bad News.
Voices trickle up from downstairs. Jeanette’s, high and sharp. Steve’s, taxi-driver low. Da’s gravel rumble, kango-hammered by sobs.
Mam’s breathing changes. Is she awake?
Ut tensio, sic vis. Hooke’s Law of Elasticity. Conor explained it to me once, in the early days, when I was fascinated by what he did. Extension is directly proportional to force. Meaning: the more elastic a material, the harder you push it, the further it stretches before it snaps.
It was he who came up with the idea of doing something alternative, after he’d had the second stroke. We’d gone down the orthodox route, he said, and it wasn’t working. He spoke calmly, as if he was talking about replacing a faulty machine component.
‘You mean something… spiritual?’ I’d said, unsure what he was getting at.
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Forget it.’
‘No. I don’t…. That sounds really positive.’
They were nice, the people we went to. Kind, supportive, not too crazy; even though a cynical part of me couldn’t help wondering at all the palaver. Was it necessary to get so medieval about the whole thing? My husband’s body pierced with needles, his ears fed melting wax, foul potions brewed from witches’ herbs bubbling on our stove.
At first, against the doctors’ odds, the new approach seemed to work. Conor’s brain and body slowly began to tune back into each other. I felt hope uncurl inside me as our future started to reconsolidate, line by broken line like a drawing in an Etch-a-Sketch. Even the spectre of children appeared briefly, before Conor replaced it with a more realisable Plan B; he would build a new extension to our house. I watched as he took a sledge-hammer to our back wall and dug trenches in my garden, his useless arm dangling by his side. Then I came home from work one evening and found the place black with smoke and, terrified, I started screaming.
‘Jesus Christ, Conor! What the hell is—’
I batted the smoke away and saw a pan on the stove, blue flames flickering underneath. The base of the pan was charred; what was inside had burnt to nothing, a black skin coating the enamel. I grabbed the handle and pain carved a red X across my palm. Swearing, I dropped the pan and ran to the sink.
The tap didn’t work; no water. I looked up. He was standing at the door, watching me.
‘I’ve turned off the mains,’ he said. The sun was behind his head, haloing his tawny hair. His eyes were slitted. His slouch against the door made his lopsided body look almost sexy again.
After I’d cooled down, we sat at the table and he took my hand. ‘It’s no use,’ he said. His speech was slurred. Zhnoyoosh. ‘It’s bullshit—’
‘It’s not bullshit.’ My teeth were aching. ‘You’re bullshit.’
He laughed and his lopsided face became monstrous. Quasimodo.
‘That’s what I’m talking about,’ I said. ‘That bullshit attitude. How can you ever expect to get better if you keep giving up?’
He started saying something else. Then he stopped and stood and picked up the pan that was still sizzling in the sink and he looked at me, and together we smelt his unfeeling flesh as he cooked through to the bone.
The next evening I went to see our least-wacky alternative person, the shiatsu lady in Terenure. She did some muscle testing and told me I needed to work on my boundaries.
‘You have to hold back if you don’t want to go down with him.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but that doesn’t make sense. I’m not the one who’s sick.’
The shiatsu lady hesitated. Then she began to explain about how sickness wasn’t just a physical thing, we were all sick in some way or other, and at that I got up and walked out.
October 04, 2013
"Another victim was a portrait of the novelist Henry James by John Singer Sargent at the Royal Academy. The attacker pulled out a meat cleaver and went for his face. 'She got me thrice over before the tomahawk was stayed,' James wrote in response to a condolence note. 'I naturally feel very scalped and disfigured, but you will be glad to know that I seem to be pronounced curable.' The work was restored by Sargent himself and appears in the show."
We've asked contemporary writers to select a Henry James short story, and write a cover version. And the rest of the literary world must have drinking problems, too, because there was a long line of enthusiastic responses. We're allowing the writers to select how the stories will be covered, whether in fiction, essay, poetry, or, uh, other. (Selfies? Who knows.) Many of our regular writers are on board, as well as a few special guest stars.
So I guess that makes me the girl with the meat cleaver and also, I am dying to know why she attacked the James portrait. Was she too forced to read Beast in the Jungle in high school English class? Has any assignment in the world done so much to inspire the desire to smash in Henry James's face in with a hatchet? In other news, someone has selected Beast in the Jungle for their cover version. We'll see if they take it apart with rage or love.
By the way, this is how the messed up James portrait looked, post-hatchet.
October 03, 2013
A quick recommendation:
I once had this really awful therapist, and for some reason, maybe power dynamics I mean who knows, it took me forever to realize this guy was actually a dick and it wasn't that I was just resisting the change that he was about to bring about in my life. If I were a few minutes late for our appointments, and sometimes I was because for a long time the street I had to take the bus down to get to his place was under construction, he would make me wait outside the amount of time I had been late.
But more than that was the way he would make me feel unlistened to. He was largely dismissive of the things I thought were important, and he would interpret my dreams for me and get angry when I disagreed with his interpretation. Anyway, for some reason, it took me six months of paying him money to finally realize this was a fucked dynamic.
I had the same feeling during a tarot card reading recently, where the reader had just suddenly decided what was going to happen and was completely deaf to me saying, "No, actually, that's not accurate at all." And for days I walked around angry. When I tried to send her an email explaining my concerns with the way she steamrolled over my feelings about what was going on in the cards, she blew me off and told me steamrolling is part of the point. Except, actually, no.
Which brings me in a very roundabout way to a recommendation. I do my own tarot/astro readings for writers, but we need other people to read for us. Which is how I found Lennon Mara, who I have nothing but praise for. Not only insight, but actually for fucksake being listened to. (And when I wanted to argue a little bit with the interpretation offered, it was allowed.) Anyway, insightful, well thought out, nicely intuitive, and understanding of the way a writer's life works. (Which, if you have dealt with therapists and tarot readers and astrologers you will know this is not always the case.) Highly recommended.
October 02, 2013
A few notes about Spolia:
- Also from our Medieval issue, we have two of Helen Ivory's eight tarot poems, now available to read on our website.
- And in honor of our Medieval issue, I've been making a small herbal on our Tumblr, one herb every day. So far we've had jam that tastes like gin, love potions, and herbs that bring on visions from Apollo. Also cures for a toothache. One day soon, we will get to the mighty Nettle, the herb that keeps me from dying of anemia. One cup every day! Despite the fact that it tastes like a hot mulched tree! You should try it.