memoir

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.

 

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Recent books, briefly

First of all, Books Brains and Beer is back (-ish)! Or is he? He isn’t sure. But he has been reading up a storm and posted a bunch of flash reviews. I like short reviews. Every time I see some gigantic review spread in The New York Times, I have a feeling that I could save myself some time by skipping the review and reading the book instead.

Which brings me to my own brief bookish observations.

First of all, all those glowing reviews of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho are quite right. I’m just going to say that it was Saturday night, and I had some red wine, and this book was perfect. You might want to replicate the setting. It wasn’t the kind of book that sucked me in and made me spent 12 hours on the couch. On the contrary, I kept picking it up, reading a bit, then putting it down. Perhaps it wasn’t the book’s fault and I was just feeling distracted that weekend. That said, I enjoyed myself immensely while reading it. It’s quite fun and also funny. Favorite quote:

‘I had no one to teach me better, you see.’

‘So you have found someone to teach you worse!’

Lest you think it was just an amusing romantic historical romp, here’s a brief list of topics it touches upon: Class. Race. International politics. Colonialism. Gender roles. Education of girls.

My other read was quite in contrast. It was Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door, out next January (can I even talk about it yet?). It was a magically beautiful memoir about love, grief, friendship, and how all those things change and are experienced at different points in life. The whole book feels like a quilt made of gossamer. It jumps in time, holding all these fragile pieces together. The sentences are almost translucent at times. For some reason I always find descriptions of male companionship and love incredibly heart-achy and touching. Perhaps it’s because I myself am a queer man. Perhaps this kind of love still feels forbidden from a larger society’s point of view, marriage decision notwithstanding. The Narrow Door has quite a few of those, and I was glad I had a glass of bourbon at hand. I’ll definitely mention it again closer to its release because it is already on my list of 2016 favorites, and we aren’t even in that year yet.

Other books briefly:

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. Here’s what you should do. Read this book while listening to electronica. The combined effect of that music genre and Kleeman’s writing style make you feel as if time no longer exists. Or it makes reality feel like a continuous straight line with no beginning or end in sight, with no changes whatsoever. Maybe that’s why, sadly, I abandoned it. I couldn’t handle the depersonalization effect it seemed to have on me.

Saga # 5 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan. For some reason, I refuse to read Saga in single issues. I like the trades. I wasn’t a fan of #4, but this one is pretty good.

IMG_0598Currently reading:

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. Yesterday was its release day, and I spent most of it with a giant raccoon cutout as we shot videos and took pictures for marketing purposes at work (if you don’t get to stage mock battles with human-sized cardboard raccoons at your place of employment, I feel sorry for you). I’ll be honest, Furiously Happy is better than Lawson’s first book, but it did give me an anxiety attack. I woke up at 2 am last night, convinced that some shit was going down. Apparently reading about other people’s mental issues reminds me I also have mental issues. But I’m not giving up, because the book is immensely funny and full of taxidermy, two things I look for in all books and find in so few.

I know you wanted a picture of me with a giant raccoon. You’re welcome.

Absurdist non-fiction: Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible

pomerantsevIt looks like I’m on a non-fiction bent again. This time it’s Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. It’s a great book in many ways. Pomerantsev is a sharp observer, and he is both critical and empathetic in his observations. The book is non-fiction, but as you read it, you realize that you almost cannot believe all the stuff inside. It reads like an absurdist novel. See this quote:

Sorry, said the dean, though the Institute of Cybernetics was still officially a university, the salaries were so low all the staff were now involved in trading fish.

It’s like an Ilf & Petrov novel. Diamonds sewn into chairs. Douglas Adams comes to mind. Absolutely ridiculous things, and yet I know they are true. I lived in that country. I remember when the whole new class of nouveau riche appeared. There were jokes about dudes trying to outdo each other with money (‘the ashtray in my Mercedes got full, so I bought a new Mercedes’ or ‘you paid $240 for this tie? I got the same one for $350!’-type stuff).

At one point Pomerantsev calls the new Russia ‘the vast scripted reality show’, and a sort of ‘postmodern dictatorship’ (i.e. the country that ‘uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends’). Reality is bent, news is faked, and Russian ‘business’ terms are impossible to express in English when Berezovsky and Abramovich have a showdown in the courtroom:

…historians are called by both sides to explain the meanings of “krysha” (“protection”) and “kydalo” (a “backstabber in business”)…

It might seem like just another book about how bad Putin is, and how corrupt everything is in Russia, but it is a valuable and in many ways unique account. Pomerantsev worked in Russian TV, and that alone allowed him greater access to people and sources. There are many heartbreaking, terrifying, and almost unbelievable stories. This book reminded me of why my parents were so eager to leave the country,  and why my father did not want to run a small business there. He left because he knew he could not be successful and honest at the same time.

‘Body of a myth’: Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank

PreparingtheGhostMech.inddI don’t generally review non-fiction, but Preparing the Ghost was so odd, so delightfully peculiar, so genre-bending, that I have to talk about it. At its most basic, it’s a story of Harvey Moses, who, in 1874, obtained a dead giant squid from some fishermen and paid them to deliver it to his house. He then draped the squid over his bathtub and got a local photographer to take the first known photo of what until then had been largely considered to be a mythical creature.

This by itself is a kind of story so Lovecraftian and unsettling that it’s enough to give you strange tentacle-filled dreams. But Frank makes it even stranger. His book is a collection of odd facts and, at first, seemingly unrelated connections between events, objects, and people. You learn quite a bit about the giant squid and people who search for it, but you also learn about how calamari came to be an item on American menus, how ice cream gained popularity, and where latex comes from (no, not from a squid). There is an entire part on how much St. John’s changed since Harvey’s time. The book made me look up trips to St. John’s simply so I could take it there and read it while munching on fish and brewis (just one of the words you learn from the book) and gazing at the sea.

Preparing the Ghost is itself like an antique photograph — vaguely disturbing and fascinating, with a complex story behind a single image. I could say that this book is simply a collection of bizarre historical facts, but it is much more than that. It is part history and memoir, but it is also a philosophical study. There is a section on pain and empathy. There are reflections on migration, home, and belonging. There is also a sense of impermanence throughout the little volume. Grandparents die, towns change, squid specimens disintegrate, myths get destroyed.

Preparing the Ghost is, most of all, a study of myth-making and myth-destroying. It is an autopsy report of sorts for the giant squid and its place in our imagination. The fact that the squid was dead and that there was now a photo of it did not make the giant squid any less mythical. Frank’s own obsession with the animal and people who hunted it becomes most apparent towards the end, when the book turns on itself, becomes meta-fictional, with the author questioning his own descriptions of what transpired when Harvey obtained the squid. Frank writes his own myths and, in turn, inspires a whole new wave of obsession (myself included).

I leave you with notes I took while reading this book, because I no longer have sentences that can convey what this book is:

– spaghettical

– campanulate

– ‘while real, can best be captured in theory’

– ‘Newfoundland saw its first road in 1825’

– squid-skinning machine

– tenacious ejaculatory apparati

– auks

– Giant-Squid Erotica

– scapulimancy

– suicidal Newfoundlands

I also leave you with this page from my notes:

0719142111

 

 

Reading update: non-genre/non-fiction edition

I don’t read just genre. I suspect a lot of genre readers are the same (though I’m curious about reading habits, so comment away). I also work in a book store where the customer base is mostly the new general fiction/non-fiction crowd. This means I kinda need to know what I’m selling. I read the NYT Book Review and occasional frontlist* titles for this reason (well, aside from the fact that there is some good stuff in the mainstream too).

In any case, even my ‘new and popular’ reading is skewed. My latest new find was Strange Bodies, and let’s be honest, it’s genre.  That aside, here’s some stuff I’ve been reading that is either non-fiction or non-genre.

0315141051This books is heartbreaking and amazing. It examines the early years of the AIDS epidemic through the lives of two gay men. From the introduction: ‘The experience of the AIDS epidemic was in critical ways dissimilar for the white gay community and the black gay one, and that distinction is one of the major themes of this book.’ Hold Tight Gently, through its historical look at the epidemic, also aims to show why AIDS and AIDS activism should remain top priorities for the gay community.

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Ah, The Luminaries. Will I ever get through it? Stay tuned, we’ll find out.

Siege 13 is an interesting short story collection by a Hungarian writer Tamas Dobozy. Budapest at the end of WWII.

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I’m reading this book with a specific question in mind, the question being ‘should I send this to my mother?’

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Science! Brain! Psychopaths!

Other random things I’ve adopted over the past few days:

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Geoff Dyer is published in the neat ‘two-sided’ format. Mental Biology is once again about brain (there is a method to my reading madness), and The Word Exchange is, oddly enough, a novel about memes (read: probably genre).

On the more familiar genre front, I am making my speedy way through Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (so far so awesome) and eyeing a re-read of Sanderson’s Way of Kings, followed by Words of Radiance.

* from the freedictionary, Frontlist: a publisher’s sales list of newly or recently published books, esp. those of popular appeal.