Worst Books of 2015

By specific request, a roundup of the books I loved to hate in 2015… loved enough to finish in order to tear apart here.
* Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant
* That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan
* A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
* The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
* Last Night by James Salter
* Girl In a Band by Kim Gordon
* 10:04 by Ben Lerner
* Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Top Picks of 2015

It is utterly insane that I’ve read 214 books this year, a 55% increase over last year. Reading has become more of an obsession than ever, my near_daily trips to the library to dump armloads of books off and load up armloads to devour. It’s almost impossible to pick out a top list from that many books. So instead, major highlights.
* Discovering Gertrude Stein _ lots of examples but Lectures in America blew me away… Gail Scott’s My Paris turned me towards GS, along with providing me with inspiration for a writing project.
* Charlotte Brontë’s Villette!
* Fanny Fern!
* Terrific forgotten gems written by women: The Dud Avocado (Elaine Dundy), Cousin to Human (Jane Mayhall), Who Are You? & Ice (both by Anna Kavan), Daughter of Earth (Agnes Smedley), Mothers and Daughters (Catherine Grace Frances Gore), The Moonflower Vine (Jetta Carleton), The Time of Man (Elizabeth Madox Roberts), Fortunes Of Richard Mahony (H.H. Richardson), Testament of Youth (Vera Brittain), Dangerous Ages (Rose Macaulay), Put Off Thy Shoes (Ethel Voynich), The Narrow House (Evelyn Scott), Picture Frames (Thyra Samter Winslow)
* Greatest hits from the Second Wave: Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, a bunch of Andrea Dworkin, Tillie Olsen’s Silences
* Along the general theme of things moving too fast, inattention, etc.: Journal of Solitude by May Sarton, The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, An Unknown Woman by Alice Koller, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
* Amazing new or newish: Citizen (Claudia Rankine), Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn), A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara), Fifteen Dogs (Andre Alexis), The Visiting Privilege (Joy Williams), The Turner House (Angela Flournoy), Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)
* Great collections of essays: The Essential Ellen Willis, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum, Forty_One False Starts (Janet Malcolm)
* Since I’m reading fewer male authors (23% vs. 77% women authors), the ones that sneak in are usually worth it. The best dudes I read in 2015: Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, How I Read Gertrude Stein (Lew Welch), Flaubert’s Parrot (Julian Barnes), and The Odd Women (George Gissing)
* Ongoing series: I read all the Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante (not worth it), and Book 4 of Karl Ove’s never ending struggle (better than book 3)
* Non-fiction: The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen

Joan of Arc: Her Story

Brilliant historical reconstruction by Régine Pernoud and Marie-Véronique Clin, translated into English by Jeremy DuQuesnay Adams. My interest was piqued reading the Joan of Arc chapter of Dworkin’s Intercourse, where I learned that the actual crime she was executed for was the resumption of wearing “men’s clothing” after she swore not to a few days prior. It’s an open question about whether she was forced into the men’s clothing or if she put it on willingly after being attacked by soldiers in her cell. Pernoud picks out the narrative thread from the extensive documentation made of the original trial (1431) and the later nullification trial (1455-6). Lucky for us, the evil trial leader Pierre Cauchon cemented Joan’s legacy for future generations by such detailed proceedings. Her public life was a diptych– a year of action and leading the French to victory in Orleans and returning the crown to the king in Reims, then a year of imprisonment and trial, dying at age 19 when burned to death. The court is fairly shocked by her eloquent arguments for faith, this uneducated shepherdess blowing them away with lyrical, poetic and logical arguments. Also a good reminder of how terrible life was in the Middle Ages, constant war and strife plus plague.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley

I broke my rule of reading a book after I’d already seen the movie, and was reminded of why that rule is in place. Although a delightful book by Patricia Highsmith, Matt Damon’s face kept floating up at me from the pages, ugh. Tom Ripley is corned in NYC by Dickie Greenleaf’s dad, who wants to retrieve Dickie from Italy and bring him home to work in the shipyard. Ripley’s seeking cover from an IRS scam and gratefully accepts a free ticket and spending money to go “fetch” Dickie. When he gets to the tiny village in Italy, he becomes inseparable from Dickie, and moves in. When he starts to feel Dickie’s interest in him fade, he kills him and impersonates him. This is a story of a terribly un-detailed murderer, keeping Dickie’s rings and gallivanting around Europe acting like him. Confusion ensues, but Tom escapes in the end, even getting away with forging Dickie’s will to give him all his money.

Live alone and like it: A guide for the extra woman

123115_liveAloneAndLikeIt1 Adorable, semi-witty book published in 1936 to help ladies live alone, either by choice or because of divorce/widowing/waiting for the right person. Hillis takes a scolding tone at times, “This business of making your own life may sound dreary–especially if you have a dated mind and still think of yourself as belonging to the Weaker Sex.” The entire table of contents looks like it’s written tongue in cheek: Solitary Refinement, Who Do You Think You Are?, Pleasures of a Single Bed, A Lady and Her Liquor, etc. There’s also a nice jab at the South, “There may still be those in Alabama who look upon an unmarried state as an affliction, but in New York it is at most a very minor ailment.”
Yes, you will have to figure out your bills, but you gain so much freedom! “You will be able to eat what, when, and where you please… The trick is to arrange your life so that you really do like it.” People won’t know what to make of you, what to do with you, so you’ve got to do it yourself and not wait for invitations. Most of the writing seems to be coaching unwilling ladies into the pleasures of living solo, including this list:

You don’t have to turn out your light when you want to read because somebody else wants to read. You don’t have to have the light on when you want to sleep, because somebody else wants to read. You don’t have to get up in the night to fix somebody else’s hot-water bottle, or lie awake listening to snores, or be vivacious when you’re tired, or cheerful when you’re blue, or sympathetic when you’re bored. You probably have your bathroom all to yourself, too, which is unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings… From dusk until dawn, you can do exactly as you please, which, after all, is a pretty good allotment in this world where a lot of conforming is expected of everyone.

Other advice includes saving money for a time when you won’t be working, use a budget, treat yourself to quality things especially when dining alone, if you’re interesting (or rich) you’ll have plenty of friends, how to entertain in a tiny space, and a variety of Q&As around the appropriateness of various actions (having a drink alone in a bar is acceptable but frowned upon). Oh, and a list of inexpensive things to do around NYC which hasn’t changed much in 80 years: movies, theater (well maybe ticket prices have skyrocketed), ethnic restaurants, poetry symposiums, organ concerts, skating in Central Park, swimming at the Y, Staten Island ferry, Bronx Park (botanical garden now?), walk the Brooklyn Bridge, Chinatown, library, lectures, The Met, The Museum of the City of NY, cheap opera tickets, art exhibitions.
***
Reco’d via the LA Review of Books skewering of Spinsters.

A New England Girlhood

123115_larcom I thought that I grabbed this book in my attempt to find background info about life in 19th century Boston (for Fanny Fern research), but it turns out to have been serendipitously recommended by the Lenny newsletter. Great minds! I scored a first edition (pub’d 1889) from the library, which arrived in its own protective box (see photo). The librarian said he knew the book had to be headed my way since it was yet another old tome rescued from the archives and I’ve been pumping these hundred year old books through the branch for months now.
Lucy Larcom sits down near the end of her life to pen her memories of growing up in Beverly/Salem/Lowell MA in the early 19th century. She describes growing up in a neighborhood of large families, enjoying the privilege of “a little wholesome neglect,” wandering all around the village with freedom unheard of today. Kids are rounded up to spend time in Aunt Hannah’s schoolroom (her kitchen or sitting room), and while she taught she would spin at her flax-wheel–evidence that manufacturing was still taking place inside the home as well as at the mills that Lucy would eventually work in, at age 13, finding time to write poems on scraps of paper, sneaking books in (forbidden in rooms with machines).
Entering into the famous Lowell mills, Lucy paints them as a lively place which emphasized education after work, encouraging writing for the newspaper and bringing women together who would otherwise have been sequestered in their own homes. She says this “taught them to go out of themselves, and enter into the lives of others. Home-life, when one always stays at home, is necessarily narrowing… We have hardly begun to live until we can take in the idea of the whole human family as the one to which we truly belong. To me, it was an incalculable help to find myself among so many working-girls, all of us thrown upon our own resources, but thrown much more upon each others’ sympathies.” Many of these Lowell women were teachers during half of the year and supporting themselves with mill work the other half.
Early on she finds that her time is more valuable than money, so she takes a job where she earns just enough for food and clothing and housing, giving herself enough time to study. “I never thought that the possession of money would make me feel rich: it often does seem to have an opposite effect… Let us be thankful for what we have not, as well as what we have! Freedom to life one’s life truly is surely more desirable than any earthly acquisition or possession; and at my new work I had hours of freedom every day. I never went back again to the bondage of machinery and a working-day thirteen hours long.”
Random note– I’d never thought about this, but Lucy pairs “outgo” with “income” as its opposite.
Her thoughts on marriage:

I took it for granted that marrying was inevitable–one of the things that everybody must do, like learning to read, or going to meeting… I heard somebody say one day that there must always be one ‘old maid’ in every family of girls, and I accepted the prophecy of some of my elders, that I was to be that one. I was rather glad to know that freedom of choice in the matter was possible.

North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell melds class warfare, manufacturing strikes, social impact of the industrial revolution, all into a breathtaking romance written in 1855. We first meet Margaret in London society, where she lives with her aunt and cousin for years before returning to her simple parsonage home to live again with her mother and father. A few weeks after she returns, she finds that her father has lost faith in the Church of England, and they must leave the south to take a tutor’s position in a mill town in the north (Milton). Milton is described with all the usual horror of industrial towns, poor air quality, squalid living conditions. And yet Margaret finds a place for herself and family (and maid Dixon). One of her father’s pupils, Mr. Thornton, falls in love with her, and declares himself after a dramatic event where she tries to break up the mob out to kill him (he’s a mill owner), throwing her arms around his neck to protect him from the crowd. She rejects him out of confusion, she doesn’t love anyone. But of course, time works on her heart, especially as he no longer refers to it and withdraws a bit. Brother Frederick is accused of mutiny and would be hung if he returned to England, yet he sneaks back in on her mother’s deathbed. No one knows he’s in town, but when Margaret and Fred go to the train station, Mr. Thornton sees them holding hands and yadda yadda. Fred pushes away a drunken lout who wants to turn him in for the reward money, and the guy ends up dying a few days later, mostly from his insides being much from heavy drinking. The police ask if she was there that day and she lies, denies. Thornton knows she is lying but covers up for her by refusing to press the inquest. Her father dies at his old friend Mr. Bell’s home in Oxford after asking Bell to care for Margaret when he’s gone. Bell dies a few months later, leaving Margaret the heiress to a lot of land in Milton, becoming Mr. Thornton’s landlord. Thorton’s fortunes have turned, and we end the book with Margaret loaning him money before they swoon into each others’ arms. Very interesting intra-class talk between the workers and Thornton, his progressive views helped by Margaret’s insistence that everyone just talk to each other instead of hiding things.
***
Reco’d by the Trotsky folks after they heard me going into ecstasies about Vera Brittain.

The Age of American Unreason

Susan Jacoby romps gloriously over 300 pages in an effort to preach to the converted; anyone reading this book surely is part of the small minority of Americans who are readers and who loathe the current of anti-intellectualism that continues to wash over the country. She begins by citing grim stats about the lack of reading from a 2002 NEA survey: less than half of Americans read any work of fiction in preceding year, 57% read a nonfiction book. This is blamed mostly on the proliferation of infotainment – TV, DVDs, internet, with particular harm coming to infants getting any screen time at all under the age of two, all causing decreased attention spans. She compares how politicians address us now (just us “folks”) compared to mid-twentieth century where FDR asked people to pull out maps to follow along his WW2 fireside chat and RFK’s quoting Agamemnon at the beginning of a campaign speech immediately after MLK’s assassination. Bill Moyers (on whose program I discovered Jacoby) is quoted, “One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seats of power in the Oval Office and in Congress.”
Early chapters explore the forces that shaped American exceptionalism, from the founding fathers through Ralph Waldo Emerson’s times through the intellectuals rallying around socialism in the early twentieth century. Then we come to the 1960s, where religious fundamentalism gets a boost as it envelops everyone turned off by the hedonism of that era, people seeking stability and balance. The sixties is also the era when the cultural elite failed us, by allowing the “ghettoization” of content that feminists and civil rights activists wanted included in the core curriculum. Instead, these got added to the side, as an à la carte option that those so inclined could snack on, but not making mandatory for everyone. This in turn leads to a greater lament about the quality of what is being taught in colleges (where after the Virginia Tech massacre we learn that the class was “studying” the movie Friday the 13th and keeping “fear journals”). Jacoby gives us some hope: “High culture can never be obliterated as long as the species continues to produce extraordinary individuals with the inclination and fortitude to pursue their interests and talents against the grain of the mass culture surrounding them.” The election of Nixon in 1968 sums up the era perfectly, his persona the counterpoint to everything that was swirling around that decade. Jacoby finishes off the 1960s with: “In politics, education, and above all religion, both the left-and the right-wing children of the sixties were leaving what would prove to be a lasting anti-intellectual imprint on the culture… The real importance of the sixties in American intellectual history is that they marked the beginning of the eclipse of the print culture by the culture of video… The fusion of video, the culture of celebrity, and the marketing of youth is the real anti-intellectual legacy of the sixties.”
This leads us into a dissection of youth and celebrity culture, crowning television as the main stimulus for those social forces. She calls out feminism in particular, how Steinem chosen as the icon because “living refutation of the negative stereotype” while anti-feminists focused on Dworkin, characterized unfairly by Jacoby as “a fat, unkempt woman considered by some to be a brilliant and original thinker but utterly lacking in conventional feminine attractiveness.” Alongside these factors, we cannot ignore the rise of fundamentalism in religion. She cites a 2003 Economist survey: “Europeans consider religion… the strangest and most disturbing feature of American exceptionalism. They worry that fundamentalists are hijacking the country. They find it extraordinary that three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth as in evolution.”
My favorite chapter by far was The Culture of Distraction. Talking about print vs. screen: “The willed attention demanded by print is the antithesis of the reflexive distraction encouraged by infotainment media…” The more time people are entranced by screens, they less time they have for “two human activities critical to a fruitful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation.” Jacoby takes apart Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You, when Johnson says “As long as reading books remains part of our cultural diet, as long as the new popular forms continue to offer their own cognitive rewards, we’re not likely to descend into a culture of mental atrophy anytime soon.” Jacoby retorts: “The sorrow, the pity, and the unanswerability of this argument is embodied in the phrase ‘cognitive rewards.’… Riding a bicycle, milking a cow, and reading a book require the services of different, as well as some of the same, neurons, but only reading is indispensable to intellectual life.” Later: “It makes as little sense to suggest that there is no reason to fear for civilization as long as reading remains a part of our cultural diet as it would to assert that there is no reason to fear for children’s physical fitness as long as exercise remains a part of their lives. A part can be huge, or it can be so small that it dwindles into insignificance.”
I’m taken to task for my own lazy book reviews when I read Jacoby’s scathing “many book review blogs are little more than the aggrieved ramblings of would-be writers…” But I’m not really hurt by this–I keep this blog going as an extension of my memory, to remind myself of what I’ve read and with no intention of courting readers. It’s simply a book vomitorium.
I’m always interested in trying to differentiate the reading we do online vs. with print books, and Jacoby does a nice job here:

However, reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet. What we are engaged in–like birds of prey looking for their next meal– is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information. I almost never stop to think for any length of time about whatever I read online, however intrinsically interesting or well written the material may be, because my primary aim is to save time–not to lose my sense of time as I do when I read a compelling book in its old-fashioned form.

Jacoby cites John Updike’s 2006 speech to the American Booksellers Association (more preaching to the choir, but great stuff):

The printed, bound and paid-for book was–still is, for the moment–more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness. Book readers and writers are approaching the condition of holdouts, surly hermits who refuse to come out and play in the electronic sunshine of the post-Guttenberg village.

Still in The Culture of Distraction chapter, she moves on from reading to tackle the loss of conversation, the heart of all intellectual and emotional life. “Personal social contact, outside as well as inside the family, is another casualty in the culture of distraction.” Everyone reports having fewer friends and people to discuss important matters with than twenty years ago. So what’s causing this decline? More time working, hectic schedules leave less time to cultivate friendships. But the big one is the isolating effect of technology. Headphones on, eyes glued to screens. We have a proliferation of conversation avoidance devices. Jacoby notes the eerie silence in a college dorm she spent the night in, contrasting it with the late-night/all-night rap sessions she experienced, having no doubt that the presence of a writer in the 1960s would have attracted some students for intense discussion but that today’s isolated and over-stimulated world leaves no room for spontaneous conversation.
More on the conversation topic, Jacoby bemoans the disappearance of letters, talking about a recent experience where she re-read some letters between her then-fiance and herself, vivid snapshots of traumatic events in the late 60s. “I have no idea how biographers will go about reconstructing the lives of people born after, roughly, 1950, in the absence of a paper trail of personal correspondence that used to be conducted not only by intellectuals but by large numbers of literate men and women… Future historians will look in vain for the kinds of letters that passed between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson…” Emails are completely distinct, brevity encouraged uber alles, haste & inattentiveness and lack of pleasure that physical mail brings.

The Story of the Lost Child: Neapolitan Novels, Book Four

My impression of the seemingly unending Neapolitan novels took a nose dive with this dud of the final book. I adored My Brilliant Friend (book 1), liked book 2, tolerated book 3 (calling it soap opera) and loathed book 4, wondering why I kept reading this garbage. Unedited dross that clunked across a page, smug stories of success in writing and love followed by failure in relationships. I’m not even interested enough to recap the plot line here, hoping that it sinks quickly beneath my consciousness. Probably one of the worst books I read in its entirety this year, almost 500 wasted pages.

Shopping in Space: Essays on America’s Blank Generation

Essays by both Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, cutely dedicated “to my co-author”, tackling American writers in the 1980s. I was curious about Elizabeth Young by way of icon, and was only able to find this collection of essays by her (which also includes essays by Caveney). The stage is set in Young’s first essay, Children of the Revolution, describing how the excesses of the 80s spread into publishing as well, “vast advances… were paid out for mountains of disposable airport rubbish. Forests were felled to produce door-stop paperbacks embossed with gold and stuffed with cotton-candy verbiage. The Bonfire of the Vanities was considered a serious book… No one knew–or cared–what art was any more.” Younger readers were courted with books by Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz. Speaking of Ellis, the co-authors are absolutely bonkers about him, devoted an excess of praise-y pages.
Citing critic Fred Pfeil, television has been the biggest destroyer of the old unified ego, replaced with a “‘consumerized self’ whose identity must constantly fragment and dissolve in the face of relentlessly invasive marketing. The private sphere has been offered up to the dominance of the market-place. ‘Public and private space are lost,’ writes Baudrillard. ‘The one is no longer a spectacle; the other no longer a secret.'” Young goes on to reiterate that the unified ego only functions now when facing primitive threats:

Otherwise the sheer confusion of contemporary consciousness, our identification with different aspects of a fictive media, the odiously intimate constant consumption and recycling of mass fears and fantasies which comprises the media process leads to a blurring of what we regard as the self and the loss of our capacity for authentic, autonomous action without the shadow of self-consciousness. More importantly, this endless strip-mining of the collective self leads to one end. When the tide is out and we can see the naked palings, what is exposed is hunger and desire, in the deepest, most atavistic sense.

Applying a line from forgotten James Leo Herlihy to contemporary novels, “She is an object to stare at and think about. This is why: she wears on the outside what most people wear on the inside.”
In Young’s Library of the Ultravixens, she mostly skewers Tama Janowitz, Mary Gaitskill and Catherine Texier for not doing enough, for playing into the bad girl trap that came on the waves of post-Second Wave feminism:

The chaoticism of women’s literature after feminism can be further explained by the urge the desperate need to “catch up” in a pitifully short time. While much hitherto neglected women’s writing from the past was excavated and published, contemporary women novelists had to contend simultaneously with the past and the present. They had to deal with the weight of literary history, they had to re-assess their own, frequently male, literary influences and they had to grapple with all the cultural imperatives of postmodern society. They had to try and form both new identities and new literatures in the teeth of great blasts of feminist theory. It was a formidable task and thus hardly surprising that instant, skimpy “traditions” emerged.

Janowitz is deemed “positively infantile”, while the lot of them are subtly criticized for using their own very similar “move to New York, try to be a writer” lives in their own work. Young singles Janowitz out for more lashing, calling A Cannibal in Manhattan “overtly naive, confused and possibly even racist,” summing up that “everything was wrong with the book.” Gaitskill is dismissed with “Her feet may have been in SoHo but her heart is with the New Yorker.”
Young sums up her review of these writers saying they have performed a valuable service to document the lives of girls in contemporary New York:

However it would seem that the considerable freedoms available nowadays to women are expressed almost exclusively in the sexual arena; the emphasis on sexuality is constant and unremitting. However much one might wish to approach these texts without this constant stress on sexuality and on the gender of the authors, feminism itself has rendered this impossible… It would seem, looking at much recent women’s fiction, that a rampant libido is mandatory for the liberated woman, that it virtually defines liberation… The sexual freedom had to pre-date any other freedoms. But now surely there are a great many other freedoms available to all the women who choose to live on the edge in the big cities? There are many, many other ways of living dangerously, if one so desires… For the time being in America, the most exhilarating women artists are those working in visual or performance art, where all these textual problems need not apply. It is significant that most of this confrontational art occurs without the intervention of language. Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger in their paintings and installations, and women like Karen Finley, Diamanda Galas in performance art, and particularly Avital Ronell who manages to stress language deviancy in her performances and essays, are all doing what the novelists should be doing: creating monstrous art.

Whew! I wasn’t sure if Young was going to continue eviscerating women writers throughout the rest of the book, so it was a welcome surprise to read her next essay on Lynne Tillman, Silence, exile and cunning. Tillman’s work is “complex” and the underlying tension in the work is “philosophical, an oscillation between the need for language to contain and communicate thought and the abyss of postmodern nihilism in the fact of its limitations.” Young begins the essay with a diatribe about how no one reads anymore:

Will anyone, apart from scholars, read at all in the future? Surveys suggest that relatively few people read books even now… “Serious” fiction seems to belong increasingly to academia, to the creative writing class and the beleaguered intellectual rather than to the public at large. It has become too frail and etiolated a plant to survive out there in the world amongst the crashing music, the clamour and the cartoons of contemporary life.

Intercourse

In her own words, Andrea Dworkin is “a radical feminist, not the fun kind.” But wow is she fun to read. The book begins with an (unnecessary) foreword by Ariel Levy which expresses tepid enjoyment of Dworkin, “brace yourself,” calling her language “bragging” and saying “you don’t have to be an asshole or even a journalist to take issue with some of what Dworkin said.” I just don’t feel it fitting that Dworkin’s words even have to mingle with Levy’s foreword. Especialy Levy’s “In the real world, many women would like to be regarded as sexually attractive, even if we don’t like the reasons why uncomfortable shoes and laboriously blow-dried hair are considered desirable. We know it’s a deranged system… but this is the system. This is the real world.” Luckily we move straight from that pap into Dworkin’s 1995 preface (the original work out in 1987):

When I finished writing Intercourse one colleague advised me to add an introduction to explain what the book said. That way, readers would not be shocked, afraid, or angry, because the ideas would be familiar–prechewed, easier to digest; I would be protected from bad or malicious readings and purposeful distortions; and my eagerness to explain myself would show that I wanted people to like me and my book, the quintessential feminine pose. At least one knee would be visibly bent.
…First published in the United States in 1987… Intercourse is still being reviled in print by people who have not read it, reduced to slogans by journalists posing as critics or sages or deep thinkers, treated as if it were odious and hateful by every asshole who thinks that what will heal this violent world is more respect for dead white men.
My colleagues, of course, had been right; but their advise offended me. I have never written for a cowardly or passive or stupid reader, the precise characteristics of most reviewers–overeducated but functionally illiterate…
The public censure of women as if we are rabid because we speak without apology about the world in which we live is a strategy of threat that usually works. Men often react to women’s words–speaking and writing–as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women’s words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back. Most women have experienced enough domination from men–control, violence, insult, contempt–that no threat seems empty.
Intercourse does not say, forgive me and love me. It does not say, I forgive you, I love you. For a woman writer to thrive (or, arguably, to survive) in these current hard times, forgiveness and love must be subtext. No. I say no.

In the book itself, she showcases the repulsion, contempt, violence of intercourse in Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, Tennessee Williams, Flaubert, Freud, Mailer (of course), Bram Stoker, sprinkling in text from the Bible, DeLillo, Iris Murdoch, James Baldwin. “In Amerika, there is the nearly universal conviction–or so it appears–that sex (fucking) is good and that liking it is right: morally right; a sign of human health; nearly a standard for citizenship… [but] We are inarticulate about sex, even though we talk about it all the time to say how much we like it–nearly as much, one might infer, as jogging.”
One of my favorite chapters was about Joan of Arc (Virginity), where I discovered my own ignorance about much of her life. Captured by the English (actually Belgians, who handed her over to English) after pushing them successfully out of much of France, the ultimate crime she was burned for boiled down to wearing of men’s clothing?! Dworkin weaves a tale that Joan chose to remain a virgin because this was the path to freedom, “freedom from the real meaning of being female… Being female meant tiny boundaries and degraded possibilities; social inferiority and sexual subordination; obedience to men; surrender to male force or violence; sexual accessibility to men or withdrawal from the world; and civil insignificance… She refused to be fucked and she refused civil insignificance… Her virginity was a radical renunciation of a civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice. She refused to be female. As she put it at her trial, not nicely, ‘And as for womanly duties. She said there were enough other women to do them.'” Her guides were St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch, two other women who militantly resisted male power and were killed for resisting (also virgins), always depicted in dramatic, graphic pictures; “a bold, articulate, mesmerizing iconography not rivaled for effect until the invention of the wide screen in cinema.. They were both shown with swords because they had been decapitated, but the abridgement of the narrative into a martial image conveyed militance, not just martyrdom.”

Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt

When I first started to read this, something was out of whack, not right. I was stumbling on Hersh’s writing style, not digging it. Then I fired up West of Rome, letting Vic’s music soundtrack my reading for the next hour. Much better, Vic’s plaintive wail easing my initial distaste of the choppy delivery, but the writing was perfect for the story, written directly AT Vic, to him, and we just spectate. It’s Kirstin and Vic on tour around the world, with their respective spouses (Billy & Tina), not feeling comfortable anywhere but rundown motels, gallivanting around Europe and the U.S. Hersh alludes to their connection around car accidents: “That car accident left you with exactly — and only– what you needed. What you need to do this, to play songs that were just a little bit too much. Oddly a car accident was what made me play music, too. Not a lifetime in a wheelchair, but as you used to say: ‘time spent on your ass is time invested.'” If Vic’s two-finger playing wasn’t up to a particular song on tour, he’d flip her off, code for “my left middle finger ain’t working right todya, so I can’t play that song.” Fair warning, this is a tear jerker, since Vic offs himself at the end, on Christmas in 2009, and Kirstin gathers her thoughts, calling him “super human… brilliant, hilarious, and necessary.”
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Updated to include:
On a personal level, I have witnessed the impoverishment of many critically acclaimed but marginally commercial artists. In particular, two dear friends: Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Chesnutt. Both of these artists, despite growing global popularity, saw their total incomes fall in the last decade. There is no other explanation except for the fact that “fans” made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists.
Shortly before Christmas 2009, Vic took his life. He was my neighbor, and I was there as they put him in the ambulance. On March 6th, 2010, Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart. Anybody who knew either of these musicians will tell you that the pair suffered depression. They will also tell you their situation was worsened by their financial situation. Vic was deeply in debt to hospitals and, at the time, was publicly complaining about losing his home. Mark was living in abject squalor in his remote studio in the Smokey Mountains without adequate access to the mental health care he so desperately needed.

Decoding Wagner: An Invitation to His World of Music Drama

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer books about Wagner to be devoid of any references to contemporary culture, like “the blogosphere” (which already dates May since this book came out in 2004), the Jerry Springer show, rock’n’roll, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and Yoko Ono. On the plus side, if you can choke down your bile at May’s insistence on making Wagner “relevant” to today’s hipsters, the book serves as a sort of Wagner for Dummies, providing chapters on each of his works, a crib guide to plots and music. Learned (but not sure if true because there are no footnotes for source on this) that Bavarian King Ludwig II fell in love with Wagner and footed his bills for years. May asserts that the “handsome, eccentric, gay young king developed a stormy emotional relationship with the decidedly heterosexual Wagner.” Old Wags fanned the flames with adoring letters, but was eventually chased out of Munich by courtiers. After Wags settled in Switzerland, the king snuck away and announced his desire to abdicate the throne so he could live with Wagner. “That disaster was averted, although it meant lying to Ludwig about the true nature of Wagner’s relationship with Cosima. The king was given the impression that she was an exceptionally gifted secretarial aide.”

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

One unexpected consequence of reading a library book is to catch the faint smell of stale cigarettes and wonder if it’s coming from your neighbor’s apartment, then realize the pages you’re turning are all choked with smoke. That olfactory displeasure didn’t make me want to linger over the stories any more than Lucia Berlin’s words did. Always be suspicious of a book that has both a forward and an introduction by two of the author’s friends. Lydia Davis forewords us with an exposition on Berlin’s writing, filling a few pages choc-a-bloc with examples, too much really, better to let us dive right in to experience. Then a (thank god) shorter introduction by Stephen Emerson, again unnecessary and makes me wonder if Davis and Emerson fought about who would get to introduce the reader and they both won. Yes, Berlin’s writing is tight, terse, musical. Also somewhat tiresome, as she returns to the same characters over and over, from different perspective and years. I’m bothered by not being able to pin down where I read “Friends” before, and while I find a copy of it online, I can’t help but have a memory of sitting in a chair outside in the woods near Ukiah, reading that story. Which is all to say, decent writing and perhaps enjoyable if you get a less fumigated copy.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of WW2 books lately, like Hiroshima and Unbroken. Denise Kiernan’s contribution was a welcome addition to the list, spotlighting the forgotten or unknown achievements of women who were involved in the effort to unleash atomic energy onto the world, like Lise Meitner, who was excluded from the 1944 Nobel Prize for discovery of fission despite having led the research effort for 30 years with Otto Hahn (who did get the award and never mentioned her). Also Ida Noddack, German chemist and physicist whose 1934 article pointed to the possibility of fission. But mostly this book focuses on the woman of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town that sprang up overnight in 1943 as Site X, the facility to enrich uranium for the gadget/weapon being created at Site Y (Alamo, NM).
Women flooded the gates, working as engineers, scientists, secretaries, technicians, welders, cleaners. The book follows a handful of these women through day-to-day life in the top secret town, where Uncle Sam glared down from billboards admonishing people to not talk about their work, embedded spies reporting loose lips back to the FBI. Terrible segregated housing didn’t allow black couples to live together, but white families put into trailers or houses. One black man, Ebb Cade, was the victim of a car crash in the town, and used unwittingly to experiment with an injection of plutonium (“Let’s find out what this does!”); they also removed 15 of his teeth and then set his broken leg twenty days after the crash.
It was good to be a major corporation during the war: Monsanto chemical company ran the lab at Oak Ridge, and Dow chemical continued experiments post war, after DuPont had moved on (along with Monsanto). Eastman Kodak helped oversee operations at the factories on site.
Overall a great example of an engaging, well-researched book, telling stories that had never been heard.