non-fiction

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.

 

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).

This blog post is actually a newsletter

No particular theme to this one, other than a list of links and thoughts about books.

First, personal brag: Here I am in Shelf Awareness Pro, which is the trade issue of Shelf Awareness, a great bookish newsletter for readers and booksellers. I had a lot of fun talking about books I’m reading as well as books I’ve faked reading.

My friend Hannah is on Episode 5 of Book Riot’s Get Booked podcast. She recommends a lot of good literature.

George by Alex Gino is an amazing book. I tweeted that I wished I had this book as a kid, but that’s coming from a 36 year-old transguy who has lived in Canada/US for most of his life now. My childhood was spent in a country that allegedly had no gay, queer, or trans people. It’s nigh impossible to envision a book about a trans kid existing in the USSR. And so I can’t really tell what my reaction would have been if I read it when I was a child. Was I aware of my gender woes then? I can’t really tell. I don’t have an easy narrative for my trans identity.

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Now I know why writers seem to write in front of windows.

I just started reading Molly Crabapple’s memoir called Drawing Blood, out in December. I’m still in the beginning, where she writes about her travels. At one point she mentions how she was ‘too shy’ to make friends, which led me to think about my own hopping around the world many years back. I’m wondering whether being extremely introverted and also socially phobic made my overseas experience more lackluster than it could have been. Crabapple also says that there were times when she was just a pure observer, walking around with her sketchbook. I did some drawing in Japan, I remember, possibly also as a way of being around people I was too scared to talk to. I also did a lot of drawings for my school kids because that was a good way to transcend the language barrier, not to mention win popular teacher points. Drawing makes me go into a kind of alternate reality, I think, where the socially phobic barriers don’t seem to matter because the real world becomes whatever you’re drawing and the page.

In any case, her writing about her own shyness gave me some comfort that I did not miss out on some crazy adventures because I was too introverted to do them. One can, in fact, have a great experience traveling and writing about without talking to every person on the planet. Pure observation is a valid way of relating to the world.

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.

What to read while you wait for the next Game of Thrones book

If you are waiting for the next Song of Ice and Fire installment, I could recommend a whole slew of fantasy that is just as great and just as thick (and so will occupy you for some time). In fact, I normally do that when people come in looking for something in a similar epic vein. But here’s what you should really be reading:

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I’m serious. This is a great example of incredibly absorbing history. Chapters end with cliffhangers. Backstabbing and power plays abound. Nobody is taking regular baths. It’s one of rare non-fiction books that I read in just a couple of sittings. I also just finished Jones’s next book, Wars Of The Roses (out October 14th). It’s a little bit less easy to digest than The Plantagenets, but not due to any fault of the author. It’s simply a messier time period (and you thought that weren’t possible). There are so many nobles fighting each other (plus there is usually more than one person who considers himself king), that it’s like a game of chess with many players, and all the players are cheating.

I seem to be on a non-fiction kick at the moment, so non-fiction is what you get. Don’t worry, my genre TBR pile is growing and will eventually drop something into my lap.

Reading update: short fiction and Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer

This week, spurred by either a work-induced existential crisis or a well-meaning attempt to de-clutter both my space and my brain, I got rid of approximately 20 books (while proofreading this post, I realized I typed ‘I got read of 20 books’. Sort of true.). That’s 20 more than usual. I shoved a couple into my local tiny library. The rest went to the staff break room. I also decided I wasn’t going to bring books home. That resolution lasted exactly until I laid my eyes on this:

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Oh, it was so pretty. Look at what was under the dust jacket:

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Could you resist? I could not. I adopted it and brought it home. I had read it already (and here’s what I thought), but I wanted to own the book.

My only other acquisition was a collection of short stories by Atwood, with whose writing I have a conflicted and tempestuous relationship:

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I am on some kind of mad and inexplicable short fiction kick at the moment, so I think this time we’ll hit it off.

The aforementioned short fiction obsession has so far resulted in a diligent reading of The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Of The Year, volume 6, edited by Jonathan Strahan. I am normally quite bad at reading anthologies and short fiction in general. I like the fact that someone has already combed through various short stories of the year and picked what they thought were the best, but I never really read them. And yet here I am on story #22, with no sign of stopping. In fact, I have gathered a few other anthologies to feed my new-found short story love. I want to try and figure out who my favorite editor might be.

My other obsession in the past couple of days has been Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer. Commence incoherent gushing (which is ironic, seeing how it’s a book about writing). It is indeed quite wondrous and delightful. I love everything about it: writing advice, asides, examples, extras by some really great contributors, weird art.

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So that’s what I’m doing with my tomorrow.

The photos in this post might lead you to believe I live in a lightless cave. This is not entirely wrong.

‘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:

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