nonfiction

Readings: Bakewell, Aziz

I feel like I am finally getting my life back. Might even go running today, if all goes well.

existentialistAfter fairly reading-deprived March, I now seem to be devouring books at a steady clip. I have belatedly dived into Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, which is very very good if you are looking for non-fiction. I find myself drawn to these types of ‘group biographies’, wherein a certain time period or theme is explored through lives of several people. In this case, philosophy and existentialism in particular are explored through lives of people who started the whole wonderful mess: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Jaspers, and a whole host of others. Bakewell does a fantastic job connecting both philosophy and biography elements of the book, so the volume is both a great intro to existentialism and a fascinating look at some interesting lives.

I also finished The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translation by Elisabeth Jaquette). I have woefully enormous gaps when it comes to Middle Eastern literature, so this is filling some of those. The easy description of it would be 1984 mixed with Arab Spring. This is the kind of book reviewers would describe as ‘chilling’, I suppose. It is firmly in the ‘disturbingly true dystopia’ camp. Something called the Gate appears after a failed uprising. The Gate controls all of citizens’ lives, including their access to doctors and healthcare. One must submit applications to have life-saving surgery (which obviously means one does not get said surgery in time to save life). Mind you, the Gate is never open, and so the action takes place almost entirely in the queue that forms in front of it. It is a rather grim little book, but worth reading. Out May 24th.

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Readings: Olivia Laing on loneliness

I am about to move out of the house I share with three other people into a place where it’s going to be just me. I am excited at the prospect but also fearful because for the first time in my life it occurred to me that I might become lonely. In a way, it’s a strange question for me to ask because I am introverted and misanthropic, and normally go out of my way to avoid most human interactions. This fear of lonesomeness is probably due more to the fact that my friend is moving away, and due to misanthropic introversion mentioned above, I don’t have a lot of friends.

I should not lump solitude with loneliness because, as Olivia Laing points out in her new book, The Lonely City, one can be lonely even when surrounded by humans. In fact, perhaps the loneliest time in my life was not when I was surrounded by rice paddies in rural Japan, but when I lived in New York. It’s the reason I picked up Laing’s book. In it, she documents her own loneliness in NYC, and also looks at loneliness through lives of several artists, including Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger.

lonelycityThe Lonely City received a nice review from NPR, although they thought it was beautiful but rather oppressive and well, lonely. It is, perhaps, not the most uplifting book, but it is not depressing per se. It is mostly because the lives of artists Laing chooses to profile are not exactly brimming with happiness and cheer. Wojnarowicz’s life in particular seems so brutal that it’s amazing he survived long enough to make art. Her chapters on his life and the AIDS crisis the most heartbreaking and poignant part of the book. Darger’s life is largely unknown (although Laing gets access to his diary), but his paintings are so deeply disturbing that one can’t help but imagine something awful either in his circumstances or his personality.

As I read on, I could see what the NPR reviewer was getting at. As one goes through these lonely lies, one forgets what ties all these biographical pieces together except for a certain oppressive aesthetic. Everything is dull and gray. Humans cannot connect and instead, live in mental glass cubes with no exits.

Laing’s own struggles with loneliness are there as well, but what I didn’t expect to find in this book were her observations about her own gender, that she felt ‘more like a boy, a gay boy’, or perhaps a gender that was somewhere in the center of the spectrum. It always fascinates me how people come to realize that they are perhaps trans, since it happened to me so late in life. I did not expect this piece, but in hindsight it is relevant to the topic because of its connection to being an outsider, feeling not fitting into into neat boxes, and possibly feeling guilty as a result.

I don’t think I had a deeper insight into loneliness after finishing this book, but I discovered lives of artists about whom I did not particularly care before, and found them fascinating. I barely knew who Wojnarowicz was (there was a biography of his a couple of years ago that briefly crossed my vision, but I did not pick it up), and I did not really care about Warhol despite having a print of his art in my room, left behind by some previous tenant. I rediscovered Peter Hujar, whose ‘Orgasmic Man’ photo is on the cover of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The Lonely City is definitely a book that made my life richer and gave me a lot of new reading paths.

 

PKD’s Exegesis: it begins

I am about a month behind in the Exegesis read along, but I still want to post some thoughts. You can see my intro post about it here.

exegesisThe first fifty pages (and to be honest, I feel the pattern will hold for the entirety of the volume) are an odd mix of borderline unhinged pronouncements (of the ‘I’m getting messages from aliens’ type) and simply examples of someone trying to figure out where thoughts, visions, and creativity come from, and trying to explain it in terms both neurophysiological and mystical. At least for me, the beginning of Exegesis is peculiar but not outrageously so. Perhaps it is because at one point I myself lived on a somewhat steady diet of mystical literature, from myth analyses to Jungian alchemical essays. Perhaps it is simply recognition that this is another human mind trying to figure out itself, though PKD’s take on it might be more peculiar than most.

Peculiarity here is mixed with a dose of self-importance, which might be inflated because most of this was not written for others’ eyes. The idea that one’s novels are predicting the future, coming true, and, in fact, forming said future is a great science fiction concept. And therein lies the Exegesis rub. Is PKD living in a PKD novel? Is he writing non-fiction for some distant future? Are his novels, upon leaving his mind and typewriter, go on to change the fabric of reality itself? He seems to believe all or some of these things.

And for those of you who are wondering whether this volume is a slog: it isn’t. It is, oddly enough, quite readable, something which a few of us in this read along pointed out. I have a feeling we are all going to come after having reached page 300 or thereabouts and renounce our words, but we’ll see. Is it worth your time? It depends. If you think you will enjoy not-intended-for-publication self-examination ramblings full of religious and philosophical references, then I think you’ll have a blast.

Readings: Drawing Blood

I finished Molly Crabapple’s memoir Drawing Blood (out December 1st), and here are some thoughts, positive first, negative last:

drawing bloodOn traveling while introverted: I already mentioned this in a previous blog post, but this memoir told me that it’s okay to mostly observe, rather than actively interact with the world when traveling and living abroad.

On making art in general and more specifically, trying to make money while making art: In a way, Drawing Blood is not an easy book to read, because it is so honest about what it takes to make money while trying to become a an artist who can make money with her art. It is also honest about what it takes for a woman artist to do these things.  If Crabapple’s accounts of older men treating her as a sex object starting when she was still a child and warnings from people that traveling alone as a young woman is dangerous are shocking to you, you might be an alien from a happy planet where sexism has been eradicated (and we envy you). She talks about how a woman’s body does not belong to her, how it becomes a reason ‘she must be fetishized and confined’, how a lot of the world excludes women: ‘his was the public world, which is to say the male world, of bars, drugs, and easy camaraderie’. Molly Crabapple is precisely the woman the system aims to break: defiant, independent, eventually out of fucks to give.

The lies told to artists mirror the lies told to women: Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet, to the picked-fenced land of generous collectors and 2.5 kids. But make the first move, seize your destiny, and you’re a whore.

On making art political:

I started drawing as a way to cope with people: to observe and record them, to understand them, charm them, or to keep them at arm’s length… When the world changed in 2011, I let my art change with it, expanding from nightclub walls to hotel suites and street protests. My drawings bled into the world. 

Art is political because art is a way for people to tell you and show you what their experiences are. Art is for displaying uncomfortable truths and is therefore used by marginalized, under-privileged, unjustly feared, and in general kicked around groups to both make themselves heard and possibly heal.

On being in artist in a more general sense:

Young artists must be arrogant so they don’t kill themselves.

Drawing Blood is about self-making. The evolution and development of an artist are on full display here, and Crabapple’s unerring dedication to her craft is palpable. In fact, if there is one definite way in which this book touched me, it’s in its ability to make me want to draw. A lot. I do not possess Crabapple’s monomania for drawing (or for anything, for that matter), but her memoir gives you a taste of what it’s like to be in love and in need of making art.

Crabapple will no doubt inspire a lot of people who think they could never be artists or make their living as artists, but here’s why she will also ruffle feathers (and she ruffled mine). Crabapple’s choice of words is not always, shall we say, agreeable. She is often just as graphic when describing things with words as she is when describing them with drawings. Her choice of words for Buck Angel’s top surgery is not sensitive. While I don’t particularly care about Buck Angel, I would never describe any transman’s top surgery in this way, so beware (and if he has read it and is okay with it, then Crabapple needs to get trans friends who are not Buck Angel).

Readings: Non-fiction, again

liebermanIt’s been somewhat slow in terms of reading and writing here. It’s partly work, partly the fact that what Warren Ellis calls The Great Winter Hermitage is approaching again, and I seem to be saving all the reading and writing for times when I really won’t want to leave the house. My reading now, oddly enough, is done mostly while I’m out and about, as I am still in the non-fiction audio book phase. I did Dewey’s readathon last Saturday and finished listening to The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge while doing a half-marathon through the park (way to overachieve, I say). Now I’m listening to Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body, which is forcing me to learn quite a bit about something I oddly never particularly cared about, namely, various ancient hominids and what hunter-gatherers were up to. Lieberman is mainly interested in how evolution has affected our bodies and therefore our health. Spoiler alert: he thinks we should eat fewer donuts and walk more miles, but he also explains pretty well why it’s hard to overcome the impulse to sit on the couch instead. He makes a point that while we can ask what it is that the human body has evolved to do, we shouldn’t expect an easy, one-task answer. Much like we didn’t evolve to eat one kind of diet (he takes a few shots at modern paleo diets throughout the book). Whereas my previous audio read focused more on the brain, this one is more body-oriented (though I’m a few chapters away from the finish line).

ruhlI also just finished Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write. This is the perfect book if you don’t have time to read, either. As advertised, it has one hundred essays, Chekhovian in their brevity, but somehow containing within humor, profundity, life advice, and theatre critique all at once. Read this little book if you love theatre or if you hate theatre. Read it if you love children or don’t want any children around. Read it if you are a dramaturg, or if you have no idea what ‘dramaturg’ means. Just read it. It will either take you a couple of hours or weeks, depending on your reading speed and the number of children you have.

Readings: alternate formats

I spent a few days dog-sitting for a couple of friends this week, and discovered that walking dogs is great for catching up on podcasts. It was so great, in fact, that I pretty much listened to everything on my list and ran out of audio material. Luckily, I then remembered that I wanted to give audio books a second chance. Audio fiction never works for me — I get distracted for five minutes, and in those five minutes ten characters die and I get confused. So I tried non-fiction, and it worked pretty well. It’s as if someone is narrating knowledge into your brain as you go about some mindless task.

accidental universeI listened to Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe, which came out a couple of years ago and was very well liked by someone at work whose reading taste I trust implicitly. It’s a pretty short book, but Lightman manages to touch upon the latest theories in physics, conflict between science and religion, philosophy, and what technology might be doing to human interactions with the world and each other. The latter was the point where I actually disagreed and even disliked his view of personal technology and its uses. It even struck me as privileged, for want of a better word, to grump about increase in texting and people spending a lot of time online. Sure, it’s annoying when everyone you’re having dinner with is checking their phones every two minutes, but think about any of these: texting allowing easier communication where it was nonexistent or limited before (see deaf community); cell phones allowing people who otherwise would have trouble keeping track of time or organizing their day to have a more scheduled life; online allowing me to find people like myself. And honestly, maybe uploading ourselves to some virtual reality doesn’t sound so bad to those of us who are not comfortable with our bodies. I’m certain Lightman does not think personal technology is solely bad for us, but the way he presents his thoughts on it is rather one-sided.

Before this gets too ranty, let me say that it was a good book to read if you have, like Lightman, a wide array of interests that include both science and humanities and if you like to break your brain by thinking about what conditions brought about life on Earth so humans could sit around and think about what conditions brought about life on Earth.

In addition to branching out into audio books, I also got a couple of e-books to read. I have periods when I remember e-books exist, and then go months without touching a single digital copy (touching it with my uploaded body, duh). I forget e-books are a thing because I get so many physical books. I also forget that advanced copies as e-books are a thing, and a great thing at that because they don’t add to the mountains of reading material in my house. So my e-book downloads this week are as follows: All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Y. T. by Alexei Nikitin (out next April), and The Good Death: Exploration of Dying in America by Ann Neumann. None of these are out till next year, I’m afraid, so I feel like it’s a little early to even talk about whether I like these or not (I’ve read the first one on the list so far),

There are, as always, a whole bunch of books on paper in queue as well. Prepare yourselves, for I picked up my first Star Wars book in many years…

October reads: Witches of America by Alex Mar

witches of americaI just finished Witches of America by Alex Mar (out 10/20/15), and it gave me all kinds of nostalgic feelings for my pagany days. In the future I might write about those, but for now it’s enough to know that I used to be one of ‘Witches of America’ (or, more accurately, ‘Druids of America’).

Witches of America is not an exhaustive study of paganism today. If you want that, you might want to check out Ronald Hutton or similar. Mar’s book mostly deals with the Feri tradition and OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis) ceremonial magic practitioners, but it is not just an anthropological study either. It’s also a memoir and an exploration of Mar’s personal spirituality, which I found particularly interesting and also very familiar. Her doubts about the religious side of the Craft, her interest in a mystery tradition, both seemed to be precisely on my wavelength.

Mar’s approach to belief is similar to mine in that she is ‘compelled by the mysterious’ and ‘drawn to the outer edges, the fringe — communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together.’ At one point I labeled myself a perpetual seeker because I could not settle. I kept chasing something that would give me meaning, almost initiate me into my own mind, if you will. I also always viewed magic as a path to self-transformation. When Mar finally starts training in the Feri tradition, she talks about seemingly enrolling in therapy through witchcraft. I was also looking for something that would help me make my own narrative, a story of myself. I now realize that a lot of my search was closely tied to my uneasiness with the gender I was assigned at birth and an attempt to find a place that would make me comfortable with my body, but my approach to religious belief remains much the same.

Mar’s view on large pagan gatherings and their ecumenicism is also spot-on. It is virtually impossible to make up a ritual that will not seem diluted and bland, if you are trying to make it for vastly diverse groups of people. The largest rituals I attended were always the least meaningful for me, even if the amount of power raised was through the roof. Mar says: ”Maybe this is my problem, evidence of damage to my own psyche, that i’m looking for something deeper, darker, more layered, harder to live with.’

If anything, Witches of America allowed me to take a look at paganism from a certain remove but not as a stranger. It also made me realize that my engagement with paganism was from a perspective of a completely different person. Mar’s chapter on Dianic (largely women-only) Wicca now raises in my mind an important question of inclusion/exclusion of transwomen (Mar mentions this concern very briefly in a footnote, but it is mentioned). People going skyclad and a very binary power structure of most rituals now make me wonder if I would feel comfortable in such a cis-oriented setting. That said, I like to think that if any religion would be okay with gender fluidity and bodies that do not conform to a standard, it’s paganism. I haven’t really participated in anything pagany in many years and certainly not since my transition, but now I have this urge to dip back in and see how it would feel now.

Plus, it inspired me to clean my house and find all my Tarot decks and a bunch of cloak clasps (though the latter are mostly for the Ren Faire outing next weekend).

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