In the magazine
- An Interview with Rebecca Solnit
- An Interview with Diana Souhami
- Angela Carter: Postcards from America
- An Interview with Sophie Hannah
- An Interview with Christopher Castellani
June 19, 2013
Image: Sirens by Jeanne Mammen
(And there are about 11 days left on the special tarot reading offer for Spolia. I'll still be offering the tarot readings privately, but rates will change and they won't come with the free issue of Spolia. So reserve your spot now.)
We are hard at work on issue three, and this just gets more and more fun. I had a lunch of booze and crepes (fucking love Switzerland) the other day, and we discussed the male/female submission stats that came out after the first VIDA count. As in, women writers don't submit as frequently, don't recover as quickly from rejection, are less likely to follow up on invitations. The Black Magic issue is, I think, something like 70% female contributors? And that is probably due to the fact that we solicit submissions only, and do not have an open submissions policy. That may change in the future, but since there are just three of us, and we're running like 18 websites now between us, dealing with a slush pile on top of everything else we do did not seem plausible. We are behind on our regular duties enough as it is.
And I feel like I have not been blogging enough here about books that I love. So, in honor of our two excerpts at Spolia, I can wholeheartedly recommend the books of our contributors, which is what made me write feverish late night emails asking them for a contribution in the first place.
June 18, 2013
Image: Monika Schoffmann, "Hochzeit"
In his memoir, Wedlocked (reviewed in this month’s issue), Jay Ponteri turns his gaze to an area often neglected in the many conversations on marriage: the personal, emotional aspects of a sometimes strange, perhaps failing, yet still highly significant institution.
If you’re looking for other perspectives on marriage that might address some of the questions raised by Wedlocked, here’s some recommended reading:
This month, The Atlantic has a fascinating feature on same-sex marriage its influence on modern marriage.
“Marriage, seen this way, is a rigid institution that exists primarily for the rearing of children and that powerfully constrains the behavior of adults (one is tempted to call this the “long slog ’til death” view of marriage), rather than an emotional union entered into for pleasure and companionship between adults. “
In that it functions as an another way of looking at marriage, same sex unions appear to be changing marriage for the better. By reimagining marriage as a partnership between two people rather than exclusively between a man and a woman, same-sex marriages offer a way to see what “genderless marriage” might look like -- and it looks pretty good. Among the perks are increased communication about responsibilities, since same-sex couples can’t fall back on gender assumptions and stereotypes when it comes down to how they divvy up chores.
But perhaps the problem with marriage isn’t that it’s mostly a gendered institution, but that it’s a monogamous one.
In the 2001 book The Myth of Monogamy, David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton turn to the natural world for answers and find that monogamy is an unnatural mode for most of the animal kingdom -- including humans.
“Anthropologists report that the overwhelming majority of human societies either are polygynous or were polygynous prior to the cultural homogenization of recent decades.”
-- David Barash in Salon | The myth of monogamy
And if you’re wondering about what non-monogamous relationships might look like in practice, here are two popular guides for people possibly considering polyamory (and other forms of non-monogamy): Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut and Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up.
June 17, 2013
Ann Tyler wrote about my first collection of stories. Ann Tyler, that much loved American writer, who writes about things that would kill me just to think of, never mind to write a book about them. Of the stories in that first book of mine, she said they were—and I suppose I should be flattered that she even took notice—almost “insultingly obscure.” And I wanted to write a review of her books saying “and I think your books are almost insultingly clear.” [Laughs.] I’ve gotten this reception from the beginning, and I never stopped. I’ve never let the criticism deter me.
June 13, 2013
Image: Hand des Künstlers mit Farbnapf, Adolph Menzel
My favorite part of doing the tarot readings is the recommended reading list at the end. I don't know why, but I'm really good at assigning reading based on looking at someone's astrological chart or their tarot cards. I can tell when a writer needs to dive into Surrealism, for example, so I make an introduction reading list to Surrealism, and then I get an email back, "Holy shit, you were right." It is my favorite part.
Tarot is telling a story anyway. You start at one spot and then you end up all the way over here, and the trick is to make sense of everything that happens in between. Astrology is storytelling, too. And maybe it's just the story we create with our pasts and our own lives that is the important thing anyway. And if we can nudge those stories along, or bring a hidden part of it into the light, then does it really matter if you think Pluto crashed your car or your Mars in Virgo is holding you back?
Today I recommended to one of my clients PL Travers's exquisite What the Bee Knows, particularly this section:
"Thus, wilely, they force him to search himself until he comes to understand -- and our princess is no exception -- that it is not the advent of the Price or the ship coming safely home to port, that brings about the denouement. She had to learn that happiness is not pleasure though pleasure -- and, above all, joy -- are in its warp and woof. Rather it is a moral virtue, come to by grace and discipline and not without suffering, withal. It requires a poignant letting go of what has been most cherished and learning a new vocabulary -- the grammar, as it were, of the heart. The 'I' that knocks upon the door must become, in answer to 'Who is there?' inevitably, 'Thou'. Love, as noun, must become verb and lose itself in Loving; and Passion assume the syllable that makes of it compassion. Only thus, when what was lost has been found, is it possible to enter the city with bliss -- bestowing hands.
'It is all very difficult,' she said to the Sun, as the realization worked within her.
'Would you value it if it was easy?' he asked."
If you would like to book your own reading, you can find the information here. I have some availability coming up next week.
June 12, 2013
Image: Jenna Tähtinen
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.
For thirteen years I have been married to the great love of my life – he is fascinating, brilliant, loyal, and beautiful as the day. I tell you all this to emphasize that I am not the typical bored housewife, saddled with a stolid spouse slowly succumbing to middle aged spread. Nevertheless, my eye, of late, has been a-roving -- mostly because I have this friend, a member of my social circle, who is strikingly, shockingly handsome. It’s not a matter of comparison – they exist in different realms: where my husband’s beauty is pure and delicate, this other boy’s is stark and savage. Still, I have a weakness for beauty in all its forms, and a part of me feels entitled to add this new breed to my personal collection, even though I know it would devastate my devoted spouse.
For some time, this has not been a serious issue because I myself am not a great beauty, and so this friend had shown no particular interest in me. Lately, however, I find myself flirting more and more strenuously with him, and he, flattered by my excessive attentions, has begun to flirt back in a way that is both dangerous and delirious. I know very well the correct path here – forget about this caddish creature and be grateful for the perfectly delightful lover already in my grasp. But as always in these situations, knowing the path is easier than following it. How can shake off these inconvenient desires and return to my senses?
Oh, when are married people going to understand that they are the ones with all of the power in these triangles? They love to claim things like, I am the one who has the most to lose (meaning their home, their spouse, their family), but really cheaters only get caught if they want to get caught. So at the end of the affair, they get to retreat back to their safe little houses and their safe little marriages, and they leave the third party on the side of the road with a pat on the head and a "take care of yourself, kid."
Regardless. There are many stories I can tell you at this point. Emma Bovary. Anna Karenina. That chick from The Awakening. Lots of women who get in touch with their desire and then instantly must die for it. But it's an outdated story, and I am not a moralist.
But what I am is concerned for all the people you seem prepared to hurt in a very real way just to satisfy a whim. You cannot just drag another person into the empty spaces in your marriage and expect that to be a good fit. And before you insist you are not bored in your marriage, let me just say that every marriage and every relationship has empty spaces. If a relationship really did complete us, we might as well just turn our wedding ceremony into a double suicide -- because without dissatisfaction, what would there be left to live for? What's the point of any of it without something unattainable to strive towards?
I am going to give you the same advice the adventurer Richard Francis Burton gave his friend: "The fact is you are breaking down with regular habits. You want a little gipsying." Because when we sense a gap in our lives, we often times see it as the shape of something convenient or on hand -- a lover, money, that rug that really ties the place together. It is not a new rug you need, or a new lover. I think what you really need is a little gipsying. I think you need a little Pippi Longstocking.
Because Pippi is not in any doubt about who she is or what her motivations are. She wants, she takes. But while still remaining loyal to her father, to her friends (um, that would be a monkey and a horse, but whatever). She has the strength of character that doesn't need to willfully hurt others, unless she's doling out a little karmic retaliation. And when she's bored, or when her dear father is in distress, she goes to sea.
Your own Pippi adventure doesn't have to be a journey to the South Seas, but maybe that would be good for you. And you should find your own adventure, because that would be a first step in admitting there is a gap there, there is some need that your husband is not filling. And it takes enormous strength and trust as a couple to hold that space open and admit to each other there are needs you cannot satisfy with (or even in) each other's presence. There are adventures one must go on alone. Your pet monkey gets a free pass, of course.
But most of all, you need to follow Pippi Longstocking in her knowledge of who she is. If you are going to cheat, then cheat. But do it with a little dignity and self-awareness, of who as a person that action makes you. Also, you have to be aware of what the consequences of this action can be, and not just your own personal ramifications. This is a question of desire, but it doesn't sound like it's a desire to possess this person, or even a desire to ask your husband for a little sexual openness. It's uncharted territory, it's the forbidden, that are calling to you. There are ways to satisfy that without pushing your loved ones into heavy traffic. Pippi knows how to name what she wants. Your best bet is to follow her lead.
Submit your own questions for the Bibliomancer column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 11, 2013
“Bess,” leads off the issue, with its footnotes and its layering of voices, and the other comes near the end. “Bess” sets the tone with its marriage of formal ambition and social concern. I’m hesitant to call the piece “innovative,” a word that can easily be cheapened—what is important here is how Gottlieb bends the form to express her narrator’s difficult position stuck between official duties and personal compassion, between being a part of the social services system and despairing at the possibility of any meaningful services being given.
The reviewer calls us cosmopolitan and a little closed off. ("What I take the Ballets Russes to represent in this context is not a broad, all-inclusive generalism but a curated cosmopolitanism. Spolia is currently not accepting unsolicited submissions, which means it is operating a little like Diaghilev’s company: you might get invited to participate if you have already published some work that catches an editor’s eye.") So at least she gets what we are trying to do.
Image by Umberto Veruda
I've read a couple pieces about the state of women's fiction lately. Nothing revelatory -- it is the same stuff about their books not getting enough respect or review attention or whatever. And that work, I think, has to be done (or maybe it is off-putting and scolding and doesn't actually engage the mind of the male critic because by the time you're done with your second sentence he is off refilling his scotch and thinking dark thoughts about menstrual cycles and their attachment to the emotional expression of the female human), but I don't want to read it anymore. I mean, I read that totally depressing Dwight Garner review of the Edna O'Brien memoir (which is great), and he praised her for all of her groundbreaking, scandalous work that she did, and it is very clear to anyone who reads Garner's (or, god, Ron Charles's) reviews that the only time they can recognize groundbreaking work by women is when it was all done 40 years ago and that ground that Edna O'Brien broke and was ostracized and shamed and critically destroyed for doing by critics a lot like Garner has now been rebuilt with memoirs by 20-somethings confessing their sexual urges and thinking that makes them really edgy.
God, I got off track, what the fuck was it I wanted to talk about? "It’s as if our citizenry is so overburdened with debt, war, and weather-related disasters that it prefers its pop culture to be delivered in easy bites that indulge our nostalgia and don’t require us to think." Right. M Magazine has a great piece about how so many of our male singers and artists and so on are stuck in perpetual boyhood. I'm tired of these "what is the state of women's writing?" pieces. When are we going to get at the real story: Where are the men of American novelists?
I don't mean the decrepit old men like Philip Roth who still has his hands down his pants even after all of these years. I mean the male writers my age, who still seem stuck in adolescence. Writing boyish books about boyish things, who can't seem to engage with the darkness of these Times We Live In, who still get all ewww and gross when it comes to women, who are totally showy instead of emotional or knowledgeable. I am aware I am speaking in generalities here. But I see more sophistication, and more worldliness, in the writing of women (also a lot of drippy bullshit about feelings and love and dreams and how expectations don't match up with reality wah-fests, but let's focus on the high end here) than I do in American men. When it's not boyishness, it's that Hemingway-infected strain of bombast, somehow without noticing that it was all a pose. Not even Hemingway was Hemingway.
I don't see many male writers engaging with the changing forms of masculinity, or offering challenges. There are exceptions. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's The End of San Francisco is devastating on that level. Sycamore: "How can we remain accountable while assimilating into male privilege? And this would challenge my own assumptions about masculinity as something to be avoided: what would it mean to create a masculinity that was chosen, negotiated, and transformed?" The man with whom I am in love writes beautiful books about what seem to be boyish things, but are really about rewriting the expectations of adulthood, particularly male adulthood. But most of what comes across my doorstep is dreck. I just fling them over my shoulder now, with only the quickest of glances.
I would really like to publish an issue of Spolia with the theme of The Man. God, I should really do that, and tell my editors. Because I want the Man, particularly the American Man, to rewrite itself. Not just dress itself up in its grandfather's suits and swagger around.
June 10, 2013
Irish author Kevin Barry has won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his wonderfully rowdy novel City of Bohane.
There's a great recent interview with Barry over at Omnivoracious:
Who did you write this book for?
For people who look around the bookstore sometimes and think--now how am I going to find a truly lurid good time in here? What I wanted to make was a really serious piece of literature, and an extravagant language experiment, but one that would also be a grand, high-octane, visceral entertainment. So I wrote it in technicolour, essentially.
Over at Spolia, for the rest of the month, we'll be offering book recommendations for your new Black Magic library. (Saturn is in Scorpio, so you know you want to build this library.)
First up is Algernon Blackwood, member of the Golden Dawn and writer of some of the creepiest stories ever. You are best off downloading his books from Gutenberg for free, as, in general, horror writers and ghost story writers from old are either treasured in fetished-up limited editions or they are distributed with covers that look like your mom just discovered clip art and threw something together with Print Shop. I don't know why this is, but this is the truth.
(Although this looks pretty good, if you are a physical object kind of person, like I am.)
June 07, 2013
Let's talk about copyright, shall we?
Because I read this article a while ago, and it was unbearably depressing. And I can barely get through a comic book movie these days without vomiting anyway (Did you see The Avengers? And get through the whole thing without wanting to tear your own eyes out? Who are you, anyway, it's like I don't even know you anymore.) without factoring in who is getting rich from the audience's contributions and who is dying penniless and without even an authorship credit.
In 1940, the Saturday Evening Post reported that while the still new Superman was making millions, his creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, were paid just $130 for Superman himself, and $210 per issue thereafter (the original cheque itself sold for $160,000 last year). The pair sued National Allied Publications (the predecessor of DC Comics) for ownership of Superman and Superboy, who was obviously a spin-off of their own character, but both were paid to drop all subsequent claims and their bylines were removed. In 1973 Siegel and Shuster again took up their case to claim ownership of Superman, and the battle rages to this day.
Both men died without ever reclaiming their creation, while DC continues to make millions from the superhero’s image. It was only in 1975, when Superman first hit the cinema screen, that a public outcry began. Joe Shuster was then blind, living in a shabby apartment and dependent on his brother; Jerry Siegel was recovering from a heart attack and working in a mail room. Their medical bills had driven them further into destitution. The pair, living in complete poverty despite several previous lawsuit payments, were awarded a small pension and health care from their previous employers. Their credit line on each appearance of Superman was restored, but any ownership of the hero was still denied.
And of course, Siegel and Shuster were hardly alone in their making comic book publishers and movie studios billions of dollars while they themselves slipped into poverty. And just read any interview with Alan Moore that has been published in the last 10 years if you think those fuckers have gotten any more civilized.
But perhaps the best response is to pretend that Rufus Wainwright's song "Release the Stars" is actually directed towards comic book publishers.
June 06, 2013
Book of the Week: The Glory of Byzantium and Early Christendom by Antony Eastmond
Antony Eastmond's The Glory of Byzantium is a monster of a book, heavy and weighted and gilded, part blunt weapon and part sacred icon. Eastmond gives a smart but never too academic tour of Byzantium paintings, icons, sculpture, relics, and architecture, leaving the book heavy on the beautiful images and light on the technical details. It serves as an introduction to the glorious world of Medieval art, and focuses on regions that tend to be neglected in discussions of Medieval art, like Georgia, Turkey, and Egypt.
He also gives a more fuller view of what the Medieval world was like, expanding from the traditional religious imagery and bringing in their scientific interest and work, and the secular art from the time period as well. I spoke with Eastmond on the phone about the book, and why there seems to be a resurgence in interest about the era.
It seems like there has been a great deal more interest in Medieval art lately. I've seen many more general interest titles on the subject, non-academic scholarly titles. Is that something you've seen as well?
I think you're right, I think there has been more interest, particularly in Byzantium, the sort of Eastern Mediterranean. I think it's largely due to the fact that in the last 15 - 20 years there's been a series of new exhibitions about the art. It's an area where people are still discovering new things. It's new harder and harder to find new things about Picasso or Monet or something, but you find places like St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt. No one knew about that collection of icons 50 years ago. Twenty years ago is the first time they allowed them out of the monastery to travel. People were so wowed by them.
And one thing I've found an interesting parallel, you talk about the use of icons and the controversy against icons, and that is something that still seems to come up, in the Islamic world and with the destruction of other religious iconography like the Buddhas in Afghanistan. Were you conscious of that as you were writing the book?
It's something that you're always aware of, as it goes back a thousand years. In some ways, the situation in England with the iconoclasm here in the 16th century has a kind of parallel, because actually the destruction of images in this country did a lot to formulate the way the country is now, in that it has a greater interest in literature than in art. So there's a positive side to iconoclasm that we are all reluctant to acknowledge. No one wants to... and I don't either, don't get me wrong. You don't want to promote what the Taliban did. But there's a way of understanding it. And when you look back at the Byzantium world and the debates they had and how long it went on for, you really appreciate just how important it is to think really is for a people to destroy pictures.
And is the argument basically the same, as it was back in Byzantium, against the use of images?
Yes, the argument never really changes. It's about what it is you think you're worshipping in the end. Whether you think you're worshipping a god or a bit of stone or a bit of wood covered in plaster and paint. And where the Byzantines solved the problem was by saying you never were just worshipping a bit of wood, which would be idolatry, the fact that that painting became a window onto another world, the fineness of that definition is what really matters. Whether you're prepared to accept what they say is really the way it works. Clearly, if you're Orthodox you are. For other religious groups, it's much harder to accept. In Islam in particular, they've never accepted that. Or in Protestant countries, although that has all changed now.
Whenever I talk to Medieval art scholars and for some reason I talk to a lot of them, there's always one region that really sets them on fire, whether that be the Russians or the Greeks or the Germans. So what is your particular fetish?
Mine is Georgia, in the Caucasus. That was the first region that I started studying for my Ph.D. in the '90s, so kind of the remotest corner of the Medieval Christian world, mostly surrounded by mountains or Muslims on one side or the other. It's a precarious history they've had, and yet when you go there, they've got all these churches and they've got icons and paintings that go back to the 4th, 5th century AD. You know what Northern Europe was like in that period and then you go and see these huge, really well built stone churches in stunning locations, with snow-capped mountains behind. It's really spectacular. That's what caught my imagination, it was largely through these buildings that Christianity has managed to survive in these regions. I think that's an impressive thing, why should art have that power to keep a country together despite everything that it's faced.
What took you to that region in the first place?
A real mixture of serendipity and doing a lot of research to find out what there was in the world. There were these churches in what was the Soviet Union still, and hadn't been studied much outside the country. And then you get there and discover how good the food is, it gets even better.
You give a good amount of attention in the book to the scientific and secular art that was going on at the time. We still have this idea that the Medieval age was ignorance and nonstop superstition. Is that difficult to counter? And how do you see the mix of science and religion of that age?
The trouble is that what survives are churches. Things that aren't, don't. It's that one aspect of the Byzantine life that kept going. Everything else, particularly in Greece and what's now Turkey, the secular side of life is what was taken over by the Islamic empire. So you look at the science and the amount of astronomy they were doing. We only know about Euclid and all these aspects of ancient science because they were still interested in it in the Medieval period. The ancient texts still survive because they were interested in the Medieval world. It's a huge error. In some ways, it's not so different from today. Why are people so interested in astronomy? It's about plotting the stars and that fits into astrology and horoscopes. You look at any paper and you've got exactly the same. We like to think that we're much more rational, but you just think back to Ronald Reagan and everything being plotted by his astrologer, telling him when to do certain things. It's not that different today.
June 04, 2013
Image: The Chase by Lauren Archer
Let's do a little housekeeping, shall we?
We have two wonderful things for you to read. One would be the new issue of Bookslut. I feel a little bad that we have been featuring so few male authors. And by feeling bad I mean when I do up the tally each month and see it's another gyno-centric features section, I think, "oh," and then forget about it for another month. But I swear to you, men, that that "oh" is weighted and fraught and rolls down the mountain with its heavy regrets.
The other wonderful thing is the Black Magic issue of Spolia is now up and available for download. In this month's issue we have Megan Abbott writing about witchcraft; the work of Hilma af Klint, mystic painter and seance enthusiast; Mia Gallagher (tremendous Irish writer, I can't wait for the US to discover her) giving us a ghost tale; and Upendranath Ashk writing about the darkest and most frightening topic of all: the mother complex. We're proud as fuck, and we hope you like it.
And my next stop in the travel for the book is St. Petersburg, Russia. If anyone there reads this blog and wants to grab a drink, or could answer a few questions I have in advance, get in touch?
Also, can I just restate how good of a book Rollo May's The Meaning of Anxiety is? I haven't stopped thinking about it since I finished reading it. Everyone should have this fucking thing.
June 03, 2013
Enjoy the florid descriptions of the longlisted titles in the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books official press release:
The Women's Prize for Fiction now has a new sponsor: Baileys Irish Cream Liqueur. Your correspondent goes through a minimum of three bottles of the stuff every Christmas which makes it just as literary as Hemingway's daiquiris or the vile Pink Lady cocktails Zelda and what's his chops Fitzgerald used to drink.
May 30, 2013
Image: Franz von Stuck's Circe
Let's check in with Bookslut's sister magazine Spolia, shall we?
On June 3rd, we are releasing our second issue, with the theme of Black Magic. (If you have not yet read issue one, with Daphne Gottlieb, Mikhail Shishkin, Olivia Cronk, and other brilliant writers, now is your chance.) I will say two things about this issue:
The witchy Megan Abbott is involved.
An Irish novelist and playwright who should be just enormously huge (and will be, I am sure, based on the excerpt from novel number two we have read) but who has not been published in the US before is also involved.
And we are running a special for the Black Magic issue:
I’ve been using astrology and tarot to help work out creative blocks in both my own work and for my friends. I mix in storytelling and myths in my readings, as well as history and art, to help you understand what your strengths are, how you manage your energy, and how to retool your thinking on a project to bring it into alignment with your abilities and interests. I’ll show you how to rediscover your passion.
And with each reading, you’ll get a free copy of the Black Magic issue. If you’ve already ordered your copy of the issue, let me know and we’ll deduct the price from your reading.
Your two options:
An astrological reading to uncover your particular strengths as a writer or other artist, the areas of interest you should be focusing on, and all the little hidden weapons you have in your arsenal that you didn’t know about. Mixed with a special tarot reading to help you find the direction things are going in, where the trouble lies, and what tools may be used to get things working smoothly again.
One hour Skype session: $75, which includes consultation, discussion, a personal report, a copy of our Black Magic issue, and a recommended reading list
Have a question that is not about your work? Choose between an astrological reading or a tarot card reading, on a specific subject. (Love, money, what have you.) Can be done either over Skype or simply typed up in a report over email, depending on your preference.
40 minute Skype session: $50, which includes consultation, discussion, a personal report, a copy of our Black Magic issue, and a recommended reading list
Send an email to email@example.com with your preferred reading and to check availability and for payment instructions.
As a writer, I find that tarot/astro readings by non-artists/writers/creatives is wildly unsatisfying for help on projects. Developing my own technique has been been very illuminating, and I'd like to help others as well. Thank you for your continued support, and I hope we get to chat soon.
May 29, 2013
Image: Eric De Volder
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 started seeing D. about four months ago. Everything is still new, but I've been really happy with him. I've never really been into someone as much as I'm into D. There's only one problem, and that problem is his ex-girlfriend. She calls him needing things. She is depressed, and needs to talk, or needs him to come over, or whatever. He always goes, because he says she is really fragile and he doesn't want to hurt her.
I don't think he's sleeping with her. Maybe I should be worried about that, but I don't think that is what is happening. I know how he feels about me. But I am worried about him, because I think she is using him. She only started calling when he and I started to get serious. I have tried to talk to D. about this, but he won't listen. But I'm also upset because a couple times he actually canceled on me because she called and he had to sit there and talk to her for hours, and when I get angry he tells me I am being selfish. I don't think I'm being selfish! I think she is trying to break us up, and I don't know what to do.
It is amazing, isn't it, how some illnesses and emotional collapses seem to happen perfectly timed? I am thinking of the women who went into hysterical fits in French hospitals, on cue for the male audience of doctors and spectators. And I'm also thinking of that other favorite hysteric of mine, Alice James. And there is no better biography of her than Jean Strouse's.
Alice James and her brother William had a weird little incestuous flirtation. I mean, we can't blame them, because absolutely no one got out of that family without some hideous sexual distortion. It was part because of the 19th century of repression and guilt, and part having incredibly fucked up parents. Either way, William, hopeless with girls, flirted with his younger sister Alice, sending her love letters and so on, and she was particularly receptive.
The problem came, then, when William grew up and decided to marry a non-blood relative. Alice had always been "fragile," to borrow your word. Sickly, taking to her bed with one complaint or another, diagnosed with all sorts of things, but what it really came down to was this was the best way she had found to get attention. The only girl in a house full of men, no one really paid her any mind when she was trying to intellectually joust with her genius brothers Henry and William James, and she couldn't rough house with the rest of them. But getting ill, being babied and tended to, that worked, and because it worked, it set up a cycle of constant collapse. And she used it like a weapon.
During William's courtship, Alice got sicker and sicker, most likely trying to derail the relationship and draw him to her. On the day of William's wedding -- to a woman also named Alice, who knows what was going on there -- Alice the sister pitched the fit of her life and refused to attend. One last stand, maybe? Hoping he would see how he was killing her and he would rush to her side? The ploy failed, and William did what he should have, which was ignore it, and marry the woman he loved.
We are not supposed to use the word "hysteric" anymore, but they still exist, and it sounds like you have one on your hands. I mean, if it makes people feel better, we can call them "manipulative little bitches," but probably that is not fashionable either. She is falling ill on command, in order to get what she wants, which is your boyfriend's attention.
Now, we all do this to some extent, here and there. We flash our vulnerabilities, we say, "Look at how much I have already been hurt," in an effort to keep someone from hurting us more. From turning us down, from rejecting us. There is a huge difference between sharing a painful past as a way of closing the gap between you and someone else, and wearing all of your insides on your outside as a means to control other people's responses to you. It's manipulative as all hell, and it's an unfair thing to do to someone. We should apologize when we catch ourselves doing it. But if it works, and it works repeatedly, then it becomes a habit for some people. And if nothing else seems to work -- not strength, not honesty, not independence -- then they will use what works. D. and this ex already broke up once, so obviously their tie on the other levels that keeps a relationship going was not strong. But this works for her. So she'll keep doing it, until it stops working.
Now. As for what you can do. Absolutely nothing. She's already firmly established herself as prey, in an adorable, harmless little bunny nursing a hurt paw kind of way. You can't go after her in a "Listen, bitch, I am onto you" kind of way. The only role left in this dynamic is that of the wolf, and he will judge you for taking it on and end up trying to protect her from you. And you also can't play the hysteric yourself, and try to compete with her with your need for him, because then you become the type of person who does idiot things like threaten suicide to keep your boyfriend from leaving you, and deploying emotional blackmail to make things go your way. You do not want to reward that side of yourself.
The only route left for you is to be the other Alice, the Mrs. William James. A pillar of strength and sanity. Of independence and self-reliance. Maintain your dignity. No matter what your needs are, you have to tuck them in for the duration and let him figure out what's going on. Some men (and some women) like rescuing others. It makes them feel like the knight -- and why not? it's a dashing role to play, with so many good outfits -- and so they choose not to see the manipulation and the deceit. They will continue to choose not to see it, even if you point it out to them, so you have to stop doing that, too. For most, knighthood gets boring and tedious after a while, forever needing to pick someone off of the floor. And you don't want to be in a relationship -- no matter how into him you are -- with someone who needs to be the rescuing knight. That guy only shows up for the battle, for the grand rescue, not for the playful delight that is the best part of a relationship.
So read about Alice James, because it's always good to have the scope of your enemy's arsenal, and also because by understanding her a bit better, why she is doing this, how she got this way, you can find a little compassion for her. Because you are the strong one here, or you should aspire to be so, and you will ultimately win out. Maybe not with this specific relationship, but an invalid's life only goes so far. And for you, walking upright as you are, the horizon stretches on forever.
Submit your own questions for the Bibliomancer column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 26, 2013
Image: PJ Harvey's Send His Love to Me single
"Waiting, like concealed internal bleeding, gradually brings about a kind of anemia, a completely tangible loss of strength. And in the hospital I felt for the first time how this concentration -- here he comes, in a minute he'll come, in a minute he'll be standing in the door -- slides me into a tearful impotence. I should have hated the person who made me feel like this, not because he was to blame, but simply because of the feeling itself and because of survival instinct. But my survival instinct didn't work, not in the hospital and not later on. And the secret expectation became a part of my being. Like a chronic pain that awakens with changes in the weather. I have no idea what failing causes it, but for the most part I think that this failing is not in me and my mind, but in the nature of love."
May 24, 2013
Image: From "The Audit is Done" by Janos Kass
I am in Budapest, because West Ireland was getting to me. The rain, the wind, the cold, the sweaters and the reading and the seaside and the tea and the whiskey sometimes in the tea... It was like the outward manifestation of my inner mood to the point where I was about two days away from filling my sweater pockets with stones and throwing myself into the sea. So, Budapest as antidote to West Ireland: heat, art nouveau, dramatic dresses, opera, and a totally unappealing (in the sense of diving in) river. Budapest over West Ireland.
(It is still remarkable to me that a change of location brings such a noticeable change in self. Perhaps I am too easily soluble, bits of me start dissolving in the atmosphere of wherever I am. But in Budapest I feel like myself. A friend I had lunch with here told me today, "You need to marry a Hungarian and stay here forever." I am now taking applicants.)
But here is the problem: I was going on to some friends about Hungarian literature, and there was no spark of recognition. Two people (two!) referenced Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, but I think they were confusing Odessa with Budapest. And any way, you shouldn't think of Jonathan Safran Foer in reference to anything Central European ever ever, because he is a spoiled American white dude. And he stole all of his tricks (and then turned them into sentimental nonsense) from the Central European writers who are better than he will ever be.
So. A few recommendations of my favorite Hungarians:
Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
Although I recommend this wholeheartedly, I get some angry emails from friends I've forced it upon about halfway through. Because if it ends badly, they tell me, they will never fucking recover from the experience. I won't say, but I've still not recovered from this book, in a very nice kind of way.
My Happy Days in Hell by György Faludy
More for the first half about the encroaching sense of doom in pre-war Hungary, but also for the glory that was pre-war Budapest, and how that got lost.
Everyone loves Satantango, but I found its unrelenting grimness too much to push through, and I never finished it.
Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy
This book is fucking dark and sexy. That is all I will say about it.
Now if you will excuse me, I am on a mission to put as much goulash into my body as my body will allow. I am pretty sure I can do much better at this than I have so far.
May 23, 2013
Image: Karl Mannheim by Ludilo Zezanje
I have been reading the Gawker Unemployment Stories, and my heart breaks every time. People telling their stories of despair and anxiety, the instability of trying to find regular employment in today's environment. But what struck me were the comments, and how people find comfort in other people's experiences, because they know it's not them, it's the whole fucked up, crumbling system. As Karl Mannheim wrote, "It is important to remember that our society is faced, not with brief unrest, but with a radical change of structure."
For man, however, the catastrophe [of unemployment] lies not merely in the disappearance of external opportunities for work but also in the fact that his elaborate emotional system, intricately connected as it is with the smooth working of social institutions, now loses its object-fixation. The aims towards which almost all his strivings are directed suddenly disappear, and, not merely does he now lack a place to work, a daily task, and an opportunity for using the integrated labor attitudes formed through long training, but his habitual desires and impulses remain ungratified. Even if the immediate needs of life are satisfied, by means of unemployment relief, the whole life-organization and the family hopes and expectations are annihilated.
The panic reaches its height when the individual comes to realize that his insecurity is not simply a personal one, but is common to masses of his fellows, and it becomes clear to him that there is no longer any social authority to set unquestioned standards and determine his behavior. Herein lies the difference between individual unemployment and general insecurity.
Because while there's the relief of knowing it's not a personal defect that has caused your individual situation, there's the anxiety of realizing that this is not going away any time soon. And it won't be fixed, only temporarily relieved, with a new job. This is a time of "radical change of structure," and it's everyone's duty to figure out how to fix our broken economy and how we work and why, and what the definition of success is. There is no clinging to old paradigms when it's the entire floor that is giving way.
May 21, 2013
Image: Vampire by Edvard Munch
Here is how I know that all of the writers of the world have run out of ideas: Vampires in High School. In this marvelously fucked up age that we live in, we've apparently all collectively decided that the story we want to tell each other, and the story we want to hear, is how if we were granted eternal life in the body of a hot 16 year old, we would probably spend that eternal life in high school. Listening to inadequate and confusing versions of what World War I was all about. Showering with other 16 year olds after gym class or football practice. Facing lunchroom seating dilemmas. That is what we have decided we would spend hundreds of years doing.
Right after I read a horrible short story about a vampire in high school, I went and saw the new Neil Jordan film, about a vampire who goes to high school. I kind of yelled at my film-going companion for a while, about how we all, excitingly and terrifyingly enough, get to decide, the first generation ever, with some limitations of course, what we want to do, where we want to do it, and for how long. And our writers are responding to that by putting supernatural creatures, always the exciting deviants and margin-dwellers, into that symbol of neverending conformity, fucking high school.
Jesus Christ, people.
"is a mind-cracker. It's basically the diary of a bisexual, rebellious, punk-rock aesthetic teenage girl -- written in Butte, Montana in 1902. Truly, a time-displaced rarity in a cold, cruel landscape. Required reading."
May 20, 2013
Image: George Barbier's Designs on the Dances of Vaslav Nijinsky, proving I am not the only one obsessed with one particular region of his body
This week's Book of the Week is going on at our sister magazine Spolia, because I chose Lucy Moore's biography Nijinsky. Today there is an excerpt, and later in the week there'll be a Q&A with Moore. (Yes, I asked her to comment on Nijinsky's thighs. I am not generally that interested in that part of the male anatomy, but Jesus Christ. Disappointingly, "Thighs, Nijinsky's" is not an entry in the index, or I could type up the references contained within Moore's book.)
From Lucy Moore's biography, a section on the debut of Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, with Nijinsky in the title role:
As ever with one of Diaghilev’s premieres, the first night, in Paris in June 1911, was plagued by hitches... On the night itself, a befeathered and bejewelled Misia Sert was sitting in her box, waiting for the ritual three knocks of the call boy that signaled the curtain was about to rise, when Diaghilev burst through the door, drenched in sweat and with his coat-tails flying out behind him. “The costumier refuses to leave with clothes without being paid. It’s ghastly. He says he won’t be duped again and he’ll take all the stuff away if he isn’t paid at once!” Sert raced downstairs, ordered her driver to go home and collect the requisite 4,000 francs, and “the show went on, impeccable and glamorous.”
Read the rest of the excerpt here.
May 16, 2013
Many days I just delete whatever does not look vaguely personal in my inbox. I don't read press releases, because I am sure that is the secret to a long and healthy life. Today I don't know why I stopped on this:
"I thought you would be interested to learn about a new study that finds a link between what a woman is reading while she is traveling and her willingness to indulge in a casual hookup."
Amazing! And scientific, I'm sure. I am sure they didn't just ask five women in an airport what they were reading and whether they put out, until they were escorted away by security/laid low with pepper spray in the face.
It is best not to linger on the fact that someone wrote this email. They typed it up and they pressed send and they did not immediately suffer a psychotic break from the experience. Nor the fact that there is an entire website devoted to churning out content like this. I would tell you what the website is, but then I would die.
Related: I am currently traveling in the west of Ireland, and occasionally reading The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves at the bar. There is no survey that will tell you the odds of your chances with me right now. So just try to pick me up. I fucking dare you.
May 15, 2013
Howard Jacobson's Zoo Time has won the 2013 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. It's his second win, the first being for 2000's The Mighty Waltzer.
As part of his Wodehouse Prize a Gloucestershire Old Spot pig will be named after Zoo Time.
"To win it twice is very heaven. I am only sorry my pig has to be called Zoo Time. It feels a bit tactless. But it could have been worse. It could have been Bring Up The Bodies."
Could have been Inferno, mate.
The Man Booker International Prize is the sexy foreign version of the annual UK/Commonwealth/Zimbabwe fiction bunfight. It totally smokes clove cigarettes and wears berets and could steal your boyfriend, if it could be bothered.
The Guardian has interviewed the ten finalists for the lifetime acheivement award, and the resulting profiles are charming, even if most of them seem allergic to smiling (not the lovely U R Ananthamurthy and Josip Novakovich though.)
Breaking news from t'twitter - the 2013 Orwell Prize has gone to A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa by A. T. Williams. Previously, the Telegraph reported that the prize committee has sent copies of all the shortlisted books to UK political party leaders/tragicomic reptiles David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband:
The three leaders may well bristle as they open up their copy of AT Williams's A Very British Killing, a forensic and shocking reconstruction of the death of Iraqi hotel receptionist, Baha Mousa, at the hands of the British army. Williams's meticulous analysis of the army figures involves, and the court martial in its aftermath, calls into question the ethics of British military practise in Iraq.
Things I will not be doing include linking to any of the Dan Brown nonsense. Yes. He is a terrible writer, congratulations for noticing. And your opinions on the matter are totally important and original, thank you for sharing them. Please fuck off now.
Also, not linking to a takedown of Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, because despite hating, really hating to the point of dark pleasure, her last novel The Emperor's Children, I do not have time to waste thinking about a novel that thinks being a 42 year old single woman is the worst thing that has ever happened ever, oh my god.
Why write this review? Why not just cut bait after fifty pages of overwritten banality and move on to something else? Because it was published. Because in spite of its ludicrous prose, milquetoast hero, and weak ending, The Gods of Gotham is the very sort of book that the industry craves: unchallenging, controversy-dodging, action-packed, with a love story as innovative as Microsoft Word Art and a hero with a high Q factor. And in this, it represents all of the pressures and temptations that come to bear on the novelist (note I do not say the "modern" novelist -- it has ever been thus and always will be), and for that reason alone, it bears calling out. Because this is what happens when writers give in.
Also, not that it even needs to be done anymore, here is an anti-Alain de Botton piece. (Alain de Botton! The intellectual (kinda) Dan Brown, as far as inspiring hit pieces goes.)
Let's balance this out with a little unbridled enthusiasm, yes? Verbunkos has one of the best things I've read about Claudio Magris's new novel Blindly: "Blindly remains, at bottom, a symbol of how an individual is integrated into history." Blindly is brilliant, although I love his nonfiction travelogue through Central Europe Danube more.
Another focus of my undying love and admiration is for Angela Bourke's The Burning of Bridget Cleary. She has an essay at the Dublin Review about trying to get rid of an old refrigerator. Except that it is, of course, about everything else in the whole world.
May 14, 2013
Image: One of Nabokov's butterflies
"All art is quite useless," Oscar Wilde wrote in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. That's also an attitude associated with Vladimir Nabokov, whom more overtly political Russian writers criticized for focusing on wordplay and stylistic flourishes. But Andrea Pitzer's The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, which gets a rave review from Mike Innocenzi in this month's issue of Bookslut, ousts Nabokov from the Lord Henry Wotton school of aesthetics.* Drawing on recently declassified Russian intelligence files, Pitzer finds instead that the writer was "folding the details of his life into the story in such a way that no one [but those close to him] would recognize them." In the wake of this book, as Innocenzi notes, major Nabokov works like Lolita and Pale Fire beg for a rereading.
*Nabokov probably wouldn't have minded this, actually; in a 1964 Playboy interview, he referred disparagingly to Wilde as a "dainty poet."
May 13, 2013
Image by Colette Calascione
"You see," said Lili, "there's no real experience to be gained by promiscuity. We're all called to understand ourselves, and to do this it's necessary that we should understand one another. Leaping from bed to bed one learns nothing of any depth."
"What have you learned, Lili?" asked my mother, at last sitting down with a cup of tea before her.
"You challenge me," said Lili. "What have I learned? What have I learned of myself from learning through Robert...?"
Her husband lowered his paper and regarded her over the top of it.
"I don't know," she admitted. "But I've learned something. Isn't it obvious that too many relationships will teach one nothing except that men are much alike?"
My mother sniffed. She had no very high opinion of men.
"So are women," said Robert, turning back to the paper.
Lili looked affronted. "I am quite unlike other women," she observed.
"Yes, you are," agreed her husband, and Lili smiled.
I thought that Robert loved her and wouldn't mind her having lovers if she always came back to him. I wondered how it was possible to love many men when you had once loved one more than your immortal soul, and whether Lili had ever loved like that, or whether this was a torment saved for ridiculous people like myself.
"What are you thinking about, Margaret?" asked Lili.
"I was thinking about what you were saying," I told her, while memories of Nour flooded my being so that I felt I couldn't bear it but must instantly take that gleaming knife and open my body to let him out.
I love The Summer House by Alice Thomas Ellis so intensely, it is difficult to keep myself from typing out the entire novel here.
May 12, 2013
Still reading Rollo May's The Meaning of Anxiety, and it is still the best thing I've read on the subject.
"There is anxiety in any actualizing of possibility. To Kierkegaard, the more possibility (creativity) an individual has, the more potential anxiety he has at the same time. Possibility ('I can') passes over into actuality, but the intermediate determinant is anxiety. 'Possibility means I can. In a logical system it is convenient enough to say that possibility passes over into actuality. In reality it is not so easy, and an intermediate determinant is necessary. This intermediate determinant is anxiety.'"
His section on all that we do to avoid these feelings of anxiety/potential -- conforming to social or subculture norms to keep ourselves from having to make any real decisions, allowing stasis to take over and remaining in bad situations because at least they are familiar -- is quite good. It reminds me of a small passage from Claudio Magris's Microcosms:
"For some time you've done nothing but close doors, it's become a habit; for a while you hold your breath, but then anxiety grabs your heart again and the instinct is to bolt everything, even the windows, without realizing that this way there's no air and as you suffocate, the migraine batters your temples; eventually all you hear is the sound of your own headache."
May 10, 2013
Things to do before reading Sjón, the Icelandic author whose American debut Sessily Watt reviews in the May issue of Bookslut:
1) Know how to pronounce his name. It's "SHE-own," short for Sigurjón B. Sigurdsson.
2) Listen to his collaborations with Björk, a longtime friend. (Sidenote: If there's an Icelandic version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, it must be the shortest game ever.) Sjón wrote the lyrics to several songs on her 2011 album Biophilia, including "Virus" and "Solstice."
3) If you're feeling ambitious, look up the Eddas, two collections of Norse legends compiled in the thirteenth century by Icelandic historians. Watt notes the strong mythological undercurrent in Sjón's writing; the Eddas are where Icelandic mythology begins.
May 08, 2013
The ladies of Middletown
Fell down a rabbit hole today, reading Rollo May's The Meaning of Anxiety. May is one of my favorites, his Man's Search for Himself is essential, particularly for those who want to puke when they try to read psychological writing today and it all sounds like fucking self-help.
Anyway, in the beginning chapters of The Meaning of Anxiety he talks about the Middletown anxiety studies. These originally took place in the '20s and '30s, but they seem particularly relevant today. May writes:
The citizens of Middletown, [the Lyndals] write, "is caught in a chaos of conflicting patterns, none of them wholly condemned, but no one of them clearly approved and free from confusion; or, where the group sanctions are clear in demanding a certain role of a man or a woman, the individual encounters cultural requirements with no immediate means of meeting them."
This "chaos of conflicting patterns" in Middletown was one expression of the pervasive social changes occurring in our culture... The Lynds observed that, since "most people are incapable of tolerating change and uncertainty in all sectors of life at once," the tendency in Middletown was toward a retrenchment into more rigid and conservative economic and social ideologies.
For me, it seems like this could be the basis of the weirdo "retrenchment" of gender roles in our contemporary society -- the pressure on marriage, the inflexibility of monogamy, the beatification (and simultaneous policing) of mothers... Right now with all of the news reports about how powerful men used the sexual revolution to become predators, raping young girls and women in the name of freedom, and how they're just now being held accountable (in a process that is looking more and more like a witchhunt, but we'll see how that progresses). It's like we all agree that the sexual revolution went all topsy turvy, and maybe we were best off in nuclear families after all.
Of course this comes out in other behavior as well -- gun culture, political inflexibility, etc, but the Middletown studies focus a lot on gender, so I'm thinking aloud about the gender aspect.
So the May reference led me to start reading whatever I could find online of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts, but I might have to buy a copy.
While we're on the subject, let's watch this video of Rollo May explaining what existential psychotherapy is, and why we need to think about anxiety outside of a medical model:
May 07, 2013
Dame Jacqueline Wilson voiced frustration at publishers' insistence that her books should appear in pink covers because they know it is likely to boost sales.
She said the practice was “pigeonholing” girls while also putting boys off reading her stories.
This is a recurring discussion. I remember talking to Joanna Kavenna ages ago about the cover for the hardback of her (totally great) novel Inglorious, which had a woman's feet in a strappy high heel -- one of the straps being broken, I guess as a clever metaphor for the protagonist's entire life falling apart.
The paperback remedied this by using stripy colors... which is the exact motif another publisher used to satisfy Meg Wolitzer with the release of The Interestings, who had been complaining about the unseriousness of women's novels' cover design. In her Bookslut interview this month, Wolitzer reports:
Women are the buyers of fiction in this country, and we know that. I know writers who aren't concerned with this issue, because they know that their audience is women, and women love their work, and they're happy with that, and that's fine. I generally have women at my readings and I love these readers. But you have to ask yourself, Why will women read books about male characters and female characters, and men, with rare exception, won't? And that bothers me. So if your book looks like a women's and girls' book, even if it has something really startling in it, it's hard to get men to read it. What I feel about this cover -- I don't feel like it's a masculine cover. I feel like books should just look like a box of chocolate. You really want to be in that world. That is the point of cover art. Do you want to dip into what that world is? Of course, you may be totally wrong about what that world turns out to be, but in this case, it's oblique. What they tried to be true to is a certain kind of non-gendered cover, and also the spirit of youth and the seventies.
So stripy colors are the new faceless woman standing in a field/by a lake/in the rain with a broken high heel? Dame Jacqueline Wilson should get on that.
May 06, 2013
The 11th anniversary issue of Bookslut is up, and it is true to its Taurean nature. All Venus-worshiping and dirty.
So I guess that makes Spolia an Aries? Not entirely sure about that, although issue one has a Minotaur, some ethnic cleansing, and the aftermath of war. Whatever her sign, Spolia this week is "Pay What You Can," so you can name your own price. And we're running excerpts from five of our favorite stories on the blog. First up is Daphne Gottlieb's stunning "Bess."
Here is to birthdays and raised drinks and new beginnings. It's been a pleasure to get to do this for 11 years.
May 01, 2013
I have been traveling and dealing with things and writing a book and so certain things I miss, or I hear about them and immediately forget until someone with a glass of cheap wine in their hand expresses incredulity that I missed a certain piece of gossip or information.
(But is it glorious being out of the loop, not having to worry about things like who the new editor of Whatever the Fuck is or who wrote the not very intelligent or well written or well considered essay in the New York Times saying Chicago is a shit hole, or who is involved with who or who got a book deal for the latest How We Live Now remainder-bait? It is glorious. I don't know how you writers in New York and London do it, just knowing all of these things and having thoughts and feelings about it.)
So breaking news to people like me who are weary with jet lag and rarely get the opportunity to step into English language bookstores anymore: The New York Times Book Review has a new editor. The old editor I was once on a panel with, and the less said about that the better because my jaw starts to get really tight and then I have a bad back for three days. So whoop de dah, who gives a fuck about him. But Michael Wolff introduces us to his replacement:
Paul has, pretty much, no writerly or literary credentials. She's written some straightforward, but non-literary nonfiction – a book about marriage, a book about parenting, and a book condemning pornography – and she's been the children's book editor at the Book Review for a short time. Her resume includes two years as a blogger at the Huffington Post, which, it doesn't seem entirely churlish to point out, is not a job, and a stint writing a column for the Times' Style section.
Anyway, it's a perfectly reasonable but not distinguished freelance journalism career. So why a major post in the world of literary journalism?
The book condemning pornography is my favorite bio tidbit. Because either a) she really thinks pornography is hurting society or b) she wrote it for the advance money, maybe knowing it was going to be remaindered in about six weeks. Either way, it doesn't exactly show a growling intellect or a dedication to great art.
But probably you already knew this, and have been blogging tweeting, gossiping, complaining about it endlessly (or you have known for years that the NYTBR is a powerless figurehead who hasn't quite gotten the message that no one is following out his orders and so don't really care). I'm going to go attack my whiskey stash and see if I can't forget that I ever knew this information.
April 29, 2013
I don't know if you heard, but apparently the number of female writers has become so scarce that there just isn't the supply to meet the demand anymore. No one is quite sure what did it -- overfishing? pesticide use? some yet to be discovered virus? -- but you can see the results in the April 29, 2013 issue of the New Yorker.
Although maybe it's not as dire as all that, because, somehow, and I'm not entirely sure how I did it, out of the twelve contributors to the debut issue of Bookslut's new sister literary publication Spolia, I managed to find six women. Seven if you count the interview subject.
I guess the most surprising part of this experience was that I was not immediately approached by editors of other major publications, demanding to know my secret source.
But anyway. One of the first writers I approached for the entire project was Daphne Gottlieb. I've been a fan of hers since her horror movie inspired poetry collection Final Girl. I asked her for a submission. Her short story "Bess" absolutely blew me away. I am thrilled that we had the chance to introduce it to the world. Recently I reclaimed my copy of Kissing Dead Girls from a friend who was "hanging onto it" for me. It had somehow gotten better with time:
Kali says, when I bring her a bottle of wine, What? You think you can get me drunk and take advantage of me? When I show up with fine Belgian chocolates, she accuses me of trying to kill her, since the chocolates have nuts. And, she sniffs, it's such a small box. I bring her daisies and she snorts that it figures I don't think enough of her to bring roses. When I bring her roses, she smiles. How beautiful, she says, these will look on your grave.
April 26, 2013
Brian Eno, nowhere near the time he was writing a book
Dmitry Samarov's blog post about musicians, actors or other artistic types who move eventually into painting, made me think of musicians, actors, painters and other artistic types who move into writing. Samarov himself is a trained painter who kind of fell into writing, and his book Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab came out two years ago.
"There are legendary types who dabble. But when Bob Dylan decides he’s a visual artist his efforts aren’t relegated to some dingy basement storage room, they grace the cover of art magazines and are given the museum treatment at blue chip art galleries. This has little to do with the actual artwork and everything to do with who the “artist” is."
Which is how actors get book deals for their god-awful novels. That is how Jewel published her poetry. (God, remember that whole thing happening? Remember there was even a satirical book of poetry published after that? I am so fucking old, you goddamn kids and your newfangled technology.) But there have been good forays into writing from other areas. A lot of the time it's just a good solid autobiography. Stravinsky wrote one. Isadora Duncan wrote one. Revolutionary/black magician Maud Gonne wrote one.
Although my favorite in that category is probably Brian Eno's A Year with Swollen Appendices, which is just a diary. And there's not a huge amount of context to the writing, he just swings from topic to topic, and I even read it before I was obsessed with his music. But there's something very amusing and inspiring just in watching him think. (Eno, of course, also creates visual art and helped make a really big clock once.)
But he still makes the music best. A song for bad days, for travel disorientation, and also sunny days in a city you love, in case you're in need:
April 25, 2013
Ernst Klimt, Pan tröstet Psyche, 1892
“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” - CS Lewis
The Spectator does not think Alister E. McGrath's C.S. Lewis: A Life -- Eccentric, Genius, Reluctant Prophet is very good, but that does not stop them from writing a sweet remembrance of the man.
"But the fact is, Lewis was a genius. I was never in any doubt about that. The first grown-up book I read voluntarily, when I was 14, was A Preface to Paradise Lost, in which Lewis tackled the hugely difficult subject of the English epic, and made it enchanting. When I arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford, aged 17, I was overwhelmed to find Lewis there, and friendly. We many times went the famous circuit of Addison’s Walk and Lewis’s obiter dicta remain with me for life. (‘Imagine if Wordsworth and Coleridge had gone to Oxford, not Cambridge: the whole of modern English literature would have been quite different.’)"
I however have always been most fond of Till We Have Faces, his retelling of the Psyche/Eros myth. It's a brilliant book. It's rare that a writer takes on a myth and really has much to add, except you know, that wicked witch was really just heartbroken or misunderstood, or, I don't know, Persephone wanted to go to the Underworld. (Yeah, no duh, that is kind of in the original.)
I wrote about Till We Have Faces in my literary advice column, which I prematurely announced was returning. Which is not to say that it isn't, because it is, it just had to be put on hold while we worked on Spolia. But my favorite thing about Lewis's book was that he changed the notion of the sister's betrayal in such an interesting way:
Because in the original story, the sisters are motivated by pure envy. They see their sister living in a lavish castle in the presence of a god, and they want to destroy it. It doesn't quite ring true, though, does it? I mean, sisters do sometimes envy and sabotage and undermine, but rarely so consciously. Rarely with such intent. In Lewis's telling, Orual, the sister, is the opposite of her sister. Psyche is beautiful and vulnerable. Orual is ugly and fierce. In stories like these, one compensates for a lack of beauty with wisdom or with strength. "If you are ugly enough, all men (unless they hate you deeply) soon give up thinking of you as a woman at all." That is both Orual's disadvantage and her advantage, and she becomes a great warrior. It's not envy that drives Orual. She has her own thing going on. The primary difference between Lewis's story and the older versions is that when Psyche invites her sister to Eros's home, Orual literally cannot see it. It looks like a barren wasteland to her. Psyche talking about her beautiful home, the cozy fire, the love of her husband looks like madness to Orual. She has nothing in her past to relate this to, so what her sister sees as bounty she sees as deprivation. She acts out of a protective instinct, even if it is terribly misguided.
Oh, it's one of those books you have to read.
April 24, 2013
In December of 1952 my first wife, Kirby, and I left Vienna to drive through the Russian sector of Austria into Yugoslavia. At the border crossing, on a two-lane macadam road with no other car in sight, we stopped to present documents that permitted us to enter Marshal Tito’s country. Walking back to our car afterward, we met a man heading in the opposite direction, toward Austria. He had emerged from a big black car, and he looked important, like a diplomat or a capo. Seeing the initials of national origin on our small Morris convertible, he addressed us in English. I held in my hand our confusing travel directions. We asked the man if Zagreb was straight ahead.
He shrugged, and told us, “There is only one road in Yugoslavia.”
That's from Donald Hall's wonderful story about driving across Yugoslavia in 1950. Can we demand more writing about Yugoslavia? There's a piece in the first issue of our new sister publication Spolia, Peter Vermeersch's account of being in Kosovo during the recent Albanian 100th anniversary of independence. There's Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which will make you want to go recreate her journey, but maybe you will hate her a little by the end of the book. (I did.) There is not enough of just being in Yugoslavia, too much about the break up of the Balkan states.
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is now six years old - damn, they grow up so fast! The process of translating the winning novels to English, and releasing them, is not so fast. But with any luck, we'll soon see more of the winning works on our shelves and/or fancy pants e-reader things. This year's prize went to journalist and author Saud Alsanousi for his novel The Bamboo Stick.
April 22, 2013
Salient biographical details of the singer-songwriter Judee Sill, who pops up in Mairead Case's essay about loss, growth, and art: Sill started robbing banks when she was 17, learned to play the organ in reform school, and battled heroin addiction for much of her life. She sang what she called "country-cult-baroque," with lyrics about crayon angels and enchanted sky machines. Case describes her as a "nerdy mystic;" if you're wondering what that sounds like, listen here:
Case also writes about Julian of Norwich, who could probably lay claim to the title of nerdy mystic too. Julian lived in the 14th century. Depending on whose account you believe, she was either a nun, a laywoman, or an anchoress (meaning she lived in a cell and never came out, except possibly for church). While lying on what she expected to be her deathbed, she had a vision of Jesus, and so instead of dying she got up and wrote what may be the first book in English by a woman. Nuns, as anyone who has ever seen The Sound of Music knows, are tough cookies.
Last night, on the advice of Lucy Ellmann, I watched the Bette Davis film Deception. It got me thinking about a piece I wrote a few years back, looking for the world of the mistress in literature. In the case of Deception, though, it's Claude Rains in the position of the mistress, although of course he's allowed much more dignity than a woman would be in his place.
For all the domestic novels that are written -- and with men like Euginedes and Franzen now writing them, too, the number has greatly increased -- the basic math always stays the same. The wife and the husband are solid integers and together equal one household. The mistress is a negative number, almost never fully seen, that subtracts from that household. Marriage is the solid construct, anything else is a dangerous deviation. It's so very heteronormative, and I apologize for using that word, but it's the only one appropriate. Even if the house doubles as a prison, there's so little variation in the set up. And what does the mistress generally want in these stories? For him to leave his wife and marry her.
But Claude Rains had such a wonderful set up in the movie. Sure, he was a bit of a tyrant, but he had his own household, which he managed well without the "female touch" anywhere around. He traveled. He composed great music. He brought his married woman music and clothing and fine wine. He had a parrot named Brunhilde. And when she decided she'd rather have the marriage only -- except for a few other favors on the side -- he felt scorned that she would deny the emotional part of what they had, that she could so easily just go back to the next and claim this other part of her life as illegitimate.
It's sad, only, that the movie, in order to keep up with those so important norms, decided the whole shebang had to end tragically. God knows when there is straying someone has to die. (And why always the mistress?)
As I wrote in that column about the storyline of the mistress:
Because if we believe that monogamous marriages that produce children are the strongest units of our society — and we do — then the mistress becomes the termite gnawing at the foundations. And we don’t much care if pests have feelings; we simply want them dead.
In our great literature of infidelity, we frequently hear from the adulterous wife (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary) and the philandering husband (Kureishi’s Intimacy, The Age of Innocence). But literature written from the perspective of the mistress is few and far between. At most, the mistress is a stock character, there to provide comic relief in the predictability of her faith that he’ll get a divorce (see: Carrie Fisher’s character in When Harry Met Sally), or there as a catalyst for the really important characters — the husband and the wife. Perhaps it’s to be expected. After all, one of the primary responsibilities of the mistress is to keep quiet and keep her secrets safe. But also, perhaps, we don’t much care. We are free to assume that she is a desperate type, miserable and alone. Not marriage material herself, she becomes a vindictive force, out to ruin what she can’t have. And it’s true, those women do exist, the homewreckers. That real life women like Coco Chanel, Katharine Hepburn, and Elizabeth I were mistresses to married men has not done much to sway the belief that maybe there is another role at play here.
That was a couple years ago, like I said, and I have actively looked for the literature of the mistress since then. There's Advice to a Young Wife from an Old Mistress, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and while Henry James and W Somerset Maugham may have played around with it a bit, the fact that women were financially dependent on men makes that dynamic not really the same. Perhaps we have to look to Claude Rains and other such male mistresses from the past, to get a look at what that contemporary dynamic might be like.
April 19, 2013
Jean Raoux, Orpheus and Eurydice
After reading a lot of tedious books of music writing, I've finally found Peter Conrad's A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera, who can write about music without being either condescending or too obscure. It's a feat, yes? And his lush descriptions of operas are making me sad I am in the States, where opera tickets are in the hundreds rather than the tens. One of my favorites from his book so far:
Orphee boasts that his next violin concerto lasts an hour and a quarter; Eurydice is aghast at the prospect of having to listen to it, and squeals her protest in caterwauling high notes. Because this early heaven is so boring, Eurydice, when she has the good fortune to die, opts to remain in hell, where the entertainments are spicier.
And of course the book is out of print.
April 18, 2013
In her time as a New York Times movie critic, Adler only gave her blessing of a recommendation to one film, 2001, which she admits she did not really understand. And over her 50-year magazine-writing career, the many targets of her withering criticism have included group therapy, Robert Bork, and, in an 8,000-word takedown published by the New York Review of Books, her former New Yorker colleague Pauline Kael, whose book she deemed "piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless." But in her interview with Guy Cunningham in this month's issue of Bookslut, Adler -- whose novels Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983) have just been reissued -- discusses some books she has enjoyed. They include:
The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James. Adler:
"I wonder how he knew what he knows, and I wonder how he was prescient about a certain kind of political reality. It's just stunning to me. That said, it's not factual. It has nothing to do with whether it's factually true. I mean, if you put a factchecker on it, where are you? Fiction is a different animal."
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Adler:
"It came from two unlikely sources that I realized that I had to read it. And as happens to me quite frequently, I would get to page 150, say, and couldn't go another page. I didn't know what it was... And then I got it. And I thought it was the masterpiece of our lifetime."
The complete works of Janet Malcolm. Adler says:
"[T]he ethics are so high. An almost uncanny thing that happens to me in a piece by Janet Malcolm is that it is so fair, and so true, that I have the freedom to believe something else. And that's happened with at least three pieces of Janet's. Where I thought, 'This is just absolutely brilliant. And somehow, on the basis of what you've written here, here's what I think really happened.' I don't know of any writer for whom that is true, except for Janet."
April 17, 2013
Should Hilary Mantel be on the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist? Apparently the Guardian didn't get the memo that Hilary Mantel is the Tony Stark of literature and forgot to bow down. (But seriously, did anyone bitch like this over, say, the last time Coetzee or Roth had an award-season purple patch?)
The shortlist in full:
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel 125002417X
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson*
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
NW by Zadie Smith
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
*Unrelated, but have you lot seen the cover art they slapped on this in the UK? I've seen more subtlety in Mariah Carey videos.
A friend was complaining to me about his inability to get into a book -- any book -- these days. "I feel like I'm reading it from over here, when I want to be in there."
We decided it's seasonal, because in the spring for whatever reason, no matter how deep my to-be-read pile, I want all new books. Before I left Berlin, I did a massive culling of my book collection. There is something strangely satisfying about admitting to yourself that you are just never going to read Adam Bede, at least not on a timeline that it makes sense for you to cling to the horrible paperback copy you bought for $1.50 three years ago. Even more satisfying: admitting you are not going to read that book that won all of those awards and everyone said you would love. Let it go live with someone who can get past page two without suddenly needing to go catch up on laundry.
But I am now in the US, where they sell more than a small shelf of English books, mostly 50 Shades and their kin, and this is bad for me. I went into my favorite Chicago used bookstore (on Broadway, near Wellington, their selection is perfect), and despite them not having a Daphne du Maurier novel I haven't read yet, I left with armfuls.
Peter Conrad's A Song of Love & Death: The Meaning of Opera (I hear good things about his Verdi and/or Wagner, but I feel like I can't spend any more time in my life right now reading about Wagner. And this is someone whose alabaster bust of Wagner, sitting on the nightstand by her bed, whispers dark thoughts to her as she sleeps.)
Rollo May's The Meaning of Anxiety
Roberto Calasso's Literature and the Gods
Henry James's The Reverberator
Curtis Hoffman's The Seven Story Tower (I don't know why. I liked the cover?)
H V Morton's In the Steps of St. Paul
April 16, 2013
Design for Final Backcloth by Natalia Goncharova
"Bess" by Daphne Gottlieb
"Gone," a Kosovo Travelogue by Peter Vermeersch, translated by Florian Duijsens
Four Poems by Phil Sorenson
An Interview with Jane Pritchard
"Filling in the Archive: The Afterlife of Natalia Goncharova" by Leah Triplett
The Paintings of Natalia Goncharova
"A Natalia Goncharova Catalogue" by Greer Mansfield
"Living with Art: An Essay" by Lightsey Darst
Four Poems by Olivia Cronk
"A Rendition" by Alan DeNiro
"Of Saucepans and Star-Showers" by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Leo Shtutin
Four Poems by Hoa Nguyen
For information on purchasing issue one, please visit Spolia's website.
The poetry prize went to the lovely Sharon Olds for Stag's Leap. Nonfiction prizes went to Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall for best history work, and The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss for biography, while the General Non-fiction award went to Gilbert King's Devil in the Grove.
April 15, 2013
"The example I would typically use in an undergraduate setting is desegregation of schools. Prior to desegregation actually occurring, a poll of a sample of Americans (black and white) indicated that most Americans (black and white) opposed sending their children to school together. Almost immediately post-integration, a new poll indicated a majority of Americans (black and white) supported desegregation in principle and in practice. Change the behavior, and attitude change will follow. This isn't persuasion so much as it is self-persuasion, that oft-misused term cognitive dissonance in which we find ourselves saying, "Well, I'm doing X, so I must believe X is [fun/ethical/the right thing to do/etc.]." This is quite different from saying, "Well, I'm doing X, so I might as well enjoy it," which implies an awareness of not really liking X or, perhaps, liking X less than we might admit to others but making the best of a bad situation. Cognitive dissonance isn't making the best of something; it is full-on self-persuasion that happens in an instant."
A little while ago, I requested someone write an article about the language of feminism, and the way feminists police each other online, mostly through language.
Feminism is not the only subculture to have this problem. You see it all over the nerd/geek/gamer culture, and oh by the way, you can't say "gamer" anymore because some people find it offensive. Some people find "nerd" offensive, some people find "geek" offensive. And you find online that people form these incredibly tight, homogeneous groups where everyone uses the same small pool of approved words, until you can't even think in other language.
So Stephanie was inspired by my request to a thinking-out of these issues, and there are so many moments I love in her response. Starting with the above quotation. Also this:
I believe this is where we may get into trouble with some of the language we've adopted, though certainly not with all of it. Terms like "rape culture" are polarizing rather than binding. I believe they should be binding, but until they can be, they limit our ability to discuss fruitfully what should be ours: a taking back, a moving forward, a bridging of a gap between the wounded and the Boadiceas who would avenge them. Avenge. There's another forbidden word.
Read her full response here.
The question would be: why would you choose a 100 year old ballet company as the theme for the first issue of a brand spanking new publication? Wouldn't it be more innovative to be futuristic, to put in a bunch of fresh, never before published, hot young writers?
I wanted the Ballets Russes because in the age of super specialization, of well-guarded subcultures that police their boundaries with shibboleths and a dress code, of people wearing their authentic selves (as if we even knew what the self was) as a uniform, Diaghilev seemed like a pretty good spiritual godfather to call upon to walk us through this project.
Diaghilev brought together the worlds of music, writing, dance, design, fashion, theater, art, and society, with a large group of the politically exiled and the artistically adrift, and created a movement that has never matched its influence or genius. Surely there have been movements in painting, movements in literature, everyone in their own cubbyhole, maybe waving at one another in the distance on occasion. Nothing compares to the level of collaboration and cross-pollination that was the Ballets Russes company. And he did it in the totally improbable medium of ballet.
Which is why Spolia has no specialty. No specific realm. It's being run simultaneously in Berlin, in New York, in Milwaukee, in Colombia. Our first issue references San Francisco, Kosovo, Switzerland, Russia, Finland, Paris. There is poetry, an art portfolio, short stories and journalism. It specializes in nothing, it embraces all.
We are so proud of the first issue. It will cost you $5 for a download, all of your specific ereader needs are covered.
Diaghilev was "a great charlatan, although one with flair," as he describes himself. It's what I aspire to. We hope you enjoy our first issue and, as Bookslut turns 11 in two weeks, we hope it is as long lasting as this publication has turned out to be.