A book about books

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Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. Go see this movie right now.

A blurb on the cover of my 1970 edition of 84, Charing Cross Road, from the Saturday Review, calls it “a gorgeous little book about books.”

It is a gorgeous little book, the nonfiction account, told through letters, of an American woman’s long-distance friendship with the sellers at an antiquarian bookshop in London, beginning just after World War II. Helene Hanff was a writer from New York who initially wrote to the shop in 1949 after seeing their ad in the Saturday Review of Literature. She sent them a list of the books she most hoped to find (her “most pressing problems,” which included Hazlitt’s Selected Essays and a collection of Leigh Hunt’s) and received a polite reply that they would be sending her two of them and had begun looking for the others. She wrote back, immediately addressing the very polite British bookseller, Frank Doel (pronounced Noel), in a teasing way (“I hope madam doesn’t mean over there what it does here”), sometimes using ALL CAPS on her typewriter. It’s obvious she couldn’t help herself, New Yorker that she was. She wanted to bring out his more human side, and in time he shared it.

Helene keeps writing, looking for more books, and at some point she finds out from the British boyfriend of her young neighbor just how severe the food rations in the UK were at that time: 2 ounces of meat per family  per month, 1 egg per person per month, he told her, and this was after the war had ended! Shocked, she sends them food she chose from the catalog of a British company that imports things from Denmark, which is how the boyfriend has been sending his mother gifts of food. This is the beginning of the real warmth between Helene and Frank et al, though a true friendship had started—and continued, as she kept asking them to try to find “dear goofy John Henry” and some love poems, but “No Keats or Shelley, send me some poets who can make love without slobbering”—over the love of books, particularly old ones.

“It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on…” Helene reveals, which I found to be a very interesting thing to say. Later, she writes:

I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVRE read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

So yes, this is a book about books, and about reading. It’s also about the romance of bookstores, and the sweet, surprising communities that can form around them. 84, Charing Cross Road is interesting to contemporary readers, too, because it contains so many anecdotal reminders of just how different things were before the internet, and before air travel was as inexpensive and commonplace as it is today. When Helene first wrote to Marks & Co., the UK, still reeling from the war, seemed a very different and far away place. Over the 20 years of their correspondence, we see the gap between the UK and the US begin to close. By the 60s, Frank’s letters report on the hordes of tourists who come through London each summer, many of them Americans making a “pilgrimage” to Carnaby Street. “…I must say I rather like the Beatles. If the fans just wouldn’t scream so.”

Besides all that, though, this is a book about friendship—friendship of a certain, long-distance, partly-imaginary kind. In Helene’s letters to her “friends at 84, Charing Cross Road” she sometimes imagines out loud what the cramped, dusty, Dickensian bookstall must look like. She romanticizes them like crazy, but invites them to do the same to her, making herself into a charming caricature of the brash New Yorker. But Helene also talks about visiting them one day, and seems to mean it. Frank (as well as his wife Nora, in separate letters) and two of the women who work at the bookshop all invite her many times to come visit them, each offering to put her up in their flat or house for as long as she liked.

Year after year, she didn’t go. Money was always a concern. Though she had it pretty good in comparison to the deprivation the English people were still dealing with, she was living the writer’s life (a “freelancer’s” life, we’d say today), and had an unsteady income. Sometimes someone would like her idea for a TV show and offer to pay her a bundle for the script, but other times, she’d work for months on plays that no one wanted to produce. During the period that she was making good money writing murder mysteries for the TV series Ellery Queen, Helene entertained the idea of going to London for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. But then she needed to pay for a lot of expensive dental work, and she didn’t make the trip.

She was there in spirit, though. I love thinking of Helene “crawl[ing] out of bed before dawn on Coronation Day to attend the ceremony by radio…thinking of you all” because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would do. The idea of setting aside solitary time to “be with” someone else in my thoughts appeals to me deeply, loner that I am. Helene Hanff never married, and when I picture the single-lady’s apartment she describes in her letters, with its battered furniture and steady supply of coffee and books (and cigarettes and gin drinks as well, Helene admits; me too), I’m really picturing my own life, the one I had for years before I was married, and all its solitary pleasures.

Such as letter writing. I have a number of pen-pals, maybe around 20 people who I write letters to regularly, some of them for years now. I collect new pen-pals on a regular basis, too, usually through zines. Someone I’ll meet at a zine fair (or who I’ve sold my zines to, or traded mine for theirs) will write me a letter, and then we’re off and running! When I lived alone, sending and receiving these letters constituted a major part of my social life. Most of it, some years, if I’m honest. I have learned that there is a strong similarity between these kinds of friendships and the kinship you can find in books. A human connection is made, in a very real way, but from a distance, and in solitude. It’s a certain kind of person who seeks out this kind of connection—and who sometimes, at least in some ways, prefers it to time spent in another person’s company. I have been this kind of person; I bet a lot of writers have. It has something to do with the life of the imagination, for sure, but it’s a self-protective thing too. You can have a very close bond with a long-distance friend and still feel safe, intact, yourself.

By 1956, Helene announces that she’s been “socking money” away in a savings account, and if “TV keeps feeding [her]” she’ll make a trip to England the next summer. But then her landlord sells the building and she gets evicted from her apartment. She decides to buy one in a new building that hasn’t been constructed yet, and spends all her “England money” on the place and new furniture for it.

The eviction and the dental work were real, unavoidable drains on Helene’s finances, and besides that, I’m aware that in the 1950s, the average middle class person didn’t hop on planes and take trips whenever they felt like it. But it seemed clear to me, reading Helene’s letters, that she was always reticent about traveling to England, that it was something she liked to think and talk about, but maybe never took that seriously as a plan. You get the feeling—and in one letter, to an American friend, she admits to this possibility—she’d rather keep on dreaming about her English friends than meet them in person and have the fantasy spoiled.

SPEAKING OF SPOILED, THE REST OF THIS ESSAY GIVES AWAY THE BOOK’S ENDING. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK!

In the end, Helene never makes the trip she talked about so much. In October of 1969 she receives a letter from Frank, writing animatedly about tourists and Jane Austen and plans for Christmas (“we are all very  much alive and kicking,” he begins), and less than three months later she receives one from the secretary at Marks & Co., who has had to write to tell her that Frank died. His appendix ruptured, which gave him the peritonitis that killed him a week later. Anyone who reads the book would find this terribly sad, and I certainly did. Joe caught me crying on the couch after I finished it, as he has many times after I’ve put down a good, touching book.

But I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this as an ending to the story. The thing is, I kept wanting Helene and her English friends to meet in person, even though I knew all along that they wouldn’t. (I’ve seen the movie, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, in which they DO meet, and later read about how that never really happened. The movie, incidentally, is also wonderful.) What I don’t understand is why I was wishing for this. Have I lost my capacity for wistfulness? I used to be comprised almost entirely of wist. And anyway, that’s the point of this book. You’re supposed to read it and feel that sense of longing for something that can never be. You’re supposed to enjoy feeling that feeling. It’s like nostalgia—the kind of melancholy that feels good.

I guess what surprises me is that I don’t like that idea as much as I have in the past. I don’t have much capacity these days for enjoying the space between aloneness and closeness, for feeling the pleasure of that friction. I don’t want to want things and not get them. I  want the people I love to be with me, and to never lose them. I want to do the things I want to do soon, and not risk missing out on them. I want life to be vibrant, and I want it not to end.

Maybe it’s because everything feels more immediate these days, with every piece of news sounding so dire. Bad people making bad plans. Everyone I know is upset, and at times it seems clear to me that we’re standing on the edge of something huge and dangerous. Like De La Soul sang back in 1996, “Stakes is high.”

I guess I could find it in myself to feel wistful and nostalgic for the times in my life when the world felt LESS scary, come to think of it, but feelings like that seem like luxuries now, and I ought to ration them out.

 

The year in review

Happy New Year, everyone! This might be my favorite time of the year to be alive, this week right here. True, being cold (and getting colds) is kind of a drag, but I like taking stock and I like making plans, and I feel that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the right time to do both. I’ve spent the last few days working on my year-end review, and yesterday, by happenstance, I discovered the writer Ksenia Anske and her beautiful website. I was inspired by her year-in-review blog post—and its accompanying photo grid!—to share my own, so here goes: a list of things I did and learned in 2016.

  • I wrote and completed edits on my book Cats I’ve Known, to be published in 2017. Completing this work was my biggest accomplishment of the year—that and surviving the appendicitis that tried to strike me down just a few weeks after I finished the first draft. Nice try, body! I’m still winning, for now.
  • I completed Magical Thinking, the zine my pal Mardou and I made by emailing back and forth with each other on topics including gemstones, herbal healing, and dreams. We then published our dialogue, accompanied by the illustrations Mardou drew. (She is a talented comics artist whose work I really enjoy.) I brought the zine with me to the NYC Feminist Zine Fest at Barnard College, an annual event that I tabled at for the first time. It was a long, hectic day, but I had a few interesting and memorable conversations with visitors to my table, which is the measure I use to judge all zine fests. Frequency and quality of chats.
  • I also tabled with my zines at the Scranton Zine Fest, the Philly Zine Fest, and a Winter Market at the Germantown Kitchen Garden, and all three events were fun and very rewarding.
  • I continued to benefit from keeping this blog. Having a place where I can explore my thoughts about the things I’m reading has been good for me. I like writing about books, but I don’t always like books-writing jobs, if ya feel me. In this space, I can write what I want, at whatever length suits me. So thank you for taking an interest in my blog, gang; it means a lot to me.
  • I finally visited Haegele’s Bakery in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. As far as I know these folks are not my relations, but they have operated a German bakery in the same city that I’m from for nearly 90 years—and I never got around to visiting it until last month. Whatta jerk! Joe and I went there with friends on the damp, chilly Saturday after Thanksgiving, and it made me so happy to see how pretty and old-fashioned the shop is, sitting right there on the corner of a residential street just a few blocks away from the one where my mother lived when she was a teenager. I ate a Stollen AND a Bienenstich, and they were both gorgeous. Planning on getting myself a Grosse Neujahrsbrezel on New Year’s Eve, too.
  • I got two new jobs this year, contract gigs doing editing work, which is just a mundane thing that I needed to do to make more money and wouldn’t ordinarily mention. But my job slog has had an unexpected and happy result (besides the more—but still not enough!—money): I discovered that I love editing other people’s writing. What’s more, I’m not bad at it. There is something deeply satisfying about taking a piece of writing and making it tighter, cleaner, smoother, and better all around, while preserving its original spirit and without imposing my own voice or attitude onto it. It’s like being a tailor, an invisible mender: I leave things looking better than I found them, and if I do my work really well, you won’t be able to tell I  was ever there.
  • I redesigned my website. Go take a look!
  • I raised a black swallowtail butterfly, which was an incredibly beautiful experience that happened half by accident. In September I attended a meeting of the garden club I used to belong to, and a friend there gave me a bunch of cuttings from her herb garden. I put them in a vase on the kitchen table and enjoyed them for a week or two before Joe noticed two minuscule caterpillars on their leaves. We watched them both get bigger fairly rapidly, then put them inside a small aquarium to keep them safe. Over the next week one of the caterpillars kept escaping, so we released it into the wilds of our backyard and wished it well. The other we kept, feeding it carrot greens from our garden because we read that’s what they like to eat. This guy went to TOWN eating them and got bigger and fatter by the day, until he made his chrysalis. Then that gnarly looking thing lived in our kitchen for 2 more weeks before it burst open, behind us on the kitchen counter while we sat at the table one morning, talking and drinking coffee. We were lucky to see the creature’s black wings when they were still all wet and soft and crumpled; the whole event happened so fast, if we’d been in another room for even an hour we would have missed it. We brought the new butterfly outside, and Joe went into work late that day so that we could sit in our yard and watch it spread and flap and dry out its wings in the sun and fresh air, carefully but quickly, before it flew away.
  • My good friend Nadine Schneider and I made a zine together, and I’ve been selling it at the Wooden Shoe. She wrote about making and using herbal body care products, and I wrote about how you can clean your house without nasty neurotoxins. We called it Kytchyn Witche and spelled it that way because that’s the way it’s spelled in an account we read about the good luck “poppet” that English people kept in their homes during the Tudor period. And because it looks cool.
  • I street-protested the Trump presidency and the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist, and I plan to keep on doing so because these people are really bad news, and protesting is democracy in action.
  • I saw a fuckton of bands play. I celebrated a significant birthday this year and while I don’t really want to tell you my age, I will tell you that in honor of it, I set a goal to see 40 live shows this year. I achieved the goal and had a lot of fun doing it. Highlights include: discovering the industrial/punk band Uniform when they opened for somebody else, then seeing them again later in the year (are you familiar with the phrase WALL OF SOUND); seeing another act on the Sacred Bones label, Blanck Mass, who turned the tiny space at Johnny Brenda’s into a cathedral with his majestic noise; enjoying the heck out of ourselves at RuPaul’s Drag Race Battle of the Seasons, which had about 100 clever acts packed into one show (plus Sharon Needles and Jinkx Monsoon LIVE AND IN PERSON!); watching Philly band Remote Control (pictured above) channel Peter Murphy; being transfixed by the sight of weirdo genius Jenny Hval bopping around the room; and Shopping. We got right up in front of the stage and danced at them, and they danced back. Such a good-natured, high-energy band, and those post-punk melodies do something really nice to my brain chemistry. If they don’t get big I’ll be a little surprised.
  • Joe and I hosted three shows at the East Falls Zine Reading Room this year, which wasn’t as many as last year. They were good shows though, featuring the chiptune musician Sloopygoop, folk singers Potential Gospel, video artist Cory Kram, postpunk band Rabbits to Riches, loony tunesters Yoga Dad, and memoirist Ashton Yount.
  • Joe and I also toured twice, up north during the summer and down south in the fall. In New England we did readings at the Papercut Zine Library in Boston, a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, and one in Woodstock, New York. On our Southern tour, I was pleased and frankly really proud to perform with our friends Kishibashi, his wife Mocha, and their daughter Sola (all three of them on violin) at a wonderful bookstore called Avid in Athens, Georgia. The artist and adorable human Missy Kulik read from her comics at that show, too. We also performed with the one-man band who is Tall Tall Trees, at a fine bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina called Downtown Books & News. Then we went to Savannah and did a show at Starlandia, a charming creative reuse shop, with the inimitable Dame Darcy, a comics artist whose work I have admired for a long time. (She read from her books and, accompanied by her friend Skippy on guitar, she played sea shanties on the banjo. It was a special night.)
  • I participated in Fun-a-Day last January, and even though I was lazy about it I managed to write a little something almost every day that month, which was an undertaking I took to treating like a diary. At the end of the project I made a handmade book collecting the month’s meditations and exhibited it in the group show. I plan to participate again this year—just one more day till it starts!—and I’ve got my idea ready and my pencils sharpened. They are metaphorical pencils.
  • I hosted a Pop-Up Zine Reading Room at Amalgam Comics in the Kensington neighborhood Philadelphia, which means that I took a bunch of zines and books from the collection at The Soapbox and sat at the bookstore with a sign inviting people to join me and read them. It was sweet. I also ran a zine workshop for the high school students in the after-school program at the Lutheran Settlement House, also in Kenzo, and in November I cohosted a letterpress printing and book-binding workshop for some undergraduate writing students. Those events were sweet, too.
  • I started a zine about Christmas, which I have historically hated, with my friend, the talented artist Nicholas Beckett. His witty, warm, and sweetly grouchy drawings helped me hate Christmas just a little bit less.
  • I started a new writing collaboration with Eliza, a lovely new friend I met at the Philly Zine Fest. I look forward to seeing where this project takes us in the new year.
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Photo by Scott Wiley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

In 2015, a forester from Germany wrote a book about trees.

Peter Wohlleben’s small, quirky science book was published in his native country, where (to the publisher’s surprise, one can’t help but think) it stayed at or near the top of nonfiction bestseller lists for months. Since that time, The Hidden Life of Trees has been optioned for translation in several languages – including, this fall, in English, from Greystone Books in Canada.

Reading the book now, in a translation by master gardener and writer Jane Billinghurst, it seems that the secret to its popularity lies in its unusual approach. Using simple verbiage, succinct chapters, and a sensitive narrative style, Wohlleben takes a tender view of the trees he understands so well, sweetly anthropomorphizing them and the forests they comprise. He discusses the ways trees communicate with and protect each other by using the language of friendship, family, and community. He describes photosynthesis as a constant source of food for a tree, “like a baker who always has enough bread.” He makes frequent reference to the pain trees experience when they get injured or die a slow death, and compares their roots to our human brains. The chapter on tree reproduction is called, simply, “Love.”

Though his turn of phrase is sometimes fanciful, Wohlleben’s ideas were formed after decades of studying tree growth and behavior and are backed up by both cutting-edge and time-tested studies. The forester-turned-ecologist is an interesting study himself. He worked for the German forestry commission for twenty years, assessing trees for their value in the lumber trade according to accepted industry practice. Gradually, though, he developed a deep appreciation for the trees’ true nature, and came to understand that they behave very differently in undisturbed forests than they do in manipulated environments. For example, while gardeners and commercial foresters take care not to plant trees “too close” together out of fear that one will overshadow and kill the others, Wohlleben tells us that left to their own devices, trees of the same species prefer to huddle together. This way, they can share nutrients and water, balancing out any differences between them at root-level so that they can photosynthesize at the same rate and be equally successful. They prefer to work together.

Wohlleben’s book is filled with these kinds of surprises, bits of science fact that amateur naturalists will thrill to. For instance, we learn that a beech tree, if it lives to be 400 years old, will fruit at least 60 times and produce around 1.8 million beechnuts. Of those nuts only one will become a full-grown tree, which in forest terms is considered a high rate of success, like “winning the lottery.”

There’s something so stirring about the sheer size and longevity of trees, something almost magical. Wohlleben’s love for these magnificent beings and the lessons they can teach us is evident – and he’s as excited by the questions as he is by the answers. As he writes when discussing different ideas about how trees store and transport water to their leaves: “Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery. But aren’t both possibilities equally intriguing?”

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone (288 pp.)

City of the dead

I switched off the radio. In Belfast the news was an accompaniment like music but I didn’t want to hear this stuff. Coffee-jar bomb. Yeah, that was another big craze. I got the idea that people were impressed by this new thing, this wheeze, this caper. Me, I wasn’t impressed. It was easy to do that ugly stuff.

Suddenly I longed to leave Belfast. Because of an inadvertently heard news story, the city felt like a necropolis.

—from the novel Eureka Street, by Robert McLiam Wilson

The book I’m reading is about Belfast, clearly, but that necropolis joke hits home. I am so awfully weary of turning on the news just to hear the latest tragedy from one of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Sometimes I can’t listen at all.

On public speaking

There’s reading, and then there’s readings. I do both, but I find the former much easier to do than the latter.

That being said, I’m proud to say that I do actually find it POSSIBLE to give readings these days. For a lot of my life—beginning, for some reason, in college, and lasting until around five years ago—I found the anxiety of anticipating speaking in public almost too excruciating to bear. I would always accept invitations to read—I’m too much of a huckster to feel good about saying no to an opportunity like that, and I’m always so touched to be included—but I knew that in saying yes, I was resigning myself to weeks or months of miserable worry. I just accepted this fact about them (and about myself), said Yes, thanks, I’d love to read, and coped privately with the unhappiness of it.

“It gets easier the more you do it,” everyone said, and I always smiled and nodded and thought, “But not for me!” I really believed I was the one exception to this very human rule. But as it happens, I’m not. I made myself do more and more readings even though I found it hard, because I felt it was worth it. I wanted to be a writer who gave readings, not a person who didn’t do things because they scared her. I’d get up to read and my voice shook, my legs shook, my hands shook. I’d speak quickly and apologetically, then blaze through an awkward reading from a marked-up copy of one of my zines (though I tended to sort of go blind with anxiety, so couldn’t really see my notes). I once threw up in the bathroom of an art gallery, then splashed a little water on my face and came out and read, hoping no one could smell my breath. I don’t think the readings I gave back then were very entertaining to sit through. They may not even have been audible. But I did them, dammit, and the relief I felt after sharing my work in this way I found difficult was so good, it was physical. I almost miss that feeling. ALMOST.

I’ve had a few break-throughs here and there, and the more successful events gave me a confidence I could carry with me to the next time I got up to read. At Ladyfest Philly in 2013, I was miked and professionally lit, which was a new experience for me, since I’ve most often read in bookshops, classrooms, record stores, and little show spaces in people’s houses. There was a chair and I sat in it, made myself comfortable. As I started to speak I looked out to the audience—a much bigger one than I usually read to—and found that with the bright lights in my eyes, I couldn’t really see anyone. The joy! I read so easily and comfortably on that occasion that I actually enjoyed myself, and I could feel the power in what I read. I KNEW there was a reason I kept doing this!

Over the years I have read the piece I shared that day—the essay that served as the introduction to my first book, White Elephants—as well as some others, again and again. I’ve found that with practice I can nail the rhythm and flow of a piece, make it sound as good as I know it is.

The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Now I give readings often. My partner Joe and I both write and publish zines, and over the past few years we’ve enjoyed organizing and hosting readings as well as going on tours to other cities and towns. We’re on one now, sorta, having returned from a road trip to New England last week and with one reading remaining: The Philly Zine Fest Preview Gala, tonight. First we read with friends and strangers alike at the East Falls Zine Reading Room, the small DIY space we started last year. We called the event Sad Fest and everyone read sad-sack writing and played sad-sack songs. It was great. Then we hit the road and shared some of our poems with an engaged and interested group of poets at the Golden Note Book in Woodstock, New York. The next day we drove to Boston and read our zines to a lively bunch of zinester pals at the Papercut Zine Library. And before coming back home to Philly, we did a reading at a lovely, cool bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island called Ada Books.

We never remember to take good photos of ourselves actually doing the readings, but here are some pictures from the “Dog Days, Cat Zines” tour. That’s J. fiddling with the kaleidoloop he uses to make noise-music to accompany some of his poems.


Once we’ve read at the Zine Fest Preview tonight and tabled with our zines and books at the main event tomorrow, our tour will be over, and so will the summer. That’s how I’m thinking of it, anyway. I’m ready for the fall to come so that I can indulge in some of my quieter, more private pleasures for a while: needlework, long walks, and lots of reading—rather than lots of READINGS, ya dig? But I have loved doing this tour, pushing myself and growing, meeting new people and some cats, too. It’s been a long summer but a good one, exhausting but worthwhile.

See you in the fall, folks.

 

Cataloging

Happy Sunday, gang! I thought I’d check in with a quick roll call of the best media I’ve been consuming recently.

First of all, there’s a motherfucking Ab Fab movie, and it is glorious. It’s all about Joanna Lumley’s dirty laugh and filthy sneer. I was SCREAMING in the movie theater. Must see.

abfab

Now for some books. I’ve been reading an unusual book about the social behavior of trees called The Hidden Life of Trees, by a German forester named Peter Wohlleben. (Read a lovely NY Times profile of him here.) It was a bestseller in Germany for several months and has been optioned for translation into several languages; Greystone is bringing it out in English this fall. There are a lot of touchy-feely and yet scientifically-sound ideas in this book that I’ve been enjoying thinking about. I have a feeling I’ll be telling you more about it as I go.

pier
Check out my review, man.

Mark Haddon is a writer whose previous books I truly loved. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: If you haven’t read this, you really ought to. As a friend (who is a good poet himself) said about it, “It would be hard to find a single word in that book that wasn’t just right.” I also deeply enjoyed A Spot of Bother and The Red House, his other novels for adults, so I was excited when I found out he had collection of short stories coming out. I found this book to be a mixed bag and a bit of a disappointment, though on the whole I think it’s impressive. I reviewed The Pier Falls for the Philadelphia Inquirer last week; have a look.

Also! Guys. Last week I was poking around a small indie bookstore I like in Doylestown, Pennsylvania when I discovered that Europa Editions has rereleased Bilgewater. Score! I fell so in love with the heroine in A Long Way From Verona last summer, and I’ve been meaning to read Bilgewater next, which also has a teenage girl protagonist. I keep meaning to buy it secondhand since it’s long out of print, or get it from the library downtown, but it’s been so miserably hot I haven’t felt like taking the bus there. You know how it is; I just haven’t gotten around to it. But then one day out of the blue, in the clean cool serene bookstore, there was a beautiful new edition of the book, just begging me to buy it. It looks like this:

bilge

Pretty, huh? So far it’s good, too.

Other stuff I like right now: Simpsonwave makes good getting-ready-to-go-out music. Sushi Cat is an excellent game to play when you need to decompress. The U.S. version of the show “Shameless” is just as rousing and cheesily entertaining as the British version was. That’s all I’ve got for now.

God himself could not sink this ship

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

I love Bob the Drag Queen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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