From books

Things I Read in 2016

Here are some books I read this year! I made my goal of reading more than last year, if by one. A striking fact this year is how many of these I reviewed or taught, and how many are by friends or acquaintances, which speaks to nothing but my good fortune and good taste in friends. Another is how I pretty much liked all of them. There’s also some interesting overlaps/discussion with Josh’s list.

Political/Historical/Biographical 

Thomas Geogehan, Which Side Are You On?  I didn’t learn much about the labor movement until I got involved in grad unions. I learned what the NLRB was when I was asked to testify in front of it. As I met more lefties who were involved in the union movement through many hard years, I noticed they all had a copy of this 1990 book on their shelves, and a lot of them had stories about Geogehan.  I finally picked it up this year and couldn’t put it down. Geogehan is an amazing storyteller and something like the Zelig through the world of unions when they came up against Reaganism head-on. The description of how the Chicago steel mills died gutted me. Unfortunately the circling storytelling mean it wouldn’t teach well (I think) but anyone coming to the labor movement should read it.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow, eds. The Feminist Memoir ProjectA great oral history collection by many important voices that corrects a lot of myths about the movement. Set aside all the what ails feminism think pieces and read this instead.

Mark and Paul Engler, This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. I reviewed this for the DSA journal.  This book by my friend and comrade Mark and his brother bring their long experience of social movements to bear on figuring out the art of revolts that seem to come from nowhere but never do. All activists should have it on their hope-in-the-dark shelf.

Therese Svoboda, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet. I reviewed this one for Open Letters Monthly. It’s not a perfect book but it’s a solid introduction into yet another great woman writer/activist you’ve probably never heard of.

Kristen Hogan, The Feminist Bookstore Movement.  I reviewed this for The New Republic. It’s a great account of something I’ve been trying to write about and am really interested in: how the feminist movement of the 70s was fundamentally a project of public intellectuals and what seem like very inward tend-your-garden projects were an important part of this hegemonic shift.

Sarah Jaffe, Necessary Trouble. Another one for the resistance shelf by a comrade I’m lucky enough to call a friend. Where Mark and Paul’s book is more about social movement theory with examples from across history and country, Sarah focuses on recent movements in the states, which she’s been covering as a journalist for years. The stories she tells are of the people from Occupy, from anti-foreclosure struggles, from Black Lives Matter who have been doing the work and will keep doing it, and these are the stories we need to understand.

Sheila Rowbthobm, Rebel Crossings.  Hopefully will have a review of this one coming out soon. An intersection of the themes of all my non-fiction: stories of forgotten-ish rebels you’ve never heard of that give up, in this case from a pioneer of feminist history and a grade-A rebel herself.

Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos. Well, it can’t be all hope. I gave a chapter of this to a seminar I’m part of about globalizing the curriculum and we had a great discussion so I read the whole book. It’s an examination of how climate change is and will create politic instability and carry on the legacy of cold war and colonial histories that devastated the global south. It speaks to our moment in a way that the word frightening doesn’t begin to describe.

David Kay Johnson’s The Making of Donald Trump. One more for the dark side.  I picked this up at Josh’s parents for a little light Christmas reading. I agree with a lot of comrades that HRC’s decision to personalize Trump, to focus on his vulgarity, was a mistake, and we would be better off understanding the current moment through the lens of the terrifying Republican domination from top to bottom.

Still, Trump is a fascinating person to my narrative-inclined brain. Trying to find a narrative of why he happened as so many morning after pieces have done is a fraught enterprise. But what reading Johnson’s book made me realize was that more simply I didn’t really even have a good narrative of who he was. I knew the outlines of the spoiled rich kid, the cheating and mobbed up real estate dealings, the tabloid celebrity and racist entry into the political fray. But reading step by step how Trump not only cheated his way to where he was, but how he was enabled at every step. Forget today’s cowardly “never Trump” Republicans or the feeble Dems and think about all the cowards like John Degnan who gave us Trump.

John Degnan was the attorney general of New Jersey.   When Trump was trying to establish his casino in Atlantic City, he refused to go in front of the board that was vetting owners for corruption. Instead, he went to right to Degnan. He threatened that unless the approval was sped up he would not build on the land he’d already bought, or that he’d use his muscle to get New York to allow him a casino on the other side of the river. Degnan, anxious not to make enemies while planning a run for governor, caved.

I’m sure the movie has bad politics, but whenever I hear a story like that I always remember the look on noble Paul Scofield’s face when a man who betrays him shows off a fancy pendant, saying he’s won some noble title over Wales: “it profit a man not to sell his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?” Degnan didn’t even sell it for Jersey: he lost the election.

But there are also people in the book like Harry Diduck, a dissent union member who took the unfathomable brave step of suing Trump, his corrupt union and Met Life for wages and benefit owed the Polish brigade, the undocumented workers who built Trump Tower without basic safety equipment, and Libby Handross, whose documentary Trump suppressed with lawsuits.  Here’s to more of their spirit in 2017.

Novels 

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a Lost Child Where to start? I’ve always been jealous of people who are always immersed in some long series or another. This was the most immersive reading experience I’ve had in a long time – walking around thinking the streets should resemble Naples, imagined arguments with the characters in my head. I spent a good deal of time sort-of arguing with Josh about these books: he was much harder on Elena than I was – I identified with her struggle to escape the neighborhood even knowing it’s doomed and even though I wanted to scream at her as she took up with that damn Nino. But I don’t really disagree with what he says in his post: that, through Ferrante and thus through Elena, we are meant to Lila’s refusal to achieve, to separate herself from the neighborhood, and above all her unhappiness are a noble refusal, the great no. I think I see that no more in terms of her temperament and not a choice: she could not accept the world even if she wanted to, and in a way that makes her refusal more tragic than noble. But maybe this is always the case with refusers: they resist because they cannot do otherwise.

But I also want to try to understand more about the writing, why it works so well. She doesn’t go in for too many bravura set pieces (Lila’s wedding at the end of the first book, when we see the whole of the community arrayed and ready to swallow her, is a notable exception).  There isn’t a lot of showily brilliant sentence by sentence passages. A bit like Alice Munro, at a certain point you marvel at what has been constructed and wonder how the hell she did it. Some of the things that will stay with me: how, at the beginning of book 2, we feel the abusive marriage Lila has entered take hold and the walls of what the marriage means in her town close in: it’s the best depiction of how patriarchy exists and replicates itself I’ve ever seen. Elena’s wonder as she witnesses a young activist at university breastfeeding at a political meeting. Elena tending to her mother’s death and realizing the only alive part of her mother his her own body.  Before I read them, I saw a writer friend I admire post something like “Book 2; page xxx. She never has to say who she is. She knows.” I don’t know what page it was but it doesn’t matter. Ferrante knows.

Justin Torres, We The Animals I wrote about this for Open Letters Monthly for their year of reading feature. Short version: teaching this gorgeous novella in stories was the best teaching a book experience I’ve had in years. Teach this book!

Michelle Tea, Black Wave In a year of books that came to be close to my heart, this one has a special place for how much it speaks to my Gen-X-went-to a woman’s college in the 90s heart, and also because I got to review it for a certain publication you may have heard of.

Memoir/Essays

Jonathan Ames, I Love You More than You Know I didn’t really read any bad books this year but if pressed this was one of my least favorite. I was curious about Ames and enjoy some of the anecdotes here but the sad/funny/bitter tone of these personal essays is always a bit off for me.

 

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me I’m hoping to teach this one sometime, especially if I teach creative non-fiction. I think what some of the debate around the book – and some of the praise too – missed was that this isn’t a book that can be reduced to its argument. The comparison to Baldwin is apt not just because of the content but because of how they use the essay – they can be polemical and righteous but they convey the texture of their experience in a way the reader needs to experience – what it’s like to know the state can kill you with impunity, for instance. The description being raised with Black nationalism and of finding “the Mecca” at Howard even while realizing its limitations spoke to some of my experiences of going to an all-women’s college. Some people find this unrigorous – but I think you can’t understand the movements we have and the movements we need without spending some time with the experiences that make it necessary. And while I understand the critiques of its seeming fatalism – the conclusion – which he expresses not as argument but as felt reality, the demand for hope is ultimately a moral claim not an intellectual one and so we have to deal with it on this turf. Anyways you should read it. It’s stayed in my mind in large part thanks to this meditation on it (among other things), definitely on my top list of High Holiday sermons, if I were ever to make such a list.

Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style This doesn’t really fit any category. A series of variations on the same anecdote, I use it in creative writing courses to ensure they pay attention to language particulars from the get-go. Not really made to be read straight through, but I did it because that’s how I roll.

Jenny Diski, In Gratitude Up there with Ferrante and Torres on the reads that will stick me this year, a series of essays by the writer who died this year, chronicling her sort of adoption by Doris Lessing and her cancer. I read the first essay that makes up the book in LRB and then skipped the others until the book came out because I couldn’t just enter her world and stay for only a time. At the end of that first essay, about her diagnosis, after lamenting that she doesn’t want to write another fucking cancer diary, she says, all right then: I have cancer and I’m writing, and all I could think was that I might be closer to the acceptance of death if I could ever write half as well as her.

Kristen Dombek, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of NarcissismThe other one I reviewed for Open Letters Monthly this year. A strange book, I wasn’t sure what to make of it though I think Dombek is brilliant and you should read all her pieces for n+1.

Kathryn Harrison, Seeking Rapture.  A series of autobiographical essays. I think I actually got this from one of those “take a book/leave a book” kiosks.  There’s some good essays about childhood, religious longing and motherhood here. She’s an elegant, cool stylist in a way that might turn some off but that appeals to me.

Poetry 

Anne Sexton, Words for Dr. Y.  A posthumous collection of her work – great mixed back with exploration of therapy and great pieces for imitations and exercise like horoscope poems.  

Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn. A real find for me this year – poems that are narrative, interesting reference points, conversational but poetic – a glimpse into a history and a mind at play.

Sherman Alexie, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned  A super-fun collection with sonnets and odes filled with pop-culture – hoping this combination works well to teach these forms in my next CW class.

 Philip Levine, What Work Is. The title poem has long been one of my favorites but somehow I hadn’t read the full collection until now. Levine writes above all about his native Michigan, memory, and, of course, work.  I started the book a little before the election and after it happened, when I couldn’t sleep or concentrate on anything, I picked it up again to push the latest awfulness aside for a few more minutes. “Among Children” is the one I keep coming back to.

I walk among the rows of bowed heads–
the children are sleeping through fourth grade
so as to be ready for what is ahead,
the monumental boredom of junior high
and the rush forward tearing their wings
loose and turning their eyes forever inward.
These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You can see
already how their backs have thickened,
how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams. I would like
to sit down among them and read slowly
from The Book of Job until the windows
pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea
of industrial scum, her gowns streaming
with light, her foolish words transformed
into song, I would like to arm each one
with a quiver of arrows so that they might
rush like wind there where no battle rages
shouting among the trumpets, Hal Ha!
How dear the gift of laughter in the face
of the 8 hour day, the cold winter mornings
without coffee and oranges, the long lines
of mothers in old coats waiting silently
where the gates have closed. Ten years ago
I went among these same children, just born,
in the bright ward of the Sacred Heart and leaned
down to hear their breaths delivered that day,
burning with joy. There was such wonder
in their sleep, such purpose in their eyes
dosed against autumn, in their damp heads
blurred with the hair of ponds, and not one
turned against me or the light, not one
said, I am sick, I am tired, I will go home,
not one complained or drifted alone,
unloved, on the hardest day of their lives.
Eleven years from now they will become
the men and women of Flint or Paradise,
the majors of a minor town, and I
will be gone into smoke or memory,
so I bow to them here and whisper
all I know, all I will never know.

Novels and Children

When I was in college, one of the first books of “theory” I read was Roland Barthes Mythologies. It’s a lovely book that I hope people still read, even though many of its reference points were already pretty obscure twenty years ago. It’s one of those books that was called “theory” because they didn’t know what else to call it, although just plain criticism, or better yet, essays, would have done.

One of the little essays is called “Novels and Children.” It starts like this:

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Today in Feminist History: Flo Kennedy, 1916-2000

February 11 is Flo Kennedy’s 100th birthday.  A lawyer who defended the Black Panthers and was instrumental to winning abortion rights in New York State, a founder of the Feminist Party that nominated Shirley Chisholm for President, a long time star of the speaking circuit that spread feminist ideals and supported feminist work, who built coalitions with a range of organizations and activists ranging from Adam Clayton Powell to Gloria Steinem. She was famous for her quips and style and she was incredibly effective.  Kennedy breaks down all the lazy categories people rely on to separate idealists from pragmatists and talkers from doers, and reminds us that social justice coalitions across race and gender lines are possible whatever their challenges. I just ordered the recently published biography by Sherie Randolph which I’ve heard wonderful things about. I’m especially looking forward to an account of the protest mentioned in her 2000 obituary, of leading a “mass urination” to protest the lack of women’s restrooms at Harvard.

Absent Fathers and Present Mothers: Reading Mary Gordon and Alison Bechdel

In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechtel quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which she reports that her great novels about her parents, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse could not have been written while her parents were still alive.

That Woolf reports this as a matter of simple, unsentimental fact seems another thing that depends upon the absence of her parents. For Bechtel, the irony is clear: that her mother is still alive is what makes Are You My Mother? a looser and messier book than Fun Home, her elegy to her absent father and investigation into his absence. Her mother keeps popping up, challenging the story, shifting out of place.  

Woolf lost her mother at 13, an event which underscores the longing romanticism with which she paints the mothers in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.  To my mind, there’s still no more devastating passage of loss than the parenthetical by which we learn of Mrs. Ramsey’s death: “(Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.)”

More often, however, it is the case that women marry older men and outlive them, that fathers leave and mothers stay, and that fathers’ inner lives are a bewilderment to their children, and that writers write books about absent fathers and present mothers. Another contemporary writer, the criminally under-read Mary Gordon, has produced in The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother a pair of memoirs that explore the legacies of an absent father and a present mother. Like Bechtel’s father, Gordon’s used intellectual pretension and artistic ambition to crush the residue of their secrets: in the case of Bechtel’s father, his attraction to men; in Gordon’s, his Jewishness.

Bechtel and Gordon wonder what it might mean to use words differently than their fathers who used them to dissemble and conceal, and both struggle with mothers who might prove to have a more unshakable relationship to language and belief than their daughters. When Gordon helps her mother, a devout Catholic, endure the terror of undergoing invasive tests while suffering from dementia by reciting the rosary she wonders how it is that there are no words in which she might find similar comfort, despite her whole sense of self being that of a writer and reader.

Part of the poignance of Gordon’s books is that her mother’s dementia places her in a limbo where self-disclosure is neither forbidden nor permitted. At one point, she decides not to escort her mother on an excursion – in part because she’s not sure if she will enjoy it but in part because she is working on her book and would rather write about her mother than spend time with her.  Sometimes I wonder if those with abusive or absent parents become writers or artists not because there is more material there, but because they are “liberated” sooner from the desire to please, placate, from the requirements of decorum. In a piece I wrote a while ago on Alison Bechtel, I talked about the ways therapy promises to essentially, kill off our parents without killing them: to kill Woolf’s angel of the house, to kill the need to please, and allow for truth. And yet, it seems to me, this is often cold comfort indeed, not only for those who mourn but for all of those, who, like Gordon and Bechtel’s absent fathers and present mothers still seek the comforts beyond truth of art or faith or beauty: that is, for all of us.

 

Today in Feminist History: Carolyn Heilbrun, 1926-2003, and Amanda Cross

Carolyn Heilbrun, author of many books including the classic Writing a Woman’s Life, and the first woman to get tenure in Columbia’s influential English department, was born ninety years ago this week.

Taking as its starting point Virginia Woolf’s remark that “very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies,” Heilbrun moves through the work of writers like Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eudora Welty, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others to explore how self-perception, nostalgia and romanticization shape the stories women writers tell in different forms: “she may tell it in what she chooses to call autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.”  Read more

10 Great Books for Small Children, and What Makes Them Great

Nearly four years into this whole parenting thing, I have no great unified theory of parenting. I do have a theory about kids books, though. To me, there is no failed literary experiment or abstruse academic text so baffling as the children’s book written by someone who has apparently never read a book to a child. What’s interesting about these books is that if you describe them they often don’t sound so terrible, but trying to read them you have no choice but to change the words. The words don’t track, don’t fit the story, don’t fit the pictures. They’re invariably overwritten. I’ve never gone along with the whole kill-all-the-adjectives and adverbs thing, but it’s really true for picture books.

With this lovely Ben Lerner LRB piece in mind, about (among other things) how the existence of Really Bad Poetry can help us think about what good poetry is, I’ve been thinking about what these baffling books can tell us about what makes a great book for little kids. Here’s what I’ve come up with: a good picture book aspires to the condition of poetry. That is, it has to use some combination of the things that make poetry poetry: condensed and/or heightened language, attention to rhythm, rhyme or sound, repetition and variation, attention to how words are presented on the page. With picture books of course that means not only arrangement and typeface but how the pictures interact with the words. A bad or mediocre picture book often reads like the author had an idea, often seemingly based on something they liked as a kid, wrote it up in excruciating detail, then had someone draw some related pictures.

So here are ten picture books that have given me a lot of pleasure, and that my son also loves. (There are lots of so-so books that kids love that can drive parents crazy with enough repetition; there are lots of crappy ones that can’t hold a kid’s attention; the really good ones appeal to both.)

Some of these are pretty well known but I tried to included some less known ones, or somewhat lesser known ones by well known authors.

In no particular order:

1) Harold’s Fairy Tale, by Crockett Johnson (1956).

One of many follow-ups to the also wonderful Harold and the Purple Crayon.  An epitome of words and pictures synthesis, as Harold draws the world as the words create it. Lore Segal, best writing teacher I ever had once told a story about sharing a hallway with Malamud who told her he was writing a story about a runner, which was very hard, because he had to make the world he ran through. That’s what these books are about. For me, Fairy Tale is even better than the original because its story, about how creating an imaginary king and imaginary gardens, is so wittingly subversive. So imagine my delight to find out Crockett Johnson (born David Johnson Leisk) was a big old commie who wrote cartoons for the New Masses. The books are funny too. (An interesting thing I’ve learned is that a lot of children’s book authors and illustrators had really fascinating lives.)

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The George Washington Bridge: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” James Baldwin, and Portraits of Grief

I looked forward to watching Inside Llewyn Davis for a long time before it came out. I grew up on folk music and some of these songs will probably be the last thing I remember when I’ve forgotten my own name. I wasn’t disappointed, but a lot of people were. Critics and friends alike – and my folk-loving parents – all focused on the how “unlikeable” Davis was – like David Edelstein, they found him/the movie “sour” or “snotty.” I was intrigued by this reaction. As anyone whose read a single think piece about the “Golden Age of Television” knows, we’re living in the age of anti-heroes: the more anti the better. So what had Llewyn done that soured the deal when unrepentant murderers, meth dealers, and racists were compellingly “complex”? 

The brilliant Eileen Jones writes persuasively in her piece at Jacobin that viewer’s contempt has to do with the American valorization of success – the film doesn’t give its hero a narrative of upward mobility, of movement towards success, and we’re not open to stories of failure, so much so that “If Inside Llewyn Davis weren’t so funny, none of us could stand it.”

I think she’s undeniably right about all of that. But after watching the movie again recently, I was struck by the extent to which it is also a movie about grief. It strikes me that Davis’ problem isn’t that he’s not talented or successful enough, it’s that his friend and former singing partner died in a terrible way, and he doesn’t pretend not to be wrecked by that. 

I think I missed this the first time because Davis doesn’t talk a lot about his grief – and that’s the point. Like unrequited love, grief in a happiness-obessed and death-denying culture is the love that dare not speak its name. This time, when, midway through the film, we learn through a conversation with John Goodman’s unsympathetic jazz musician that his friend jumped off the George Washington Bridge, I thought of another portrait of New York Bohemia from around the same time, James Baldwin’s Another Country. Here we have another suicide by another young musician from the same bridge. Unlike in Inside, Baldwin takes us right to the scene: 
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Three New-ish Books to Buy

The last couple years I’ve started keeping track of the books I finish, movies I watch and my favorite magazine articles from the year. Except for the magazine articles, very few are current or even recent, but I’ve been trying to correct that a little, partly because buying or writing about new books is the best way to support authors and also to have more of a foothold in some of the discussions out there. So, herein your humble blogger pretends to be one of those folks with a steady gig who gets paid to say things like “3 Must Buy New(ish) Books!”

1) The Lists of the Past, by Julie Hayden, available in a new edition from Phraros.  This is not a new book per say; it was first published in 1976, and its stories appeared in the New Yorker in the years leading up to that. I’ve written before about how going to college during the canon debates of the 1990s distorted my perception about the idea of “forgotten” works – there was so much debate about a few titles and replacing this particular one with that particular one you could forget all the nooks and crannies of forgotten pathways that were always there to be continually rediscovered. Even a New Yorker writer can get lost. Hayden’s book found its way back into print by way of the New Yorker‘s wonderful fiction podcast, for which Lorrie Moore selected the masterpiece “Day Old Baby Rats,” and the immensely popular Cheryl Strayed, who picked the book for Pharos’s series of reprints.  Reading Hayden reminds me of Virginia Woolf – you feel more alive when reading her, like you’re starting to see in color what you’ve been seeing in black and white. I wrote more about the book a little while back and have since had the honor of meeting a few of her surviving family members. Grab this book and put in the hands of every short story lover you know.

2) Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich. First, grab the greatest short stories anthology that’s lying around your bedroom and read Bernard Malamud’s classic story. By the time you finish, before you’ve even started reading Ulinich’s graphic novel, you will realize the genius of its premise. Malamud’s story tells of a matchmaker who brags he needs a magic barrel to carry around the photos of all the beautiful young women he has to offer. Read what happens when the shy young rabbinical student comes to seek his mate and his dating foibles and you’ll be astounded Ulinich is the first to point out what seems obvious: forget superhighways, tubes, and clouds: the internet is a magic barrel. Ulnich’s drawings and words are such a perfect distillation of recognizable and particular experiences that for a few days after reading it I was seeing her distinctive lines in every face I encountered. When Lena Finkle expresses frustration with a novel she’s working on and says, as an aside that the novel’s contrivances seem ridiculous to her, I immediately thought, yes! Every novel I’d read recently seemed to have exactly the flaws she described. Only this particular picture and words seemed to have any hope of breaking and preserving the artifice in just the right measure. When you go diving in the Magic Barrel, you need the right guide.

3) The Best American Essays, 2014, edited by John Jeremiah SullivanVivian Gornick, Kristen Dombek, Mary Gordon, Lawrence Jackson, Ariel Levy, Zadie Smith. Sometimes they get it right.  Appropriately enough, my very favorite writer, Vivian Gornick, has “Letter from Greenwich Village,” while the amazing Kristen Dombek has “Letter from Williamsburg.”  I look forward to “Letter from Maspeth” in ten years. Hopeful a LaGuardian will write it. 

“That city which the people from heaven had made their home”: Thoughts on Baldwin’s “Another Country”

When I was volunteering at Housing Works Bookstore, one of the musicians who came to perform was a woman named Tift Merritt. I knew of her a little from my ex-boyfriend, and listened to a bunch of her music right around the time she played the show at Housing Works. Her most recent album at the time was “Another Country” and for a few weeks I kept listening to its title song, with its simple, sweet plaintive refrain:

I thought these things would come to me
Love is another country, and I want to go –

I want to go too. I want to go with you.I want to go too. I want to go with you.

 
 
She was incredibly gracious with the volunteers, and asked one of us if we had a copy of Baldwin’s novel hand. (But only if it wouldn’t be too much trouble). As I remember it, we managed to find one and she put it on her stand during her performance.

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On Reading Lydia Davis, “Can’t and Won’t”

A woman is reading a book by an author she admires. It is inadequate, in fact, to say she admires this write, as the author is one of the few whose work prompts the often uncomfortable and shattering yet delectable experience which readers refer to as “identification.” This particular woman rarely feels this for the usual reasons– because one has a similar biography, a common experience, or even a similar temperament to the author. It comes instead when a writer displays their habits of mind in a particular way such that the woman feels her very brain is being invaded. This woman has experienced this before with this author, but never to the extent as with this book. The first delight came when she noticed that a number of these stories are labeled dreams at the bottom. This delighted her because the old saw about being bored by the dreams of others has never seemed correct to her. Go knock on her door, ready tell her a dream, and she is sure to let you in. Imagine then her delight to see excerpts from the correspondence of another author she admires, one this author had translated. Just the week before she had thought, one should read nothing but the letters and diaries of dead authors – on quiet shelves and in boxes these letters and diaries sit the way the prospectors thought California would be: all that the gold, just lying there for the taking. And imagine how that delight turns uncanny when she discovers the author has dedicated a story to her method of working through back issues of a certain glossy review, when just that morning the woman had been joking about her own organized stack, and even more so when the author included an imagined  letter to the head of a foundation, when just the week before this woman had written exactly such a letter. At this point the woman is working hard to keep herself in check, not to shout at the author on a crowded train to get out of her head, and worries about the fact that anything she writes in the next few weeks will be inevitably an imitation of that author. This seems a problem because 1) She is too old to be imitating other writers, or so she imagines, and 2) Such an imitation might be seen as parodic, as is often the case when writers have a style as specific as this author. Nevertheless it seemed the only fitting tribute to this author to see this necessary imitation through to the end before setting the author’s book back on the shelf with the neurotic precision she sees in a new light knowing she shares it with this particular writer she admires.

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Edited to Add: God knows I slack on the Times book review a lot, but after writing this I looked at some reviews and this one by Peter Orner is very good and describes a lot of what I was trying to. “To read Davis is to become a co-­conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation.” Precisely.