It’s hard to find communion with a living thing in winter. Anyone with a burrow crawls in, wraps their tail around their eyes. The other night, when snow had just started falling, I braved the interstate on my way to another city, to share a friend’s burrow. Some black ice spun me around, and I slid off the road, stopped in the median, my tread marks looping back through the new snow like a confused shadow. I’m fine, thanks. I didn’t turn around, kept driving, couldn’t bear missing a chance not to be alone. The car’s fine, too, just brown all over from the dirt I scooped up. I haven’t washed it yet. I like chauffeuring dirt around the city, an unanswered text message from the world of matter: I’m still here.chop! chop! read more!
Originally released as an E-book by Instant Future in 2015, essayist Elissa Washuta’s Starvation Mode is now reborn in corporeal chapbook form. At 50 pages, it can be read in one sitting, and I recommend this approach for best absorption of its nutrients. Nutrients, numbers, rules—Washuta is constantly searching for a calculus that will solve the problem of what goes into the body: “I would like to return to a time before it got so hard to eat,” she writes in the chapbook’s opening, “but eating has always been the hardest work I’ve ever had to do.”chop! chop! read more!
What is a free life? This seemingly simple question is, of course, anything but simple. Theorizing a possibility of a free life with a recognition of the various structural oppressions in society is a challenge brought to vivid life in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman.chop! chop! read more!
Grief is a waiting room with broken blinds. Cracks in the slats reveal some light outside, but since the pulleys won’t move, it’s impossible to know when—or if—the sun will shine on us again. The first time you lose a parent, this room feels strange and its shadows thwart your compass. Like death itself, you’ve been told that grief brings anguish.chop! chop! read more!
Since 2016, many journalists—as well as academic, political, and literary writers—have been sounding the alarm about the future of American democracy. The writers trying to shake Americans out of their manifest-destiny stupor are a diverse cast, ranging from activists who wouldn’t hesitate to label themselves members of “the resistance,” like New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow, to people like David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who is still reviled by many on the left for his role promoting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
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A few days after I finished Catherine Pikula’s chapbook I’m Fine. How are You? I read the following sentence: “I would like to make a book out of crumpled-up pieces of paper: you start a sentence, it doesn’t work and you throw the page away. I’m collecting a few … maybe this is, in fact, the only literature possible today.” The sentence came in the last hundred pages of The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. And while the “today” referenced above was Italy in the 1960s, the description was oddly reminiscent of the small, thread-bound chapbook published in 2018 that I’d recently put down, I’m Fine. How Are You?chop! chop! read more!
“As with any book, my book had its own special fate—it was born by mistake,” claims Levan Berdzenishvili, in the opening chapter of Sacred Darkness. Levan wakes up in a hospital, sick and disoriented, with a high fever. He realizes he has some debts to pay before he can jaunt off to Hades. Levan is a specialist in Greek literature, so he doesn’t talk of “dying.” He refers to “my departure to Hades.”chop! chop! read more!
Lisa Appignanesi’s latest book comes at a time in which most of us regularly feel beside ourselves in what she describes as an “everyday madness.” She devotes herself to describing this mundane madness, something which could be called trauma but is experienced by almost everyone, in three manifestations.chop! chop! read more!
The paradox in writing a postmodern memoir is that the author must somehow convince readers she’s telling the truth—typically by admitting to subjectivity and fallible memory, and by interrogating her version of events. But that’s not the strategy Vanya Erickson employs in her post-WWII coming-of-age story, Boot Language. With vivid detail and some implausibly long passages of remembered dialogue, she presents herself as the sole reliable narrator of her life in California, where she was raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who failed to protect her (but did “soften Dad’s blows” with inherited money).chop! chop! read more!
With a title and subtitle like Gaslight: Lantern Slides from the Nineteenth Century, the reader will be forgiven for thinking Joachim Kalka’s book is a collection of visual art. It is not. Though it does contain a handful of visual descriptions, it bears not one illustration, woodcut, or photograph. No lantern slides, and no visual depictions of gaslight. What it has instead are words, many of them, artfully arranged. Kalka’s words, assembled into eleven essays and a preface, are densely packed and remarkably pointed. Although his purpose is to glance back at the nineteenth century, not to historicize it, or even to theorize about it with a particular agenda, Kalka is a highly organized thinker. His insights prove scintillating, if specialized.chop! chop! read more!
Karen Donovan’s Aardvark to Axolotl and John Shea’s Tales from Webster engage with this paradox via the dictionary, that great alphabetizer of language. The dictionary is the reference-book-of-all-reference-books. It is writing broken down to its most basic components, as a color wheel separates out the most basic tools of the painter. It also makes for dry reading. As far as plots go, it’s lackluster.chop! chop! read more!
Acclaimed writer David Plante’s book, published originally in 1983, is an account of his friendships with three women central to the artistic and intellectual world of the 1970s. It is a rare act of memoir writing to describe oneself as the shadowy sidekick to other, presumably greater and more interesting characters. In nonfiction writing classes, this point of view would be discouraged.chop! chop! read more!
Playing Catch with Strangers consists of a long series of short essays. Most were written for print or online publications and not originally intended as book chapters. They are clean, straightforward, and easy to read. They are also salutary—in the sense of promoting better mental health and positive emotions. Brody reminds us of the many gifts that life offers to those who pay it close attention.chop! chop! read more!
The jacket of J.R. Helton’s memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class, shows an assortment of loose black-and-white sketches: a marijuana leaf, a packet of cigarettes, a typewriter, crumpled beer cans, lines of (presumably) cocaine, a gun, a cockroach. Among them, figures emerge: A man’s face covered in huge beads of sweat, a woman with long dark hair shown from the shoulders up, a pole dancer. These images appear regularly in each of the seven long anecdotes that make up Bad Jobs, working as signifiers of a place, time, and social class. The place is Austin, Texas and the time is when the tail end of the 1970s met the Reagan 1980s.chop! chop! read more!
Who we are is a complicated thing. Interactions influence perceptions, and perceptions influence memories. Having lost her father in a tragic accident when she was only seven, author Sharon Harrigan attempts to unravel the mystery of the man her father was in the powerful new memoir Playing with Dynamite. “I was relieved when he died,” her brother wrote her in an email. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.”chop! chop! read more!
Any book that has a ringing endorsement on its cover from Elena Ferrante these days will merit a second look. But there is another, potentially more important endorsement of Neapolitan Chronicles—a silent endorsement on the part of the translators of this Italian story collection by Anna Maria Ortese, originally published in Italy in 1953.chop! chop! read more!
When will we stop imaging climate change in the future and how can we reorient ourselves to this reality? Adrian Parr’s new academic work on climate change, Birth of a New Earth, attempts to answer this question by tapping into the recent trend of considering the positive, some might even say utopian, possibilities that the crisis of climate change allows. She argues, “Regardless of environmental harms and changes in climate impacting people differently, there remains a shared human experience of hardship that will intensify as time passes. For this reason, the environmental and climate crises contain the political potential to radically change social life so it evolves into a more equitable, inclusive, collaborative, and voluntary social system.”chop! chop! read more!
Time of Gratitude is an unusual text: the collected pieces are both prose and poetry, some of them written for events and some written as personal reflection. Translator Peter France has organized the book into two sections. The first one is devoted to Russian and Chuvash writers and artists, including Boris Pasternak, Kazimir Malevich, Varlam Shalamov, and Chuvash poet Mikhail Sespel.chop! chop! read more!
For Mireille Gansel, the work of translation is an all-consuming task. Before embarking on a project, Gansel first immerses herself in the world of the poet she is translating. She studies the historical context of their writing as well as the personal context. Wherever possible, she engages with their physical environment: she visits their home, observes their writing space. And, ideally, she listens to the poet read their work aloud. Attempting to translate a single German word, “sensible,” in a poem by Reiner Kunze, Gansel travels from West to East Germany to “[listen] to the poet read, alert to his intonations and facial expressions. In the tiny blue kitchen, I was conscious of his precarious everyday life.” She imagines the letters from friends in exile that he’ll never receive, and the mingling of his two languages, a German abstracted by Nazism and a Czech repressed by war, both of which survive in the poetry of his contemporaries, in songs from his childhood. Here, in this intersection of past and present, Gansel finds the word for “sensible”: fragile.chop! chop! read more!
Reading Harding’s new book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, published in mid-November by Vintage Books, gives the sense that we are living in a John Le Carre novel where we are not certain that the West won the Cold War or that the Cold War ever ended. Collusion is a deep dive into the coverage of the administration and the crisscrossing lines of Russian money and influence.chop! chop! read more!
Reading Andrea Jarrell’s memoir felt like I was squatting in the bushes outside of her house, fingers perched on the windowsill, watching and listening as her life unfolded, taking comfort in her family’s dysfunctions which mirrored my own in asymmetric ways. Being from a dysfunctional family myself, I take some sick comfort from seeing crying children in grocery stores, their mothers looking like they’ve reached their wits’ end. I thrive on overhearing family fights in restaurants, because for so long, it was my family who were making heads turn. Once, at a rest stop in Delaware, my younger brother pelted my mother and I with chicken nuggets from the booth across the aisle while my father yelled at him, and ultimately, dragged him from the McDonald’s. I suspect most of our families are dysfunctional, and it’s the job of our adult selves to use all of that dysfunctional material we’re sitting on to become something good. That, or we allow the cycle to repeat. But how does one heal from childhood? How does one become better than our parents? These are central questions in Andrea Jarrell’s haunting memoir I’m the One Who Got Away.chop! chop! read more!
Dog people and cat people often like to stake their identities on the idea that they are starkly different from one another, but are they really so different? Regardless of species, a pet’s companion is a certain type of person who probably prefers their dog or cat to other people. In two recent books, by Eileen Myles and Caroline Picard, a dog person and a cat person, respectively, confess the closeness they feel to their pets while also marveling at the strangeness of intimacy with another kind of being. Reading both of these books together becomes a chance to deeply explore the intimate otherness of animal companionship. They live amongst us, but are they with us?chop! chop! read more!
Reviewing Elizabeth Hardwick’s new collection of essays is a task to strike fear into the heart of even the most headstrong literary critic. Biographer of Melville, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, and noted sharp tongue, Elizabeth Hardwick cast a long shadow in the literary world of the twentieth century. Darryl Pinckney introduces Hardwick in this volume as a New York intellectual firebrand, an avant-garde thinker with an acerbic writing style, and a cutting, devastatingly smart critic who employed a withering gaze. Would-be reviewers, if not scared off by Hardwick’s biography, will encounter an essay in the book’s first hundred pages, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” which is destined to have some effect on their confidence. If reading that piece is not sufficient, the reviewer will then bump into a piece on a Hemingway biography that begins, “Carlos Baker’s biography of Ernest Hemingway is bad news.” To be blunt, Hardwick, a writer of fiction herself in addition to criticism and biography, does not go easy on writers.chop! chop! read more!
In 2013, a young journalist named Clara Beaudoux moves into a Paris apartment. The previous tenant, a woman named Madeleine, lived there for 20 years before passing away in her nineties. Strangely, Madeleine’s things have not been removed from the cellar. “All I had to do was open a door, the door to my cellar, for the adventure to begin,” writes Beaudoux.chop! chop! read more!
Trust the Brits to find the humor in anything. Tom Sperlinger’s Romeo and Juliet in Palestine, a brief memoir of a semester the author spent as a visiting professor of English literature at Al Quds University in Abu Dis in the West Bank, deploys wry wit to combat the absurdities of living and teaching in a place of controlled chaos.chop! chop! read more!
Now in a new translation by Jenny McPhee (and with a new English title), Family Lexicon is Natalia Ginzburg’s Strega Prize winning memoir/novel of life in Italy before, during, and after World War II, Lessico famigliare, first published in 1963. Ginzburg is known mainly in this country for being a “writer’s writer,” a phrase which is often used to compensate for an author’s lack of fame. But in Ginzburg’s case, perhaps there’s a bit more to it; her essays are often assigned on writing workshop syllabi alongside favorites like Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and George Orwell. A quick Internet search for “Natalia Ginzburg” and “syllabus” turns up countless options. In fact, it was in a creative writing class where I was first introduced to her work, the devastatingly simple essay “He and I.”chop! chop! read more!
How We Speak to One Another, which came out this month, is a book of essays on essays, on the Essay—that sprawling mountain of a form, reaching its roots into every fallow field. The reader sinks in to find Ander Monson digging his way: “I’d thought of my own essaying as mine work, a kind of solo exploration down here in the dark. But then one time I was chipping at a hunk of rock, watching my tool spark, and suddenly it broke through a wall and ran into another tunnel.” The tunnel is John D’Agata’s. This kind of encounter, told in one of Monson’s quirky conceits, is representative of the rest of the anthology. These essays are excavations in what the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton called (in his last address, just two hours before his death) the “interdependence of all living [and dying] beings.”chop! chop! read more!
A hundred years after Leonora Carrington’s birth, her painting and writing seems, to the modern viewer, as defamiliarized and spontaneous as it did when it first appeared under the Surrealist banner.chop! chop! read more!
The Trump administration, however, is a near perfect embodiment of the Money Cult. One need simply look at the two men on top: Trump, one of the embodiments of American capitalism, and Pence, a fervent evangelical. There is also open access in the administration for other ardent Christians, such as for the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, a surgeon who preaches self-activation. Lehmann argues that the United States began, essentially, during the seventeenth century colonial era of John Winthrop, as a kind of theocracy, a union between religion and politics; and now it has ended with a different union, one between religion and business. In the era of Trump, this union decisively includes politics once more.chop! chop! read more!
The essay collection My Italians: True Stories of Crime and Courage, the provocateur Robert Saviano’s newest nonfiction work, is a startling condemnation of contemporary Italian life. For about a decade, Saviano’s one-man campaign against organized crime in Naples has made him famous across Italy. But he’s little known in the U.S., or he was at least until recently when a TV adaptation of his 2007 bestseller, Gomorrah, about the crime syndicate, la Camorra, began airing on the Sundance Channel (Italian director Matteo Garrone also made a 2008 film by the same name). Yet Saviano’s expertise on the malavita and how it’s infiltrated legitimate business knows no borders. Last year, he gave a talk at a conference in England about how business transactions in London’s much-vaunted City financial district are in fact influenced and manipulated by organized crime.chop! chop! read more!
Douglas Crimp’s memoir Before Pictures invites readers into the lively artistic and queer worlds of 1960s to 1970s New York where Crimp was formed as an art historian. This is the same New York which brought him to curate Pictures, a small exhibit at Artist’s Space now considered pivotal to ideas about contemporary art. In the art history textbook Art Since 1900 (2004), Pictures is historicized as having given a platform to artwork meant to give “a new sense of the image as ‘picture’” and to “transcend any particular medium.” Here, Crimp embraces this transcendence in a different way. In his consideration, no single art form, from fashion to architecture, comes out as primary.chop! chop! read more!
If writers are interested in portraying human experience in its varied forms, then part of that work is depicting climate change. Certainly there has been a strong tradition of writers turning to their surroundings for inspiration and literary fodder. And for many of these writers—Wendell Wendell Berry, Homero Aridjis, and Jean Giono for example—the earth becomes a character just as palpable and mercurial as any human, with capacity for danger alongside beauty. Yet our current moment calls for something even more complex: not just the earth, plants, and animals as powerful forces in fiction, but also a realization that we humans have brought this change upon our whole planet. And Ghosh, while not optimistic about the current state of literature, does think such fiction has yet been written in our age. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Liz Jensen’s Rapture are particularly good examples. Yet, these kinds of works, at least in Ghosh’s calculations, are the exception and not the rule.chop! chop! read more!
You’re in another anonymous suburb at an undistinguished hotel on a Tuesday evening, traveling for work. After a day of meetings, you’re finally free to visit the hotel bar for a burger and a beer before you do it all over again tomorrow. At the counter, you take a seat two stools away from a middle-aged man in fine trousers, a white shirt, and a wide, loud tie, drinking something brown on the rocks. The man’s exchanges are first cordial, but then stretch into tall tales that make you fidget in your seat, and finally become oddly compelling, even touching. Just as the bartender calls for your last order, the story winds to a shimmering conclusion, leaving you with an unexpected sense of hope, of the power of persistence, of the redemption of art. That’s the feel of reading Mezz Mezzrow’s classic 1946 memoir, recently republished by NYRB Classics, about his life as a jazz saxophonist.chop! chop! read more!
As I plan to write a review of Donald Quist’s fine debut essay collection, Harbors, I follow the stories of two more black men shot and killed by police officers and know that, statistically as a white male, I will most likely never be positioned to fear the same fate. I write while growing increasingly concerned about my nation’s frenzied and ugly presidential race and about the increased acceptance of hateful speech in everyday conversation.chop! chop! read more!
That desire to be better—to be a better teacher, partner, father, writer—threads through James Rahn’s part-memoir, part-anthology, Rittenhouse Writers, an account of his work to develop and sustain the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group for nearly 28 years. Rahn is the author of Bloodnight, a novel based loosely on his experience growing up in Atlantic City, and his short fiction and articles have been published in many literary magazines. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania for fifteen years and, in addition to leading RWG workshop sessions, maintains a private practice for individual writing and psychoanalytic consultations.chop! chop! read more!
Over the years, I’ve consumed dozens of memoirs of hardship. I’ve accumulated shelves full of first-person accounts of war, revolution, genocide, and slavery, and developed a sideline collection of journeys that end in failure or death. These accounts of people swept up in forces far larger than they are comfort me because their problems dwarf everyday concerns like workday traffic or messy kitchen sinks. Their perspective reminds me that much of human history has been dark and difficult, and that in the face of those difficulties, our only choice is whether to act bravely or poorly. These stories also do what good fiction—and good history—do: they let us glimpse the lives of those whose experiences we cannot imagine.chop! chop! read more!
Volker Weidermann’s Ostend gives us the stories of writers Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, along with an ensemble of friends, coming for summer holiday to a favorite Belgian beach resort. The style is clipped and brief. History, dark fairy tale, friendship, fleeting joy, literary enchantment, dissipation, destruction, exile. Ostend reads as a time capsule that Weidermann has sorted through for us, and organized. It’s 1936, and the holiday begins like a David Hockney print, with an inviting surface of sea and sun and wide blue sky. But as we make our way through Weidermann’s collections of scenes from the period, the view looks more like something painted by James Ensor, the mask making, shell collecting, piano playing older artist who happens to live in a little house in Ostend. As we look behind the scenes at the act of literary creation we see the writer as an element of a complex artistic ecosystem. Ostend pushes us to think about the serious, long work necessary to heal an artistic ecosystem when racism has had a place inside it.chop! chop! read more!
In Other Words, a departure for Jhumpa Lahiri as she turns for the first time to memoir, took shape as weekly writing assignments—in Italian—that were published over six months in the Italian magazine Internazionale. Regular deadlines and the constraint of writing in a language she was still learning re-energized Lahiri. These very personal pieces are framed and contained self-portraits. They are fascinating, focused, and at times repetitive, and give the sense of a complex literary artist with a passion for language.
Part of Lahiri’s accomplishment in In Other Words is her recovery of a way of working that is unspoiled by the expectations of a demanding readership. I thought of a story told to me by an early childhood educator about a child who loved to paint. An adult, looking at the child’s work asked, “Is that a flower?” Is that the sun? What a beautiful yellow.” For weeks, the child, now self-conscious, did not return to paint. Lahiri’s project is a return to a literary garden, a place where she is free to play with language and expression in a way that is full of joy, discovery, and personal satisfaction. Lahiri generously invites the reader to share this pleasurable experience.chop! chop! read more!
ABDUCTING A GENERAL
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
NYRB, 206 pages
reviewed by Rory McCluckie
In 1933, aged only 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor began walking from Rotterdam to Constantinople. Clad in an old greatcoat and a pair of hobnail boots, he had left his native England on the deck of a Dutch steamer and set off on foot with a few letters of introduction, some notebooks, and a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, It was an extraordinary thing to undertake but we’ve long known that Leigh Fermor was an extraordinary man; a skilled linguist, a vivid, ebullient writer, and a lover of literature, people, and the world in all its variable wonder—of life, essentially—he has become celebrated for enjoying an existence so improbably charmed that his travel books often read like stirring, romantic fictions.
When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Leigh Fermor—then living in Romania—returned home and was accepted as a candidate for a commission in the Irish Guards, a posting he quickly came to regard as dull. It was with some relief, then, when the Intelligence Corps took note of his lingustic capabilities and offered him courses in military intelligence and interrogation before dispatching him, in 1940, to the Mediterannean as a member of the British Military Mission.
At this point, Greece had been invaded by Italy and it was the Mission’s primary responsibility to help the occupied country in any way they could. In April 1941, this difficult task was rendered almost impossible when a German blitzkrieg tore through the Balkans, forcing most of Britain’s troops from the European mainland. Some, Leigh Fermor among them, managed to flee to Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, and were soon treated to a fresh barrage by the Nazis who, sensing an advantage, sought to capitalize. While the islanders’ resistance was noble, the outcome was inevitable; luckily for the author, the Royal Navy evacuated him to Egypt before the Axis powers could impart a less merciful fate, and it was in Cairo that Leigh Fermor proposed a plan to return to Crete in order to kidnap a German general.chop! chop! read more!
CAT IS ART SPELLED WRONG
edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz
Coffee House Press, 160 pages
Anonymous’ Internet Rule 38: “one cat leads to another.” This rule is played out, true to form, within the universe it governs. I think of Douglas Davis’s classic “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence,” which (half Mobius Strip) perpetually leads, and (half Internet) begins with “cat purring softly”; or, in the same vein, the more contemporary “Drei Klavierstücke op. 11” by Cory Arcangel, composed of cat-on-piano videos molded into Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music.
The Internet seems to have returned us to what Schoenberg’s contemporary, the painter Gustav Klimt, asked with his bijou palette and bourgeois nudes: when does something exit coincidence and enter art? As with Klimt’s regal-looking prostitutes, we might ask, where is the line between artistic intention and the more accidental capturing of internal feeling? Now, amidst a flurry of cat media, editors Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz have gathered the work of 14 authors to discern meaning in the paw swipes virtuosity. The work is gathered in the collaborative Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong.chop! chop! read more!
by Linda Rosenkrantz
NYRB, 215 pages
reviewed by Rory McCluckie
Whatever else it might be, Talk is the bearer of a remarkably terse and comprehensive title. Has there ever been a work that so accurately summarizes its contents in so short a space? In four letters, Linda Rosenkrantz encapsulated the interior of her 1968 literary experiment immaculately; this is a book of talk. All 215 pages are repositories of speech, unadorned by scenic description or third-person agency. What’s more, they’re pages of genuine talk, not a word of it imagined or fabricated. Over the summer of 1965, Rosenkrantz decided to capture the conversation of friends on tape, a process that eventually lead to her picking out three personalities, and presenting their interactions in the form of a “novel in dialogue.” Stephen Koch’s introduction fleshes out the context: “I had the tape recorder running all summer,” Rosenkrantz recalls,
even dragging the bulky monster to the beach. At first there were about twenty-five different characters and fifteen hundred pages of single-spaced transcript, which I took close to two years honing down to the three characters and two hundred fifty pages.
Quite the project, in other words. A little later in this same introduction, however, there’s another phrase that ultimately proves more striking. As Koch introduces the conceptual basis of the book, he posits that the guiding vision behind the work was one of exploring how daily existence might function when presented as an act of creation, thus acting as a literary experiment the results of which were hard to foresee. The framework, he offers, within which Talk should be viewed is crystallized into the following question: “Why not see if life really imitates art?”chop! chop! read more!
by Allan MacDonell
Rare Bird Books, 306 pages
Rare Bird Books, 323 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
“Let my heart tell you what prompted me to do wrong for no purpose, and why it was only mischief that made me do it.” Thus spoke Saint Augustine of Hippo, and with those words, invented the confessional memoir and spawned the talk show in which the recounting of misdeeds leads—it is hoped—to self-reflection, repentance and salvation. When you put the peccadillos in print, it is difficult to escape this literary paradigm, for, as with Augustine’s sins (and our own), the more you struggle, the more surely redemption will drag you toward a hopeful destiny, like the mighty Mississippi at flood tide, and you borne aloft on your own self-damning words.
Two such memoirs have just been issued from Rare Bird Books. The first, Punk Elegies, is the sometimes desultory, occasionally comical, and moderately self-aware account of Allan MacDonell’s drugged and drunken misbehavior as a skilled yet dubious reporter of punk music for Slash magazine in Los Angeles, present at what is dubbed the birth of stateside punk, via a band called The Screamers. He has given himself his toughest assignment ever in this memoir, because it’s all been done before: promiscuous sex, alcoholic stupors, watching friends overdose into comas. After sixteen centuries, the genre has grown a little tired. And what do you do when you weren’t really that close to the main action, nor played a prominent role? What if you were a journalistic hanger on, and not even of the sweetly naïve Almost Famous variety? What if you were an annoying lout?
Slyly, MacDonell turns these facts to his advantage. He neither preens nor tries to win us over too insistently. He accepts his insignificant place among the night crawlers, and acknowledges that his quintessential brush with fame is when a teenage Joan Jett, wearing a wife beater, shoulders him in the midst of an alcohol-fueled, bickering fight with three “heavyset girls who wear a lot of makeup.” Dispassionate as the Living Jesus, Joan takes a knife from Allan’s hand and dispenses this wisdom: “You’d be a pretty cool guy if you didn’t drink so much.”chop! chop! read more!
FAR COUNTRY: STORIES FROM ABROAD AND OTHER PLACES, essays
by Timothy Kenny
Bottom Dog Press, 144 pages
reviewed by Beth Johnston
In the preface to Timothy Kenny’s new essay collection, Far Country: Stories from Abroad and Other Places, Kenny links his stories to the new journalism of the 1960s, the work of “Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion.” Yet although Kenny positions himself as Didion, personal and revealing, he more often echoes New Yorker journalist John McPhee. His essays hold back, shield the author’s character, and confess little. The best of them capitalize on Kenny’s strengths: carefully observed detail, compelling stories, and flair for sentence. But only a few of them require Kenny to risk baring himself and his responses to distant places.
Kenny is a former USA Today journalist and a journalism professor who has worked abroad since 1989. He’s seen a lot: Belfast during the Troubles, Berlin right before the wall fell, Sarajevo during the siege, and Kabul as Afghanistan is rebuilt. He’s interviewed Vaclav Havel in Prague and fought off feral dogs in Kosovo. His character feels like the movie version of a Western journalist abroadhe’s Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously or Stephen Dillane in Welcome to Sarajevo. Kenny himself might resist the comparison, since, he notes, he “was neither a war correspondent nor a traditional foreign-based journalist . . . [but] a reporter fortunate enough to travel overseas frequently.” Still, Kenny is true to journalistic type: he’s jaded enough not to be shocked by what he sees, pragmatic enough to resist heroism, and reluctant to indulge in unbridled idealism.chop! chop! read more!
by Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press, 160 pages
reviewed by Gabriel Chazan
Sometimes an idea reverberates and echoes for a long time, like a song. This was my experience reading Maggie Nelson’s revelatory new memoir, The Argonauts, which starts with an idea Nelson found reading Wittgenstein: “the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed…”, and “its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.” Nelson wrote the book while she was with her partner, the non-binary trans artist Harry Dodge, and pregnant with their first child. At one level,The Argonauts recounts her experiences with Dodge, whose gender identity consciously resists the traps of language, and with parenthood. In attempting a reconciliation of the two perspectives, Nelson finds a freedom through language.
More than simply telling a ‘story’, Nelson considers here the act of trying to bring experience into language and ideas, particularly those which seem to oppose this very act. She incorporates an array of ideas from theorists ranging from Judith Butler to Wittgenstein in order to consider the inexpressibles of gender, sexuality, joy, and the seeming contradiction of queer parenthood and marriage—an experience increasingly brought into the mainstream of social structures and away from radicalism.
In the brief interval between my first reading of The Argonauts and the writing of this review, the Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. This is, in many ways, an important and very positive development for queer rights, yet it is also far from an ending. In the book, Nelson pointedly notes, “if we want to do more than claw our way into repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us.”chop! chop! read more!
THE ART OF ASKING
by Amanda Palmer
Grand Central Publishing, 333 pages
reviewed by Justin Goodman
“Art is the Artist”
I first heard of Amanda Palmer while driving a flashy, cherry red Mustang convertible blasting “Girl Anachronism” from a speaker system clearly not made to handle any song at full volume, let alone one already deafening at standard volume for an ipod-earbud combo. It didn’t help that it was my car, and that my first girlfriend and I were the ones in it. By 2009 a year had passed since Palmer’s band, the Dresden Dolls, broke up, and three years before she would give the TED talk that would inspire the memoir The Art of Asking. My relationship and my car had both broken down by that point and as I, that bachelor now in a minivan, would likely have said about Palmer’s memoir-essay, there is one thing the three have in common: they deeply affected my life, and then repeated themselves enough that I wanted them to be done with.
Memoirs often annoy me, in part, because they take Whitman’s advice too literarily: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” And that’s not to ignore that such songs lend themselves to marketing nicely. That is the function, generally, of celebrity memoirs. But Amanda Palmer, musician-blogger turned memoirist, was already given this treatment, wrongly, when her more than successful and record-setting Kickstarter became journalist gossip about, as she summarizes, “what a terrible person I was, on top of being an untrained, unprofessional, shitty musician.” This book doesn’t feel like it intends to sell itself. It even comes across as if it has no idea who the audience is, as when she explains crowdsourcing, “for the uninitiated.” (What Palmer fan purchased this book “uninitiated?”) Like any good memoir, be it Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, or anything by David Sedaris, it uses its jointed memory to propel it towards insight. How the joints connect, though, is what makes a memoir work. So, while Sedaris uses a series of essays, and Woolf the titular moments of being, Palmer’s book seems nebulous in that it has no organizing function. The text switches between her budding romance with Neil Gaiman (now her husband), to her record label experiences, with essentially random stories intermixed, as new experiences accrue over time.chop! chop! read more!
by Léon Werth, with an introduction by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
[translated by Austin Denis Johnston]
Melville House Publishing, 116 pages
reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin
There are occasions when a phrase or a paragraph or a book hits the main line and after the dose everything is different.
33 Days arrived in the mail ten days ago, on a Friday. Guests were coming for the weekend. Already, the city was filling with people. The weather was warm, finally; pink and purple and white flowers garlanded the city. Fragrance smothered street corners. Whole neighborhoods were ripe for seduction.
The book, slender and impeccably designed, put itself in my hands. I gazed at it quickly then put it down on the cushion in the old grocery store window where in winter we take turns stretching toward the sun. I picked it back up. I hadn’t heard of Léon Werth. But Saint-Exupéry—we forget Saint-Exupéry at our peril.chop! chop! read more!
UNDOING THE DEMOS: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution
by Wendy Brown
Zone Books/MIT Press, 296 Pages
reviewed by Irami Osei-Frimpong
“SEN. KIRK: RE-ELECT RAHM OR CHICAGO COULD END UP LIKE DETROIT,” reads the Chicago Sun-Times headline.
In the ensuing article, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk argues that the bond market supporting Chicago’s debt would be a better fit with current mayor Rahm Emanuel leading the city, rather than challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Those of us who care about democracy wonder if democratic self-determination—whether defined minimally as self-rule, or, more robustly, as participating in popular sovereignty—is extinguished when one’s vote is determined by the bond market and its assessments. This is the question U.C. Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown explores up in her latest book, Undoing the Demos.
Moody’s does not have a citizen’s concern for public schools, parks, museums, local ecology, or Chicago’s other common institutions. Yet these are the political conditions through which citizens find meaning in their lives. For those of us who care about democracy, the worry is whether the authority of finance capital on our political imagination relegates democratic citizenship to being simply the medium through which the investment market controls public life.chop! chop! read more!
THE GREAT FLOODGATES OF THE WONDERWORLD
by Justin Hocking
Graywolf Press, 266 pages
reviewed by Ana Schwartz
“Grand Programmes of Providence”
Boys can be so mysterious, so closed off with their feelings. Surely they must feel things. But what are they feeling? And what are they thinking about those feelings? Why don’t they talk about those feelings? What do they expect women to do, simply divine those feelings like a barometer at sea—blind to the gathering clouds, deaf to the sound of the gulls and the waves, unable to smell the saltiness of the air? What is the deep wonderworld of a boy’s mind? What do boys want?
Let’s get this out of the way: According to Justin Hocking, it’s not not sex. In his recent memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, Hocking shows that boys also want emotional gratification that often, coincidentally, happens with sexual encounters. And he wants it pretty badly. He might even want it as badly as Ahab wants revenge on the white whale. Hocking’s desire—his addiction—certainly leads him to some strange and dicey situations, and, like Ahab’s quest, often has harmful effects on the people surrounding him. Hocking makes many analogies to characters and situations in Melville’s epic novel. Comparing his life quest for emotional fulfillment with Ahab’s vengeful leadership of the Pequod is only one, and a relatively undeveloped parallel at that.chop! chop! read more!
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
by Meghan Daum
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 244 pages
reviewed by Jamie Fisher
Authenticity is Her Bag
So here’s the problem with coma stories: not everyone gets a coma story. Life-threatening medical emergencies chased closely by miraculous recoveries are, for most of us, in short supply. People who do find themselves with a coma story shouldn’t be surprised when friends, relatives, and neighbors want a piece of it. They want your Ninety Minutes in Heaven, absent the ignominious retraction. They want to know how your near-death experience has changed you, brought you closer to God. They want your spiritual lesson, and they will be insistent.
Meghan Daum’s coma story caps off what you might call a tough year. First her grandmother died, then her mother. Then she began to feel woozy with grief or flu, except that it turned out to be flea-transmitted typhus that knocked her prone on a hospital bed, hovering for days in a medically induced coma. Her total recovery is so unanticipated that her neurologist is prompted to call it miraculous. (Not the word you want to hear from the man with his tools inside your skull, Daum observes.) Because she is a writer, her friends request a “coma story”. But it seems unfair to expect anything beyond a convalescence. Daum is satisfied with coming out of the crisis with her personality, and basic motor skills, intact. “And in this story, I am not a better person. I am the same person. This is a story with a happy ending. Or at least something close enough.”chop! chop! read more!
HOW AMERICANS MAKE RACE:
Stories, Institutions, Spaces
by Clarissa Rile Hayward
Cambridge University Press, 234 Pages
In How Americans Make Race, Clarissa Rile Hayward argues that the persistence of racialized spaces is not merely a matter of the remarkable, particular stories individuals tell themselves about themselves; rather, racism persists because of the way racialized commitments are embedded in the unremarkable narrative context, the physical objects and the mundane habits of thought and action, that serve as the unacknowledged backdrop of White community space. If Jill’s identity emerges from stories told against a backdrop of political investment: strong public schools, smooth roads, well-paid teachers, etc., then Jill will have a hard time making sense of herself in a space characterized by political disinvestment. This second space will be felt as hostile in an existential way, even though the space may not be any more physically dangerous.
Hayward argues against the “narrative identity thesis,” the notion that racial identities are matter of the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves. She argues that, while this thesis can explain how Americans produce race through narrating racial hierarchies and racialized aspirations, the thesis cannot account for how racism is persistently reproduced, once the initial racist narrative identities evolve into seemingly race-neutral stories. Recall our White church. A feature of the church’s Whiteness is how it participates in an institutionalized context that is normalized to omit reference to King, even as a large share of American church life embraces the opportunity to remember the pastor and civil rights icon. It is important to remember how this church is White even if every congregant individually embraces a gospel of inclusion and rejects their forebears’ explicitly racist beliefs; however, it is these racist forebears who put the church on an ethnically White path by institutionalizing a context that disproportionately depreciates King’s relevance for the life of their church.chop! chop! read more!