A Good Year for Reading

long2I live and die by my datebook. In fact, since I haven’t marked down a date for my death, it’s likely it’ll never happen.

I use my book to make a note of every event I hear about and want to remember, and I draw up daily lists of tasks I need to do, which I happily cross off as I accomplish each one. Every September I buy myself a new book, since I favor the student ones. Don’t ask me why. I think it may be that I first developed a need for a daily calendar when I was in college, and all these years later I still think in terms of getting a fresh start in the fall.

This year I chose a brand of datebook I’d never used before called Bloom. It’s a really nice book, sprinkled throughout with stirring quotations and “reflections” that are lovely but don’t beat you over the head with their positivity. I’ve just come to a page at the end of the year that prompts you to list new things you tried and places you visited, etc., in 2015, with similar categories to fill in with plans for the coming year. One of the sections is called Best Books I Read in 2015, so I gave that a little thought and came up with these seven. More than half of them were written by men, which surprised me since I don’t tend to be very interested in fiction by or about men. But now that I look at it, two of these four men are gay, and the only fiction writer among them—Colm Tóibín—very often writes about the interiority of women. So there you go. I’ve already said something about most of these books or writers on this blog, so here are just a few brief thoughts on each:

  1. A Long Way From Verona, by Jane Gardam. This may be the best book I’ve ever read, actually. It’s up there with The Secret Garden and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, two other children’s books that I first read as an adult, loved deeply, and understood what makes them “classics.” (A Long Way From Verona was considered a children’s book when it was published in 1971, but like those others the ideas and humor are sophisticated and subtle and make substantive reading for any adult.)
  2. The London Train, by Tessa Hadley. Clever Girl is still my favorite of Tessa Hadley’s novels, but The London Train had the same wonderful affect on me, casting a kind of spell that made the real world drop away as I read. Her characters live in my memory as though they’re real people I once knew. Her new novel, The Past, comes out in the U.S. on January 5th, which will be an excellent way to begin a new year of reading. I plan to finish it in time to see Hadley speak at the main branch of the Free Library at the end of the month. If I work up the nerve I may even stay afterward to speak with her, which is something I never do because I consider it humiliating to wait in line for the privilege of telling someone I admire them. That attitude might belong in the category of “hangups” though, so it’s probably not a bad idea to fight it.
  3. I’d never heard of Helen Garner before I bought a used copy of her novel The Spare Room (which is apparently really a memoir, and quite frankly reads like one too). Fine, vivid writing from a strong and unusual personality brought this sad story to life. I’ll plan to look for more of her stuff in the new year.
  4. I freaking love Jon Ronson. I even concocted a reason to interview him once, years ago, just because I loved one of his books so much (Them: Adventures With Extremists) that I developed a silly crush on him after reading it. In 2015 he’s still at the top of his game, in control of his powers to amaze and amuse. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he asks us to take a hard look at ourselves and the way we all participate in “shaming” people who have had a fall from grace. It makes for crawlingly distressing reading. I even lost a little sleep for a few days there.
  5. The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Tóibín. I keep reading Tóibín’s fiction and trying to understand how he does what he does, short of witchcraft. I still don’t get it. It really is magic, the way he transports you. I especially love his women protagonists, like the main lady in Nora Webster, Nancy in the short story “The Name of the Game” from the collection Mothers and Sons, and Helen in Blackwater Lightship. All three of them have a certain canniness to the way they approach their lives; a solitary, dignified stoicism; and a wonderful dry sense of humor. They’re some of the realest women I’ve ever read, and their Irishness is both foreign and intimately familiar to me. Blackwater Lightship is about a young gay man who is dying from AIDS, and the family that gathers around him during his final days. It would be heartbreaking except that Tóibín doesn’t seen to want to break your heart. The whole novel is infused with the sadness of the impending loss, but there’s a gritty hopefulness at the heart of the book that bolsters you in the end. Wonderful novel.
  6. Ask the Dark, by Henry Turner. Because I used to review them for the Philly Inquirer, I have read dozens of so-called young adult books, probably more than 100 by now. And I don’t mind telling you that on the whole, these books do not make very interesting reading for adults. Occasionally, though, I’ll come across a YA novel that is more nuanced, surprising, and challenging than the majority. This crime thriller was one of them. It’s gorgeously written, in the vernacular of a poor Southern country boy, and it is scary AS HELL. I got the book a week or so after I moved into the house I live in now, and reading it in a place where I wasn’t yet totally comfortable was enough to keep me awake at night, staring at the ceiling with huge eyes. I hope this guy gets the attention he deserves for this beautiful book.
  7. Gary Indiana is one of a kind. He’s fucking funny and bitter and so smart it’s scary. Read his memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, if you’re interested in descriptions of modern-day Havana or San Francisco’s underground art-freak scene of the ’60s and’70s, book recommendations from a huge reader, gossipy accounts of the personal lives of well-known American intellectuals, or in Gary Indiana himself. He’s reason enough on his own, trust me.
    (Incidentally, I wrote about this book for the Utne Reader, and they’re giving away a copy of it as part of a year-end grab bag contest. I see they’ve also got cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan’s I Was a Child up for grabs, which reminds me that I loved that book too.)

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

Here are a few more books I read this year and want to tell you about:

  1. How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing, by Alison Freer. Charmingly written and incredibly useful. I recommend this book to anyone who cares about their clothing even one iota more than the average person. If it bothers you that store-bought clothes almost always have a slightly imperfect fit, for instance, consult this book for tips on how to alter them yourself—or make better purchasing decisions in the first place. I discovered Alison’s writing on xoJane, a guilty-pleasure website I spend way too much time reading and commenting on. She’s one of the site’s best writers, largely because she hits the right note: she’s unfailingly upbeat without seeming smarmy or fake.
  2. Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno. I have a real relationship with Kate Zambreno’s writing. Every time I see she has an essay somewhere, I read it and take it in—she always packs a lot into her writing that takes time to chew and digest … sorry for the disgusting eating metaphors—and I feel oddly proud of her too, as though I’m rooting for her career advancement. Reading her name triggers the same sort of complicated blossoming of associations and feelings that happens when you hear the name of someone you know. I guess that’s a testament to her talent for so-called personal writing; she lets you in, but not all the way, and half of what she says about herself is actually a swirling, heady list of references to books she’s read and films she loves. ANYWAY, I haven’t actually finished this book. I keep it in the bedroom, where I’ve been picking away at it piece by piece. I feel as if the girl in the story is me, when I was in my twenties and confused and pissed off at all the men who stared at me every time I went anywhere. I felt like an empty vessel and I needed their attention as much as I hated it; I mistreated myself and felt afraid all the time, too. I don’t think these are uncommon things for young women to feel, and Green Girl captures that mess of contradictions so well it makes me a little queasy—and, weirdly, wistful—to read it.
  3. Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg. Stone cold classic.
  4. Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, by Peter Hook. Still working on this one too. I had to return it to the library before I was finished. I’m a little obsessive in my love for Joy Division, so this book is one of many documentaries I’ve read / watched on the band. I’ve read a lot of “rock biographies” over the years, now that I think about it, from Richard Hell’s pretentious autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (great title though) to Nikki Sixx’s trashy, vivid (and illustrated!!!) book about his celebrity and drug addiction, The Heroin Diaries. My favorites tend to be poorly written, “real” seeming ones like this, come to think of it. Touching From a Distance was written by Ian Curtis’ widow, who is not a writer and was not in the band with him, either: It’s a family story, really, and one that succeeds in telegraphing a certain rawness of emotion and bleakness of personal circumstance precisely because it is so plainly rendered. See also: And I Don’t Want to Live this Life, by Nancy Spungen’s flipping MOM. Holy shit was that a good read. Super scandalous. (And look at the cover! I must have spent hours staring at Nancy’s face in that photo. Mesmerizing.) The mother is so carping and unkind, and her book is so tediously detailed, I find it amazing that it even got published. spungenAnd yet this is the type of junk I most like to read when I’m feeling nostalgic or morbidly curious about one of my music heroes. In contrast, Unknown Pleasures is, well, a true pleasure, mainly because Peter Hook comes across as such a lovely human being. He chose to write his account of the band in a chummy, conversational style (which I can tell you is much harder to do than it looks), and he makes liberal use of funny Northern English slang. He’s hilarious, and unlike some famous scenesters who have commented on other musicians they’ve known and worked with (I’m looking at you, Debbie Harry), he’s able to call someone a complete asshole without sounding bitter or even unkind. If he says it, you can trust that the person acted like a complete asshole. And I mean, sometimes it needs to be said.
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I Capture the Castle

professorSeveral years ago, when Trixie the cat and I were living in our cozy bachelorette pad, I got an ad in the mail from the London Review of Books. They offered me a year’s subscription to the weekly paper for some very low price, like 30 bucks, so I decided to give it a try. I thought the writing might be over my head – and sometimes it was – but I really enjoyed picking through the essays in there every week. (The classified section was a revelation, too. A quick look shows me that this week’s personals aren’t especially charming, but some very funny people submit ads to that paper, and following them week to week was a hoot. One of them, posted by a woman, ran for months with only her first name and one word: “Elegant.” Then one week that one ran as usual, but out of the blue a new one had appeared: “Natasha: Inelegant.”)

But there was one writer alone who made my pennies-on-the-dollar subscription worth every cent: Terry Castle. What a fuckin genius. Castle is a literary critic and a scholar, and most of her publications are academic books that never crossed my path. But she writes about books for a more general audience too, and in a bombastic and hilariously autobiographical way. I loved these essays and looked forward to getting updates on her life with Blakey, the woman to whom she is now married, and used to refer to by a funny nickname – I forget what now. She’d talk about a new book she was reading – with insights like an arrow to the heart – in the same paragraph that she described rummaging through cardboard boxes to get ready for a move, or sitting up in bed poking at her laptop and eating chocolates over the Christmas holiday. And somehow all these things were about the same thing. Her life and the the life of her mind were totally intertwined, in the most interesting way – she seems to make such good use of the things she reads, thinks about, and experiences, as if her whole life is a fact-finding mission on how to get through it. It’s really nerdy and pained and passionate. I relate to it.

Furthermore, she is funny as hell. After enjoying her work in the LRB I ordered her book of essays, The Professor, which I took off the shelf just now. I’m looking at the piece she wrote about a book on the jazz alto saxophonist Art Pepper, which she called “My Heroin Christmas,” but hastened to explain, “Not that I used any … I’ve always been afraid of serious drugs, knowing my grip on ‘things being okay’ was pretty tenuous already.” I relate to this too. Just now I found this (ALSO RELATABLE, though I won’t elaborate), in a LRB essay about getting gay-married:

“Despite being friendly and garrulous to a fault, my mother has always been somewhat averse to self-examination. Nor is psychological transparency her strong suit. Indeed, she might once have served as poster-lady for that delicate mental process Freud called the Censorship. Given all that seems to go on unacknowledged in her emotional world, these undated, untethered notes can often read – shockingly – like eerie and unprecedented eruptions from the maternal unconscious.

Witness a pencilled memorandum from one of the real-estate pads: ‘WE’VE BEEN THRU A LOT TOGETHER & MOST OF IT WAS YOUR FAULT.’”

If you’re not laughing right now I don’t understand you at all.

The reason I’ve got Terry Castle on the brain is because she’s coming to Philadelphia in November, to give a lecture. Hooray! And it’s a free lecture, open to the public, at Penn, that’s part of a themed series they do every year that is always excellent. This year’s theme is sex. See?

They put this picture on the brochure. The audacity!
They put this picture on the brochure. The audacity!

But it looks like the symposium is also, maybe mostly, about gender, which of course is not the same thing at all. Gender is something I spend about 30% of every day thinking about, and Terry Castle writes about it a lot as well. This talk she’s giving is called “No, I’m Not a Woman–I’m a Not-A-Woman: A Not-A-Woman Dossier.” Hee. This is Castle’s own term, according to the brochure, for “a person who looks and functions as a woman only in a nominal sense, having lost, refused, or neglected to cultivate standard markers of the “feminine.” Her examples include Gertrude Stein – okay, sure, no surprise there – as well as Hillary Clinton and Greta Garbo.

!!!

All of this makes me feel so happy and intrigued. I mean, Greta Garbo, could you die? This conversation also puts me to mind of Nuala O’Faolain, who I wrote about below, and who once, after being introduced as the Only Woman to Such-and-Such at a lecture she gave here in Philadelphia, said plainly, “I’m not a woman. I’m an honorary man.”

Woof. There’s a lot to think about here. Learning about Castle’s lecture came at an interesting time for me, because just yesterday I finally started reading that stone cold classic, Stone Butch Blues, which I saw was being given away for free as a PDF. As a not-very-obvious gender weirdo, I found the childhood stuff in the beginning relatable and tough to read; the book already feels so important to me. Maybe this will be the year I sort out some of my feelings about my gender, for once and for all. Maybe I never will, but instead I’ll keep on reading and writing and thinking about it forever. I guess I could be alright with that too.