Wow. A stunning fictionalized account of the AIDS crisis as it hit the Chicago boys in the 1980s, along with their female friends who helped them protest and cared for their dying bodies. Makkai does a brilliant job juxtaposing current day (2015) with past (1985), pacing the story perfectly between the two eras and leaving you forever curious and turning the pages to learn what happens to Yale the development director of the Northwestern art museum and Fiona his best friend whose great-aunt donates her personal art collection which dates from 1920s Paris where she worked as an artist’s model. Terrific story, writing, plot, heartbreaking details of the oft-overlooked AIDS holocaust.
Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz document the group in Yauch’s absence, filling hundreds of pages with memories, photos, stories. Other essays flesh out the scene, like Luc Sante‘s vivid description of NYC in 1981. Even tiny addendum contain marvels, like MD’s note about Tania Aebi (whose book about being the youngest person to sail around the world I read in 2003) being a friend of his family.
This is a truly magical book. It’s a sweet, open-hearted, candid look back at their rise and conquest of the world. Although the mic is passed between Horovitz and Diamond throughout the book, Yauch comes through as a genius over and over with bizarro ideas that elevated their sound (upside down drum machine recording, 10 foot long cardboard tubes to amp up the drum sound, a million other examples).
It’s a time machine back to the 80s, but also gives you a front row seat to how people can live wildly creative and successful lives. Amy Poehler’s essay has a bit about her riding her bike around Chicago finding comfort in the lyric “Be true to yourself and you will never fail,” and my heart explodes thinking about the number of people they’ve had a positive impact on.
I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time, I imagine.
Tremendous dissection of the art of biography wrapped around the story of Sylvia and Ted. A masterpiece! Not only was this an amazing read, a journalistic romp into the land of the literary, but the breadcrumbs dropped along the way were delicious treats, like the discovery of the 1962 BBC readings Plath did of poems from Ariel. I can put up with most of the terrible things that the internet has spawned as long as it keeps rare recordings like this alive.
Malcolm aligns herself on the Hughes’s side in this never-ending argument over Plath’s legacy and makes some well-reasoned points that actually melted my heart a bit towards Ted. Poor man was stuck swirling around in the tornado of her suicide for decades, never really to extricate himself or sever his own name to be anything but the Ted Hughes in relation to Plath (for many of us; of course his Poet Laureate crown was a distinction of sorts).
This point is achingly true:
In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.
As well as this:
The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.
Some trends I noticed when reviewing the 265 books I read this year (down about 70 from last year’s epic high but still respectable!):
- 62% women writers; 34% men; the remainder a mix of both. Non-fiction (69%) edged out fiction (31%) for the third year in a row.
- Read a lot more poetry in 2018. I hope this continues.
- Some great graphic novels (Fante Bukowski, Enclyclopedia of Early Earth, Megahex) stay stuck in my head.
- Went on some weird tangents like disaster movies, history of artists & window displays. Read a lot on the usual topics (walking, nature, capitalism, tourism, solitude, introspection). Read a lot of Anne Tyler and Sujata Massey as escapist fiction.
- Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger.
- Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey
- La Batarde by Violette Leduc
- The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
- Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel
- The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
- Doris: An Anthology 1991-2001
- Circe by Madeline Miller
- Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
- Florida by Lauren Groff
- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
- Crudo by Olivia Laing
- The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami
- Anything by Anne Boyer, like Handbook of Disappointed Fate or The Fall of Night
- Other poets like Kayo Chingonyi, Anne Carson, Sharon Olds, Alice Jones, Campbell McGrath.
- Andy Goldsworthy: Projects
- Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955
- Anything and everything about artists that intrigued me, like Lynn Hershman, Agnes Denes, Tony Oursler’s archives, Rineke Dijkstra, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Joseph Cornell, Nell Blaine, Saul Steinberg.
- Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch
- 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
- Calypso by David Sedaris
- The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy
- Draft No. 4 by John McPhee
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
- Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin
Read or re-read Virginia Woolf (Room, Vol 1 Essays, Vol 1 Letters), Melville (Bartleby), DFW (Consider the Lobster), Proust, Betty Smith (Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Doris Lessing (Summer Before Dark), Dreiser (Sister Carrie). Discovered Richard Brautigan by way of a display at the Presidio branch library, read everything I could.
Beautiful retelling of ancient myths made lively by weaving of the story from the point of view of Circe herself. Best loved the first half of the book, Circe discovering her powers, blossoming into a witch, exiled to her island. Madeline Miller does a phenomenal job breathing new life into this old tale, fleshing out the scenes to make them live and flickering. Also very much appreciated the perspective of the women in the story that’s been passed on for ages, mostly shrinking their view and role, but Miller revitalizes it, injects women back into the foreground.
While in exile, Circe’s called upon to help deliver the Minotaur from her sister’s belly, befriending Daedalus and gifted a loom from him. She returns to her island, her loneliness. You know what’s coming next, and as she begins to turn shiploads of evil men into pigs, the drumbeats get closer. Finally, Odysseus arrives as the greatest love she’ll ever have, and before he finally leaves, a seed sprouts in her womb, becoming Telegonus, brother to Telemachus who’s waiting patiently with Penelope in Ithaca. Telegonus is an unruly baby, but eventually becomes tolerable and dashes off to Ithaca to meet his dad, accidentally killing him.
Meticulously researched and expertly written, weaving threads of history (WW2, Depression, WPA projects) into the stories of these five amazing artists. A beefy 700+ pages (with an additional 100+ pages of notes) is necessary to layer in all the stories, to cover what Lee’s life was like before-during-after her time with Pollock, to outline Elaine’s scintillating intellectual climb to the top of the art critic circuit in tandem with her own artistic progress, to detail Grace’s decision to give up her son to focus on art and her close relationship with Frank O’Hara, to show how Joan and Helen’s privileged upbringing was something they both rebelled against and benefited from. It’s a nonstop whirlwind of a read, details of a time when poets and painters got together in cafes to talk about art as if it were all that mattered. In fact, it remains all that matters. It was a time when a supportive community of artists encouraged and inspired and egged each other on, unpolluted by what art would become—fashion. Gabriel also tries to make the case that it was a time before frothy misogyny shut women out completely, but Clem Greenberg’s comments denigrating women artists belies this point. Highly recommended read if you want to submerge yourself completely in the 1950s Abstract Expressionist world of these women.
A random assortment of tidbits I picked up:
* WPA project funding artists threatened by members of Congress who saw no value in work made by “Hobohemians.”
* Mondrian thought his eyes were so powerful (trained in the art of really seeing) that he kept them downcast so he wouldn’t look directly at people.
* Bonwit Teller windows keep coming up for me—Lynn Hershman’s 1976 renditions bursting out of the window. In this book, I learned that Dali crashed through a Bonwit Teller window in 1939 in a bathtub full of water in a dispute over changes made to his window. (And Jasper Johns designed Tiffany’s windows with Bob Rauschenberg in 1955.)
* Peggy Guggenheim treated Lee Krasner horribly, inviting her over for dinner and then insisting that Lee cook for the 50 guests. Surprise! But her monthly stipend did keep Jackson Pollock painting through the lean times.
* Potential cause of increased sexism I hadn’t ever considered: war as incubator for misogyny; “At the end of the war, not only had veterans returned more sexually experienced… but living those many years in a community of men, in which the women they encountered were often viewed as mere sex objects, had changed them.”
* NYU’s quest to consume all of the Village began decades ago, century-old buildings torn down and replaced by vacant lots or NYU buildings.
This is eerily relevant to today:
It is difficult to comprehend the emotional, social, political, religious, and artistic tumult of 1945. How people could have absorbed such cataclysmic changes, coming one after the other, over a period of just a few months.
Also this, from Judith Malina’s diary: “Everyone says, ‘I can’t stand reading the newspapers. I dare not listen to the radio.” The news was pure madness.
* Pollock’s skyrocketing success is shown as a harbinger of doom, he describes himself as a clam without a shell and that people don’t look at you the same anymore. A tidal wave of mail arrived, strangers showed up to meet him. Celebrity was too much of a price to pay.
* The art market changed in 1955 when the U.S. tax code allowed deductions on art purchases made with the intent to donate to a museum. In 1956, Lee’s insistence on quadrupling prices on now dead Pollock’s work opened the floodgates for huge prices. Gabriel contends that that single sale (of Pollock’s first post-death piece to MOMA for $30k) rest the entire market for modern American work. Galleries took 30%, and artists were still making more money than they’d ever seen, resulting in the usual excesses and depressions. Paul Brach said 1957 was “the last year that artists made other artists’ reputations.” After that, it was done by the machine of the art establishment.
* The list of speakers at the Club is bananas: Joseph Campbell, Hannah Arendt, John Cage.
* I’m left with scores of people to research further, like Bunny Lang, Zarah Leander. And check out this amazing photo of Lee in 1972:
Violette Leduc’s autobiography swept me into a dreamlike state and, better yet, re-ignited my own passion for writing, ideas flowing furiously through my head whenever I put the book down and puttered around my own boxed existence. The last time I felt this ignition was from Gail Scott’s My Paris—there must be something about these intellectual French (or French-speaking) women that inspires. Perhaps it is the openness about their own flaws that coaxes me to follow them into revealing.
Deborah Levy’s introduction to the book mentions that she normally skips over the early chapters of childhood, genealogy, etc., only starting when the subject is nearly an adult and making her own decisions. Amen to that! It’s usually so tiresome to creep through branches of the family tree and pinch oneself awake to listen to tales of earliest memory. Like Levy I enjoyed the early bits of this because of Leduc’s writing style. Levy: “The first thing [Leduc] tells the reader is that she is not unique, which is a relief—most people write autobiographies to persuade us they are.”
The title refers to the fact that Leduc was the illegitimate and unrecognized daughter of a grand family for which her mother had been a housemaid. Her mother is both mother and father to her, and they make their way as a twosome through several years (including during WWI) before mother marries and Leduc obtains a stepfather. “Why don’t bastards help each other? Why do they avoid each other? Why do they detest each other? … They should be able to forgive each other everything since they all hold the most precious, the most fragile, the strongest, the darkest part of themselves in common: a childhood twisted like an old apple tree… I should like to see written in letters of fire: ‘Bakery for bastards.’ Then I needn’t feel that stupid prickling in my throat anymore when people ask for the big loaves that French people refer to as ‘bastards.’ I have always wished that in that wonderful American film Marty, the two shy people who come together at the end were bastards.”
Violette Leduc as a reader
Part of my love for Leduc comes from her absorption with reading. She would stay up reading Gide by flashlight under covers at boarding school. “As I held my shoe in the shoe shop and spread the polish on it, I muttered: ‘Shoe, I will teach you to feel fervor.’ There was no other confidant worthy of my long book-filled nights, my literary ecstasies.” When someone gives her Van Gogh’s letters to read, she calls it “one of the greatest moments of my life.” And yet she struggles with some of the same weighty stuff that has perplexed my brain:
To be able to read Kant, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza the way people read thrillers. The more I kept trying, the more I forced myself, the more I weighed each paragraph, each word, each punctuation mark, each sentence, the more the sentences, the punctuation, the words eluded me…. The recalcitrant adjective was raising bumps of ignorance on my brow. My narrow brow, how wretched it made me feel. I mangled the flesh on it with my fingers because it was so puny, so degenerate… I was an old oak tree, old like an oak tree, old like an old woman. Adequate, inadequate. My hair began to get longer and longer; if it were all icicles …then I would die of cold with my futile desire to become intelligent. Kant, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza: my promised land was disappearing, my promised land was vanishing. To have an inner life, to think, to juggle and leap, to become a tightrope walker in the world of ideas. To attack, to riposte, to refute, what a contest, what acclaim. To understand. The most generous verb of all. Memory. To retain, a geyser of felicity. Intelligence. The agonizing poverty of my mind. Words and ideas flitting in and out again like butterflies. My brain …a dandelion seed blown in the wind. I would read, and forget what I had read while I was still reading it. (p 258)
Another along the same lines (p 460):
Philosophic discussion is the promised land which I shall never attain. Things I cannot understand always fascinate me. Whenever I met [Maurice’s best friend] after that, full of despair at my inadequacy, I inevitably produced an impression of stupidity, muddleheadedness, and vanity. A sort of bluestocking made up mainly of runs.
Various relationships and work
She falls in love with a girl at school (in reality her music teacher, who gets fired for being caught with Leduc). Eventually Leduc is also expelled, and the two begin to live together in Paris, making a home together for 11? years before “Hermine” abandons her. Hermine is constantly sacrificing herself and her money for Leduc, buying her expensive clothes and suffering Leduc’s scorn. L also is involved with Gabriel, a somewhat homeless artist who calls her his “little man.” Eventually she marries Gabriel and they have a drama-infused yet unconventional life.
After Hermine abandons her, she gets a switchboard operator job at a film producer’s office but is wildly incompetent at connecting calls, so the (female) producer has her become an errand runner instead. This is how Leduc finds herself delivering a box to Colette, the writer. This spins her into a trance of sorts, “I observed a cyclist sitting on a bench, resting near his bike, I observed the shape of a flower in a pot, I thought I was already writing, without paper and pencil, because I was hearing, because I was memorizing the caress, the delicacy, the romance of the wind in the leaves. I left the gardens of the Palais-Royal, I was carrying the city on my shoulders, I was shriveling up again as I walked back to the office.”
She jumps into cars with strange men who demand to kiss her and hike up her skirt. Fleeing one, she walks home. “What was it I wanted? To do nothing and possess everything.”
Her descriptions of Paris made me swoon:
Paris was still on vacation, even though one had to kick aside the falling leaves of a departed summer, for Paris was a faded rose that evening. The silky decadence of a great city at seven in the evening.
She befriend Maurice Sachs, who loves her letters and implores her to write articles, stories. He sets her up with an assignment at a magazine but Leduc tunes out as she’s being told what to do: “The woman editor of the magazine explained the subject of the story I was to write. I didn’t listen to her but I could hear a babble of syllables streaming across the sheets of paper all stuck over with printed columns ringed with big blue pencil marks. It was terrible, she was telling me the theme of the story, I was sure of it, and she thought I was all ears… That confusion of syllables was my chance of earning a living. And yet I couldn’t listen, I didn’t like her, someone had pulled out a plug and cut us off.” She leaves the office and decides “If the worst came to the worst I could always throw myself in the Seine if I couldn’t think of a first sentence.” Heading out of the waiting room, she feels better, the “thorn is out of my foot. Gummed paper, enigmas of the printing press, embryo sentences, truncated paragraphs.”
She attempts to write about fashion shows, but her editor hates her imagery. “Dresses are not springs or breezes or tempests. Nor are they bushes or violins.” Women aren’t allowed unaccompanied at the cabaret, and no one’s supposed to be out after curfew, but Violette gets past those two rules while writing articles for magazines.
Along comes war again (this time WWII). She and her mother flee the city: “We followed the procession streaming along both sides of the road. There were mothers nursing their infants in the ditches, vain young girls tottering along on Louis Quinze heels, soldiers singing as they were driven past in trucks. One of the soldiers threw some cigarettes to an old man, who ran out into the road and salvaged them despite the drivers’ curses. Scaffolding, mountains perched on the tops of cars. One man was making his solitary way with a mattress on his back. Our misfortune had become a funeral cortege. Suburbanites hung out of their windows to watch us pass. Market gardeners were deserting their plots with their horses and carts. Butterflies still fluttered and alighted on the flowers in vacant lots.”
This provided great detail of what life in occupied France was like, retreating into the countryside and selling black market butter/meat/sundries while building up a huge bankroll and hoping for the best while shipping packages via the post until that got too risky and then schlepping suitcases full of meat to Paris. She and Maurice head out to Normandy together, where as usual everyone is charmed by him and ignores her. She stays “stagnating” in the kitchen, living “permanently on the defensive… an idiot woman jammed in neutral gear… a praying mantis devouring herself.”
It is here in the country that Maurice convinces her to start writing books, telling her: “Your unhappy childhood is beginning to bore me to distraction. This afternoon you will take your basket, a pen, and an exercise book, and you will go and sit under an apple tree. Then you will write down all the things you tell me.” She remembers the sparkles on the Metro stairs in Paris that spoke to her. “Lucid sparkles, I have not forgotten you. The poem that swells my throat until it is as big as a goiter will be the poem I like best. Let me not die before the music of the stars is enough for me.” Maurice is shown her work that evening and says “there is nothing left for you now but to continue.” And thank god, she does.
Translated from French by Derek Coltman
It’s been a long time since I’ve opened a book and devoured it one sitting, cancelling all other plans for the evening. Leni Zumas (another LZ!) knocked my wool socks off with this well written and closely woven tale of various women in a rainy Oregon coastal town. Each has a distinct voice pointing out her own perspective: the high school teacher who’s writing a biography of a female polar explorer who had to publish her (the explorer’s) work under a colleague’s name in the 1870s—this biographer is also seeking fertility drugs and making a last desperate grab at becoming a single mother since the window for non-marrieds to adopt children is closing; the witch Gin Percival, who helps various women shed their pregnancies now that abortion is also illegal; Gin’s daughter Mattie who was given up for adoption and who now comes seeking Gin’s help with her own unplanned pregnancy (the biographer Ro takes her to a place in Portland after Mattie gets turned back at the Canadian border); and Susan, the wife of a high school French teacher who wants out of her marriage and who has two kids to look after. Of her kids, “they are yipping and pipping… they are rolling and polling and slapping and papping, rompling with little fists and heels on the bald carpet.” From this book I also learned that supermarket bread is made with human hair dissolved in acid as part of a dough conditioner for industrial processing. Yum!
Terrific writing, pacing, storytelling, characters.
Recently I heard a conversation between Thomas McGuane and another writer featured on the New Yorker Radio Hour where the pair go fishing and talk about words and writing. McGuane said something along the lines of being amazed at the quality of short stories coming out of the U.S. right now, compared to the vastly disappointing novels, and as I read Lauren Groff’s collection of stories about or tangentially related to Florida, I wholeheartedly agreed. It seems especially fitting coming from the author of Ninety-Two in the Shade, that Key West fishing guide to life.
Groff’s stories are so powerful, you have to close the covers after each one, look wide-eyed around the room and wonder to yourself, “Did I really just read that?” The lush, rainy, snakey, lizardy life of Florida pulses from the pages, even when the characters are escaping the summer heat by traveling to France. Yes, yes, yes. Read it.
There is nothing disappointing about Anne Boyer’s uncategorizable work. Poetry, philosophy, humor, jammed together in a sandwich of words. Plato rubs shoulders with the Occupy movement who wave at Bo Diddley who muses about the genius of Willie Nelson who sings about Colette.
The flashes of genius will surprise you and make you giggle, like her Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry, wherein she suggests various ways to make poems more scarce and thus worth more (shoot poetry through pneumatic tubes to world poetry capitals like Oakland, Brooklyn, Tallahassee; choreograph whales’ blow holes to look like words from above; hack traffic lights to blink out morse code poems; put poems on post-it notes slapped to the back of mourners at a funeral, etc.)
She writes of cancer treatments and sweating on the bus in LA, writing a poem about Mathew Barney’s shit sculpture show as an excuse to sit longer in the air conditioning: “maybe Normal Mailer on a river of shit is the art that we deserve.” There are pieces on reading and writing and poetry and art. “To read a book is to acquire the manifest of a ship full of trouble.” Her book of choice while battling cancer is the perfect companion, The Magic Mountain, but in Mann’s world the character can simply sit in the Alps and recover while Boyer must try to earn money in order to afford her chemotherapy. “Cancer cells refuse to die, proliferate wildly, take over every territory they can… Their expansion—that wild, horrible living—has as its content only the emptiest death. ‘Like capitalism,’ I tell my friends, and mean, by capitalism, ‘life as we know it,’ and I mean, with ‘like capitalism,’ that among other things, ‘it’s dead inside.’ ”
I’m tempted to copy wholesale some of my favorite parts, like Click-Bait Thanatos (luckily already written out elsewhere):
As much as capitalism’s humans seem to generally suspect we should or will die off and take the world with us, many of us also want to live, at least in a manner.
We spend our days searching the engines that search us back. We look for instructions, click-baited by fear and trembling, propelled by whatever force allows the ruins of rust-belt factories to be taken over by vetch, the landfills to be filled with rats and sparrows.
Poetry, which was once itself a searching engine, exists in abundance in the age of Trump, as searchable and as immaterial as any other information. As it always has, poetry experiments in fashionable confusions, excels in the popular substitutive fantasies of its time, mistakes self-expression for sovereignty. But in making the world blurry, distressing, and forgettable, poetry now has near limitless competition.
Verse poetry once served a social function as memory structure and didactic aid. Its songishness was useful to memory, and memory was necessary to a kind of cultured thought. This memory-use began to fall away with the printing press, then crumbled underfoot with screens. Changes in memory and the human relation to it under industrialization corresponded to changes in poetic form, which underwent multiple rearrangements in the 20th century as social cognition was also rearranged. Our minds were exteriorized to the paperwork, then indentured to Silicon Valley’s safety-blue empire. As thinking fled mnemonics, so did poetry, and the new poetry of fracture, parataxis, and ragged complexity, if it had anything to do with memory, seemed to always be saying one thing about it: “Don’t remember me.”
And there’s this from Questions for Poets:
“Is the trial of today to flood ourselves with the vast oceanic tides of the marketplace and false feeling and scripted hellos and the aerosolized and the ambulatory and shipping containers and social practice and smile scanners? Is it the vital and great, the epic, or the minor, the depreciated, the commodious,the scatological, the blithe or the charming? Is it a trial of weaponized data entry? Is it the testimony of pdfs?”
Excellent book by Richard Rothstein detailing the systematic, de jure segregation imposed on America by its institutions (not de facto but rather de jure, or enforced by law). He layers example after example on you, each page weighing the argument more and more, drumbeats that refuse to back away from this egregious history. Citing examples in San Francisco, Richmond, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, etc. he builds his argument from decades of research.
Lots of other crazy bits are inside, like the 1917 campaign promoted by the Department of Labor in response to the terrifying 1917 Russian revolution: an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign where “We Own Our Own Home” buttons were handed out to schoolkids and pamphlets distributed saying it was a patriotic duty to stop renting.
This was a good book to read, living up to the reputation that proceeded it from the lit nerds on Twitter, and a great choice to devour during Pride month. It’s a mix of writing and life advice, a memoir about surviving some terrible things as a kid and as a gay writer, some musings on gardening, 9/11, “The Election” (and what’s the point of continuing in this world?), friends dying of AIDS, apartments rented across NYC, dressing in drag in SF for his first Halloween, the terrible jobs picked up along the way (waitering, cater-waitering, tarot card reading), teaching writing, handling success, and more.
I think I first came to Chee’s writing from his essay on having Annie Dillard as a teacher which is included in this collection. He distills her wisdom into a dozen instructions:
- Put all deaths, accidents, and diseases at the beginning.
- Don’t ever use the word “soul.”
- Never quote dialogue that you can summarize.
- Avoid describing crowd scenes (especially party scenes).
- Vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices bring adverbs.
- All action on the page happens in the verbs. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
- Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.
- Avoid emotional language. She isn’t angry, she throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.
- The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
- Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
- Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
- Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there. Create the space for yourself. Visualize it.
This is the translation of Homer’s Odyssey I’ve been waiting for—the first English translation of the ancient Greek text by a woman. The retelling of this ancient story from a woman’s perspective is a marvel and I felt closer to the text than in previous readings. The Odyssey is a smorgasbord of entertainment: detailed descriptions of lavish feasts, fantastic adventure tales, a love story, murders, enchantment, a guide to etiquette. The rosy-fingered dawn and wine-dark sea are you constant companions.
A very skillful 80 page introduction lays the groundwork for your appreciation of the book, complemented by a translator’s note that picks apart some of the tangled threads I’ve been thinking about translation over the years. Wilson asserts that the original text is much simpler than the convoluted, highly stylized versions we’ve gotten in the past (“The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption.”)
Her aim is for simple, ordinary, straightforward English in order to highlight the fact that Homeric writing is also not stylistically pompous. Even more impressive, her version is the exact length as the original text with same number of lines. “I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.”
The best part of her Translator’s Note is calling out that it’s traditional to “bewail one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original, [but she believes] we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation.” Hers is an entirely different work than the original. And her translation avoids the usual sexism brought into the other attempts. It is eye-opening to read Wilson’s translation go toe-to-toe with Fagles’ and this becomes more obvious. For example, after Telemachus’s famous lashing out at Penelope telling her to shut up and leave the talking to men, Wilson has Penelope’s reaction as “That startled her.” Fagles’ reaction for Penelope was that she was “Astonished.” And in Book 3, during Nestor’s sacrifice of a cow to Athena, Wilson has: “Then Nestor’s daughters and his son’s wives, and his own loyal queen, Eurydice, began to chant.” Fagles translation is laughable: “The women shrilled their cry, Nestor’s daughters, sons’ wives and his own loyal wife Eurydice, Clymenus’ eldest daughter.”
This beautiful book is a miracle. To be able to write a compelling and well-researched book about recovery—a subject everyone’s else glaze over when you bring up—is extremely hard. Leslie Jamison does an astonishing job at making this interesting, weaving her own story in among the many tales she picks up at AA meetings in her constant struggle to remain sober. Interspersed among this are literary nuggets as she tries to demystify the notion that writers must be drunks to get gold to gush from their pens, holding up Raymond Carver as a shining example of one who was able to write in sobriety (ending her book with a pilgrimage to his grave). David Foster Wallace is among the pages and she credits reading Infinite Jest as a crucial support system during her early months of sobriety. He called booze “the interior jigsaw’s missing piece.” Brutally honest about her own depths of depravity, she shows us the ugliness of her scheming to drink whenever her boyfriend is away from home, how solo cups filled with whiskey prevent her from making progress on a book she’s supposed to be writing about the Sandinistas, the dirty tour of despair through Iowa City and New Haven on the road to recovery.
The best way to sink into a rainy weekend is to watch Barbara Loden’s 1970 film, Wanda, then read Nathalie Léger’s book that attempts to chase down the ghost of Loden, fill in the gaps, explain some of the heart-piercing gut-punching feeling you’ve just experienced by watching the film. If you’re lucky, the copy of the film you watched came with bonus features of Loden’s appearance on the Mike Douglas show hosted by Yoko Ono and John Lennon. You can safely ignore Douglas’s simpering smirk when he asks questions about her husband (Elia Kazan) helping her make this film (he didn’t) and Lennon’s comment about the perils of having a famous husband.
This article by Bérénice Reynaud contains a quote from Kazan that perfectly illustrates the challenge Loden faced. “When I first met her, she had little choice but to depend on her sexual appeal. But after Wanda she no longer needed to be that way, no longer wore clothes that dramatised her lure, no longer came on as a frail, uncertain woman who depended on men who had the power… I realised I was losing her, but I was also losing interest in her struggle… She was careless about managing the house, let it fall apart, and I am an old-fashioned man” (Kazan, 1988, 794). This perfectly echoes the words Wanda’s husband uses in the movie when he’s trying to obtain a divorce.
But to the book itself, Nathalie Léger is supposedly working on a short entry for a film encyclopedia about Wanda. Instead, she produces this 125 page exploration to give more space to this slippery topic. It’s “a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.” Biographical details on Loden are sketchy at best. Léger meets with the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman and tells him her difficulty in trying to piece together Barbara’s life. Wiseman’s advice? “Make it up. All you have to do is make it up.” Well, no. Instead, Léger carefully shades in her own recollections, her mother’s experience, the universal woman’s retreat into numbness to avoid the brutality of men.
Léger is at times quite funny, such as in her recounting the answer Hemingway gave to a journalist who asked what the best early training is for a writer. Léger has him answer “‘An unhappy childhood.’ How he must have sniggered as he helped himself to another Scotch.”
Léger perfectly captures what it is to be a woman. “How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?” Juxtaposed against this, she quotes from Sylvia Plath’s journal: “For instance, I could hold my nose, close my eyes, and jump blindly into the waters of some man’s insides, submerging myself until his purpose becomes my purpose, his life, my life, and so on. One find day I would float to the surface, quite drowned, and supremely happy with my newfound selfless self.” Against this, an impression of Léger’s mother layered on Loden driving around in the film: “she sits the way my mother used to sit next to my father, upright, short, alert, holding her breath, just waiting to be murdered.”
Tracking down the film locations in Pennsylvania, Léger gets a tour of Holy Land from a young man. This is perfection:
We meet in the hall of the Silas Bronson Library. He is a young man. I don’t like young men, I don’t like their bloom, their inflexibility, their grace, their spermatic irritability, their soft hands. I look at young men, I look at them below the belt, I look at them very carefully, I scrutinize them, but I don’t like them, they laugh too easily, which is nice, I make this one laugh easily, it’s nice, it’s boring. I would not want to die in the company of a young man.
I’m not sure if this part was true, but Léger says she meets Mickey Mantle at the Houdini Museum in Scranton to get his impressions of Barbara Loden, whom he knew from the Copacabana where she had danced. Mantle begins to reference Proust, Melville, and Hemingway, and Léger writes: “I mentally go through my notes again: Mickey Mantle, hero of the New York Yankees, a typical American hunk, with regular features, a slightly vacant expression in his eyes, a dimpled smile, an impoverished childhood, sent down into the mines at the age of twelve, an astonishing batman, famous for hitting 530 home runs—his body swinging backward then throwing itself forward in a devastating swing—a hard drinker, a skirt-chaser, a clapped-out liver, a real American tough guy—Mickey Mantle is talking to me about Proust.”
Prescription for a melancholy day: one viewing of Wanda + one reading of this book. Repeat as often as necessary.