More August Reading

Michelle Tea’s How To Grow Up is a delightful breath-mint-respite in the midst of serious reading. Once again you can let your eyes speed along the words and know that you are not missing anything by gulping down these hundreds of pages in a few hours. Best are her tales of life as a sober late 30s something living with roommates in the Mission, realizing she must get her own space before she turns 40. The memoir also details meeting her wife, their marriage, various failed relationships prior, odd jobs, her struggle with money, etc. I confess to completely skimming her section on getting Botox, because what? Also great stuff about feeling conflicted about not finishing college and various attempts to “right” that “wrong” but realizing she was already publishing books, so why would she go backwards in time?

I finally read the awesome Sarah Orne Jewett, specifically her 1896 The Country of the Pointed Firs, a great depiction of a writer visiting a Maine seacoast in the summer, living with Mrs. Todd as a boarder, becoming friends with and hearing all the tales of friends and family. Also read another of Gabrielle Bell’s comics, Cecil and Jordan in New York.

Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts is an excellent collection of her essays on art and writing. The title story is the strongest – a 1994 New Yorker piece wherein she attempts, 41 times, to start an essay on David Salle, ending up giving us a very compete picture through all those “false” starts. Runner up to that essay in my opinion was the 1995 New Yorker piece about Bloomsbury and Vanessa Bell – a House of One’s Own, referring to Vanessa’s ability to create a unique community around her, more than just a room, of her estranged husband, her lover and his gay boyfriend, along with the variously sired children. Along the way, she dissects the problem of biographies, comparing them to the collections of letters which are stronger:

The genre (like its progenitor, history) functions as a kind of processing plant where experience is converted into information the way fresh produce is converted into canned vegetables. But, like canned vegetables, biographical narratives are so far removed from their source- so altered from the plant with soil clinging to its roots that is a letter or a diary entry – that they carry little conviction. When Virginia complains to Lytton (another high-strung, single, childless individual) about what a nuisance the baby is, her voice carries great conviction, and so does Vanessa’s when she proudly exclaims over her young son’s aestheticism to his aesthete father. When Spalding writes, “In Cornwall both were infuriated,” and “On the journey out her chief pleasure lay,” we do not quite believe her. Taken from its living context, and with its blood drained out of it, the “information” of biographies is a shriveled, spurious thing. The canniest biographers, aware of the problem, rush massive transfusions of quotations to the scene. The biographies that give the greatest illusion of life, the fullest sense of their subject, are those that quote the most.