January 12, 2017

Great Summer Read: Read a memoir or biography. Part II: Biographies

Who said her motto was "Well, you can't expect to be liked in my business, but with any luck you can avoid going to jail"?

A biographer.

A nine-time biographer (including of Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dali) who wrote a memoir called Shoot the widow, where she also avows that the purpose of biography is "not just to record, but to reveal".  Oh and did I mention anagrams in the last post? The biographer is named Meryle Secrest.

I haven't read the book, though I might yet, but I did read a review of it by the American critic and essayist Louis Menand in The New Yorker, where he goes on to take an amusing look at various aspects of the biographer's creed, such as their assumption that the real truth about a person will always involve the thing least known about them, and their belief that if they can just get their hands on the letters, all will be explained.

But why, Menand asks? "Why should we especially credit a remark made in a diary or a personal letter? People lie in letters all the time, and they use diaries to moan and vent... They are sites for gossip, flattery, and self-deception." I can quote it because I actually ripped his article out and saved it, I liked it so much. (It was a withdrawn New Yorker.)

In answer to the question, why do people like biographies so much, Menand says Secrest was to the point: people like gossip. And, he adds, they enjoy judging other people's lives. "It's not one of the species' more attractive addictions, and, on the whole, it's probably better to indulge it on the life of a person you have never met".

So let's indulge! I'm not going to recommend any particular biographies, because it comes down to whom you want to know more about, and you will know that better than I do. But I did want to remind everyone that you can see all the new biographies as they arrive by checking our new titles list every month. Just this month there are 215 new biographies at the library, ranging from Celeste, the story of most celebrated courtesan in Belle Epoque Paris, to Emma Goldman: revolution as a way of life by the astute but never arch Vivian Gornick, who presented her own memoir The odd woman and the city at the latest Auckland Writers Festival.





For my Great Summer Read, I'm reading the new biography of Joan Didion, The last love song, by Tracy Daugherty, and I'm almost up to her childhood. Yes, because I firmly believe with big thick biographies like this one, the reader has the right to attack it any way they please. So for instance with Nicholas Shakespeare's big thick Bruce Chatwin biography, which was 600 pages, I just kept it by my bedside for a couple of months (or more) and would simply open it at random and read far enough to get through the episode, and then stop. Another day, another random dip. It absolutely fit that mercurial character and his nomadic lifestyle.

With Joan, I've started at the end of the book, at the furthermost point from whatever we have in common -- that is to say, the present time, in which she is the literary doyenne of New York (which is to say of America). Also, I was eager to fill in the gaps in her magnetic, but noticeably ungrounded (though not false), latest memoir Blue Nights. Then I moved to the middle of the book, her time as movie industry royalty, this only almost totally out of my range of experience, given that I once had a boyfriend who lived in Brentwood, the Los Angeles enclave where Didion lived for many years. And now I'm closing in on the opening chapters, to finish on the things which bring me closest to Joan: California girlhood, pioneer ancestors, close acquaintance with rattlesnakes, Highway 99, a fascination with the All-American canal.

How is the book? It's very very good, very very interesting, and very very well-written. But as far as revealing goes, I will say this. Asked by the man behind the "Live from the NYPL" author events to give him a seven word biography for his intro, Joan Didion responded with "Seven words do not yet define me".

Neither does this book of 728 pages! Luckily!

Great Summer Read: Read a memoir or a biography. Part I: Memoirs

From Daniel Nester's Shader: 99 notes on car washes, making out in church, grief, and other unlearnable subjects:

     May 2010. My mother handed me a manila folder with a sticky note that said 'For Danny,' written in her immaculate cursive.
     "Maybe these will help with, you know, your memoir." She pronounced "memoir" like "mem-wah," in exaggerated French, accompanied by a hand motion and a cigarette waved in the air.

Mrs. Nester, and everyone else out there, I totally get how talking about a memoir could sound affected, and how the annoyance would be quadrupled by a son correcting your New Jersey pronunciation, as Daniel Nester confesses he had been enough of a jerk to do.

But memoir is actually a good English word. Only its origin is French: mémoire, a memorandum, a note, just like in Daniel Nester's book title. And this is why it's different from autobiography, from the Greek for recounting your life. A memorandum records something not just for the record, but for future use. In the case of a good memoir, I see the future uses as things like making sense of something, or dealing with it, and especially, finding the story.

One of the best memoirs of recent times (in my opinion), Carrie Brownstein's Hunger makes me a modern girl: a memoir, opens like this:

"I've always felt unclaimed. This is a story of the ways I created a territory, something more than just an archipelago of identities, something that could steady me, somewhere that I belonged."


And here she is on her and her band's contribution to rock'n'roll (I can't help but notice that the adjectives apply to her book as well): "Sometimes the works were smart or pithy, profound, poetic, and often they were really messy. But they formed a boundary and a foundation for a lot of the girls who had been undone by invisibility, including myself."


Rock'n'roll is of course a classic genre in the body of memoir literature, along with misery (Angela's ashes being the mother of all misery memoirs and also an undeniably good read, unlike many of the children it spawned), celebrity, addiction, canine, mean-mothereccentric-mother, bad dad, outlaw, redemption, sexuality, mental illness, and apparently one called Shtick-lit, from the Yiddish-derived term for a gimmick, which is when someone goes off and does something for a year just to be able to write about it. Fake, however, is not a memoir genre.

I've been exploring a contemporary genre which as far as I'm aware has not yet been given a name, but I'd suggest  "Funny books about horrible things", from Jenny Lawson's Furiously happy: a funny book about horrible things. One could argue this book belongs in the mental illness memoir genre, but I think it needs a different category, to respect the author's creed that you should be defined not by your life's "imperfect moments", but by your reaction to them. I enjoyed it, though it was a bit exhausting.

Jeanne Darst's very funny Fiction ruined my family was instead an energising read which I'd also place in this genre, where I expected Jennifer Weiner's Hungry heart would also go, though after reading it (most of it), I'm not sure. I hadn't read her novels and picked it for its title and because she'd had a feud with Jonathan Franzen. I wanted someone excavating the humour in horrible experiences, but her style is more about playing it for laughs from the start. My intuition is that with personal memoirs you should look for an author you're compatible with and not at what everybody's reading -- pretty basic for anyone who's been in a relationship!


Read by the author 

Did you know you can get an eAudiobook of Furiously happy read by Jenny Lawson herself? Here are some other popular eAudiobook memoirs read by their authors:

The lady in the van by Alan Bennett  (you can also see the movie version for Challenge 8!)
Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Fear of fifty: a midlife memoir by Erica Jong
Unsinkable: a memoir by Debbie Reynolds
Moab is my washpot by Stephen Fry
Instant Mom by Nia Vardalos (of 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' fame)
An improvised life by Alan Arkin
Where am I now? True stories of girlhood and accidental fame by Mara Wilson (star of the movie version of  Roald Dahl's Matilda)

and many more which you can find on the 'Read by the author' list curated by our Collections team on the Overdrive home page in our Digital Library.


If you like perusing recommendations, here are some of my favourite memoir genres and writers:

Obsession (possibly my favourite memoir genre)

My Judy Garland Life (2008) by Susie Boyt. "Speaks to anyone who has ever nursed an obsession" says the cover blurb. Non-obsessives will find it over the top. I loved it.

What to look for in winter: a memoir of blindness (2010) by Candia McWilliam. If you haven't ever suffered from self-doubt, we probably couldn't be friends. Candia McWilliam's self-doubt was crippling, or more correctly, blinding.

Double down: reflections on gambling and loss (1999) by Frederick and Steven Barthelme. The addictive land of possibility. "We would have been willing to win, but we were content to lose."

Nothing to be frightened of  by Julian Barnes (2008). A portrait of a family and a philosophical, intellectually curious, and often funny exploration of our obsession with death.






Nostalgia

Just Kids by Patti Smith (2009). Patti and Robert, on their way to becoming legendary. The book is already legendary itself, and rightly so.

Slow days, fast company: the world, the flesh, and L.A. (2016) by Eve Babitz. A look back at the 60s-70s L.A. scene by one of its protagonists.


Sadness and grief

Dog Years (2007) by the American poet Mark Doty was recommended to me as one of the saddest books ever written. (If you wonder why that would be a recommendation, just skip this!). In a time of despair and depression, his long-term partner dying of AIDS, Doty's dogs convey something essential. "It isn't that one wants to live for the sake of a dog, exactly, but that dogs show you why you might want to."

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2012). An idiosyncratic book about grief after sudden loss, from an author at the top of her game.

Nox (2010) by Anne Carson. I found this attempt (half book, half artwork) by a poet to come to terms with the loss of her brother, taking as her departure point an elegy by Catullus, incredibly affecting. 


Dads: 

In the darkroom by Susan Faludi (2016). Faludi describes her book as a pursuit of her father, a man who exited her life as a tyrant and bully, and who gets in touch almost 30 years later to announce that he has undergone sex-reassignment surgery. No happy endings, but some precious understandings.

The Bill from my Father (2006) Art critic Bernard Cooper's father once sent him an itemised bill for his upbringing. One of the best books I read last year. Is articulate an anagram of art critic? Not quite but it should be. Needs an anagram for witty, too, though!

The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Woolf (1979). You may be, or then again you might not be, surprised at how many deceptive dad memoirs there are; for me, this one, from way back in 1979, is unsurpassed.


Boyhood, girlhood, families:

Toast: the story of a boy's hunger by Nigel Slater (2003). I have long championed a ban on the phrase 'achingly beautiful' - whew, this book isn't achingly beautiful, but it is beautiful in its description of an achingly hungry, above all for love, boy.

Skating to Antartica by Jenny Diski (2005)- Another deceptive dad, here matched with an eccentric mother, but it's not really "Families". Probably more "Unclassifiable". I plucked it off a travel books display at the Leys Institute Library, didn't find a travel book, but did find a great memoir writer. Practically everything Jenny Diski wrote was a memoir, up to and including the book she wrote while dying of cancer - In gratitude (2016).

Fun home: a family tragicomic (2006) by Alison Bechdel. Fun home is a memoir in comic format, and that's about as far as the comic in 'tragicomic' goes. Growing up in a funeral home can be funny, a closeted father moves us into irony, and with suicide, we're at tragic. I note that on our catalogue record the publisher is down as calling the ending 'redemptive'. My word of choice would have been 'unforgettable'.

Fun home is actually only one of a large number of memoirs in comic format.  Here are a few more I recommend:

Graphic memoirs

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Stitches: a memoir by David Small
Epileptic by David B.
Tomboy by Liz Prince




Music

Straight life by Art Pepper (1979, updated 1994).  Living the jazz life, with boundless talent, beauty and self-destructiveness.

Poison heart: surviving the Ramones by Dee Dee Ramone (2009) A music journalist I know recommended this one!

And closer to home -- and new: 

Goneville by Nick Bollinger (2016). "Goneville is at once a coming-of-age memoir and an intimate look at the evolving music scene in 1970s New Zealand. It show how this music intersected - sometimes violently - with the prevailing culture, in which real men played rugby, not rock. Nick Bollinger draws on his own experiences and also seeks out key figures and unsung heroes to reflect on the hard, often thankless and occasionally joyous life of the career musician"-- Cover blurb


Art  

Grayson Perry: portrait of the artist as a young girl as "caught by" Wendy Jones (2006). Self-deprecating, irreverent and insightful thoughts about growing up by the rebellious artist and transvestite. I'm waiting for my copy of his new book, The descent of man, "exploring everything from sex, seriousness and intimidation to clothing, childhood and power."

Strangeland (2005) by Tracey Emin. Only for people who find a sentence like this appealing: "Here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless, beautiful woman. I never dreamt it would be like this.'

My avant-garde education (2015) by Bernard Cooper. The same entertaining Bernard Cooper cited above, this time looking back at his salad days in the pop art and then conceptual art years.





Memoirs have never been as popular as now, in our age of Reality Hunger, and all these are just to make you aware of the range. I'm sure you will find a good one which suits your taste, your mood, your time.

Happy reading!




December 30, 2016

Great Summer Read: Reread a childhood favourite

Of all the challenges, this is the one that most has me wondering what the top choice will end up being.


Roald Dahl is the most popular choice for now, with The Twits, The Witches, The BFG and Matildain that order.  

(If the thought just occurred to you that Hey, I could watch The BFG for Challenge number 8, "Watch a movie based on a book", may I say that yes, you could, but it does have a bit of a wait list as all new releases do. But do you know of the two other Roald Dahl adaptations which are firmly up there among the movies no child -- and few adults -- should miss: the hilarious Matilda, directed by and starring Danny DeVito, and the whimsical stop-motion James and the Giant Peach, with the wonderful Pete Postlethwaite and, please quote me, "See Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley as Aunts Spiker and Sponge and die".)

Enid Blyton is in next place, a generation older but having such a long career and being so prolific that it hardly matters, and let's not forget about the handing-down. One for all: the reader of Five go to Mystery Moor who says "This book is sentimental to me as it's the first famous five book my mum gave me to read".

If Enid Blyton is sentimental to you too, have a look at the website of the Enid Blyton society. If you, for instance, read The magic faraway tree between 1971 and 2014, you'll be able to find your very cover among the 16 covers on the 16 editions from those years. Which was your era? Bell-bottom jeans? Roman sandals? With white socks? No socks? 

2014 edition
First edition, 1943

New Zealand titles: Two that I didn't know which have been logged are The house that grew by Jean Strathdee from 1979, a "positive rendering of an alternative lifestyle in the bush" (says www.picturebooks.co.nz), which hopefully doesn't yet seem overly dubious as a premise; and No one went to town by Phyllis Johnston, published in the same period but set in pioneer days, the story of a real-life family in the hills of Taranaki. Anyone else remember these?

Oldie-but-goldies:  Oliver Twist from 1838 is the oldest of all the books people have read for this challenge, followed by, to my great pleasure, The Jungle Bookfrom 1894. This is the book where you'll find the story "Rikki Tikki Tavi", recently voted by our table of librarians at our Christmas lunch the scariest story of their formative years, and an excellent read-aloud I could have included in my recommendations, although you do have to be ready to impersonate a snake, because if you don't hiss a line like "If you move I strike, and if you do not move I strike. Oh, foolish people, who killed my Nag!'' then it's never going to work.



Moving into the 20th century, we have The railway childrenAnne of Green Gables which I was shocked to discover was first published in 1908, I read that book as a kid and it didn't seem that old; Milly Molly Mandy, Mary Poppins, then at mid-century The snow goose ("I love this book as it brings back memories of reading with my Grandad" was the comment) and The Black Stallion, and moving into the post-Beatles'-first-LP era, Watership Down.

Welcome to this century: Put your hands together for those readers who had Percy Jackson and Jimmy Coates to accompany them in their childhoods! And Coraline!


What are you all re-reading for Challenge number 4? Let us know in the comments!

Anyone share any of these childhood favourites of mine?

Alice in Wonderland (my cult book)
Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web (still digesting their gifts and will be all my life)
Ramona the pest  (and pretty much everything Beverly Cleary wrote)
Mrs Piggle-wiggle (for giggles)
Pippi Longstocking (talk about strong female heroines)
The Little House books (“Now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” says Laura. Unless you are lucky enough to have a book to read like the Little House books)
Just so stories (and which was your favourite, oh best beloved? Mine was Cat who walked by himself)
The Little Grey Men (how I dreamed of building an airplane like theirs!) and Down the bright stream 
Little Women, Little men, and even more, the proto-feminist Eight Cousins and Rose in bloom
Treasure Island (one of the most perfect books ever written)
The Phantom Tollbooth (manifesto for curiosity!)

And finally, I want to especially mention The Borrowers. I want to mention The Borrowers in this context of re-reading childhood books, because it is the book where I most vividly and unmistakably remember the sensation of believing in its magic. At the back of our old wooden house, my sister and I noticed that moss was growing underneath one of those airing grates that houses have down at their foundations. We knew that it was because our borrowers were using the grate to empty out their buckets of water (our toothpaste tube tops!) after mopping the floor of the house they had made below our floorboards. We were sure that one day we would catch sight of them. Actually, I seem to remember we did, once, or maybe it was the flash of a piece of foil a borrower was using for a mirror as she dried her hair by their window that we saw. Yes, that would have been it.










December 22, 2016

Great Summer Read: Check out a book bundle

Check out a book bundle at your library

The Great Summer Read crowd (1412 challenges logged so far!) have been taking home some very mysterious bundles  -- names like "She walks in beauty", "What I did last summer" and "Expect the unexpected" stick out -- along with the less obscure but certainly even more enticing to some, "Dystopias","Thrillers", and "For the girls".

The key to this challenge is: don't think you have to read everything in the bundle. It's about discovery. You'll discover some you like, and some that aren't for you. That's fine! 

How far along do you have to read before you know that a book isn't even going to become something for you?

I'm always hearing people tell with perverse pride about how dogged they are about finishing a book, but I've never seen it as a virtue. More admirable to toss it and move on to something better, I say. Does anyone ever talk about a fabulous meal where the first three courses were unappetizing? On the other hand, there can be some hiccups as you get into a book and it can still turn out to be a thrilling read.

Try the astute rule devised by Nancy Pearl, the American librarian diva, model for the Shushing Librarian action figure and author of the bestselling Book lustwhich goes: 

You only need to read as many pages as the number you get by subtracting your age from 100, to know for sure if a book is worth continuing. 

Basically, by the time you're 99, you'll just need to read the first page.





Great Summer Read: Read a story to someone

Not necessarily to a child!

Don't make the mistake of looking at this challenge merely as a good one for parents of small children!

In the pre-broadcast entertainment era, reading out loud was an amusement as habitual as going for a coach ride-- for the social strata who had leisure time and literacy skills of course. In even older times, pre-medieval, there are records of people commenting with surprise on seeing someone read silently, it was so unusual. Kafka used to read his stories aloud and laugh until the tears ran.

Try reading a short story to someone your own age, or older, including much older. A friend, your auntie, your cat (yes, someone gloriously reported having done this)! 

Think ghost stories around the fire and try something chilling.  "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is a time-honoured read-aloud, with its deceptively normal opening, gradual building of apprehension, culminating in a terrible reveal. Plus, plenty to talk about afterwards, as everyone wants to know what it means. Shirley Jackson claimed she herself didn't know.


Or get yourself a collection of the haunting horror stories of Daphne Du Maurier. Read "The birds" and then watch Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation for Challenge #8, "Watch a movie or TV show based on a book", or "Don't look now", less widely known because Hitchcock didn't film it, but Nicholas Roeg did, an atmospheric bloodcurdler which made film history not just for its sex scenes between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, although perhaps most loudly for those.


Daphne Du Maurier

For something less frightening, but just as unsettling, try Ray Bradbury's otherworldly stories, often futuristic but not always. "The Fog Horn" is my favourite, a soul-stirring imagining of an ancient sea monster's tragic encounter with the modern world, inspired, Bradbury said, from his having come across the coils of a disused rollercoaster laid out on Venice Beach. If you want to have a look, you can read it online in plain-to-the-nth-degree text on the Internet Archive, or get it in print from the library as Bradbury would have wanted you to. He fought digitisation of his books tooth and claw, happily claiming his right to try to prevent the future.





How about a Sherlock Holmes story? My personal choice would be The hound of the Baskervilleswhich I've always thought of as a story but which I've just discovered is technically a novel. Let's call it a long story. You could tell yourself you're going to do in parts... and then see if you're able! It's another one you could pair with a film viewing - the 1939 Basil Rathbone classic or the 1950s version: Christopher Lee! Peter Cushing! A slew of other B-cinema names!

If you like the idea of the great sleuth but you want something easier to tackle at a sitting, I've checked it out (not being a Sherlock expert myself) and "A scandal in Bohemia" sounds like just what you need. It's only about a 10 minute read, and introduces a Sherlockian-fandom superfavourite, the shadowy Irene Adler. "To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman." is the first line of the story. You can read it online here.

You can't go wrong with any of the nine stories in Nine stories by JD Salinger.

If you prefer something more contemporary, which picks up on the maddening, sad and/or scary aspects of the world we inhabit today, without forgetting the comic side, try George Saunders. Have I ever been so disturbed by a story as "The semplica girl diaries" in Tenth of December? Possibly only by "The lottery". 

Or Tobias Wolff, and here I will point you to "Bullet in the Brain". Someone once phoned the library looking for this story right when I had the book in which it appears, Our story beginssitting on my bedside table. He was looking for it because he'd seen it described as one of the most perfect short stories ever written. I agreed! Unlike that customer, who had to wait for me to return the book (but I did the very next day, even though it wasn't even due yet, because bonding), you can now read it right away online aP.O.V. No.27 .

A Christmas story, given the season? O.Henry, master of the plot twist, wrote one of the most famous and sentimental Christmas stories of all time: The Gift of the Magi. You'll find it, and many of his other stories, online at the Literature Network, where you will also find such savoury read-alouds as Edgar Allan Poe's stories ("The cask of Amontillado"! "The Pit and the Pendulum"!), Oscar Wilde's heartbreaking fairy tales, Gogol's very funny classic "The nose" (a barber starts the day by finding a familiar-looking nose in his loaf of bread), and Ambrose Bierce's spectacular "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".

And let's not forget that classic story "The Lady or the Tiger", whose very title has entered our language, referenced by both Sylvia Plath and Batman, an appropriate story to end on. I challenge you to read it (it's very short and very worth it) and find out why I say that!

Great Summer Read: Read a book

Challenge #1 is your wild card! You can pick any book at all. 

Where to start? 

Perhaps an intriguing title you spotted on someone's bookshelf while you were waiting for them to get off the phone? In my experience, it's rare that a book doesn't live up to its title. The possibility of an islandA tale for the time beingInvisible citiesThe left hand of darkness and Heart of darkness both. Stuff I forgot to tell my daughterDon't lets go to the dogs tonightThe spirit catches you and you fall down. All good reads. But if anyone has any examples of annoyingly misleading titles, please tip us off!

Or how about defying the received wisdom and choosing a book by its cover? Without even flipping it over to see what it says about the author, or if you recognise the names on the blurbs -- you know, those other guys signed to the same publishing conglomerate, or who taught at the author's creative writing programme. 

In today's publishing world, covers are usually going to tell you just as much as the blurbs, and they will always be more imaginative.

Quick! Match these adjectives to the books below. Tantalising. Wrenching. Seventies. Surreal. Was that hard?


                                   
If you're looking for something new to read, the best place to start is with the New Titles lists on our website. Because so many new books already have a waiting list when they are delivered to the library, you won't always see them on the shelves. Browsing the lists you'll find a cover photo and a summary for each title, and be able to request it in two clicks. It doesn't always mean going on a wait list -- it could be available, but just at another library, and you'll get it in short order!

The lists include fiction and non-fiction, audiobooks, ebooks, childrens, teens, DVDs, books in other languages and more. The fiction is divided by genre and there are an awesome 20 different lists, including graphic novels with 113 new titles this month, the second highest total after good old "general fiction" (ie non-genre).

If you're looking for non-fiction, there are 39 categories to choose among, including both a Cooking - Cakes and Dessert and a Cooking - Vegetarian, Low-fat, with 27 titles just this month, including one by an Emma Bacon, who clearly does not demonstrate the nominative determinative theory.

There's also a category called Human Society, to distinguish it from, I suppose, books about bees, penguins, bonobos, tetras and the like. I scrolled through books about violence and borders, terrorism and white supremacy, sex and evolution, which got me wondering about that "Human", but I was quickly reassured by encountering a book which promised to show me how to turn grocery shopping, lawn mowing and PowerPoint making into "sources for meaning and joy".

Happy hunting! Happy reading!

The Great Summer Read



Call out to everyone taking part -- or thinking of taking part -- in the Great Summer Read! Yes, you're still in time to start. There's no registration and you can log a challenge at any time, even on the very last day, 30 January.

And from now until then, we'll be posting tips and reading recommendations for the Great Summer Read challenges here on Books in the City.

Add your own Great Summer Reading experiences into the mix using the comments feature on any of the posts and you can tick off Challenge #10, "Share your read"! (Comments on earlier posts also count - no worries, reader who commented on the Into the River post!)

NB Although only Auckland Libraries members can go in the draw for the Great Summer Read prizes, anyone can enjoy trying the challenges and contributing comments. The more the merrier!

I've been hunting down (aka requesting) and bringing home my candidates for the Great Summer Read challenges and by now have a nice stash:

Karen's bedside table 

As you can see, I am a librocubicularist, someone who reads in bed, from the Latin libro, book, and cubiculum, bedchamber. A term invented by Christopher Morley, author of a book I'm going to be reading for the Great Summer Read, or more precisely rereading-- my choice for completing Challenge #4: "Reread a childhood favourite". 

Recently I saw a comment on social media where "pastime" was spelled "past time" -- it seems a lovely expression for Challenge #4, where past time and pastime become one and the same.

No I'm not going to say -- yet -- what book I'm using for Challenge #4. Also because I'm thinking of using two books from that same year in my childhood, a favourite year, the year I got my first job in a library. 

So keep checking in with Books in the City for ideas for your summer reading -- surely one of the finest pastimes ever!

October 19, 2016

Day of the dedications


(photo: @sfpubliclibrary Instagram 15 September)


Time for the book dedications of the year! Not written this year, or not necessarily, but the best I've come across this year. It's a tradition dating back to my very first post for Books in the City, in which -- with the whole world of books available to me as subject matter -- I chose to celebrate the art of the well-written book dedication. That tells you something about my affection for those little solitaires twinkling and winking at us from the centres of white pages.

I'm talking about the best dedications, of course, the ones that speak from the heart with the tongue of a writer, that neither surfeit us with lists (how did that start, those endless pages of acknowledgments in novels, for God's sake!) nor starve us of landmarks, the ones that, despite us knowing they are for a certain someone, we discover are magically also for us.

Here are this year's finds:

1.  Yuyi Morales in Thunder Boy Jr. 

To the Western Addition library in SF where, as a new mother and immigrant, I found my first home in the USA. Nancy, I hope you remember me. You changed my life forever when you put books in my hands.

A book dedication to a library! I had to start with this one. I've shared dedications to an author's typewriter, and to an airlines whose delayed flight inspired the book in question, but this is the first dedication to a library I've come across, via the San Francisco Public Library's Instagram feed @sfpubliclibrary (Western Addition is one of their branches).

As a librarian, I'm going to say that I'm sure Nancy remembers her.

The post went up as we were counting down to Banned Books Week, which was appropriate given that the author of Thunder Boy Jr is Sherman Alexie, whose The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian is one of the most challenged books in libraries in his country, the USA. The dedication in that semi-autobiographical work also makes a point about home: "For Welpinit and Reardan, my hometowns", it goes, the first being where Alexie grew up, on an Indian reservation in Washington State, and the second the town where he went to High School, his first time off the reservation.

Thunder Boy Jr is Alexie's first picture book, about a boy looking for a name of his own; Yuyi Morales is the illustrator.  Here's a short trailer from the publisher:

 



2. Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road

Gloria Steinem was asked by her interviewer at the Auckland Writers Festival this year to talk about the dedication to her new memoir, My life on the road. "Shall I read it out loud?" she rejoined. "I don't want to assume everyone has read my book!"

Her reading of it made exactly my point: great dedications have it all there; they don't need to be commented on.

This book is dedicated to:
 Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India.
 Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life".
 Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.







3.  Jerome K Jerome in Idle thoughts of an idle fellow

After two new books, here's an old one, published in 1886. I knew about this dedication but for the longest time I was mixed up, thinking it was by Italo Svevo, so I could never find it. It could have been by Svevo, who had in common with Jerome K Jerome a love of what in Svevo's native Trieste was referred to with the Austrian term witze, meaning witty paradoxes and contradictions.

TO
THE VERY DEAR AND WELL-BELOVED
 FRIEND
OF MY PROSPEROUS AND EVIL DAYS--
TO THE FRIEND
WHO, THOUGH IN THE EARLY STAGES OF OUR ACQUAINTANCESHIP
 DID OFTTIMES DISAGREE WITH ME,
HAS SINCE BECOME
TO BE MY VERY WARMEST COMRADE--
TO THE FRIEND
 WHO, HOWEVER OFTEN I MAY PUT HIM OUT,
NEVER (NOW) UPSETS ME IN REVENGE--
TO THE FRIEND
WHO, TREATED WITH MARKED COLDNESS BY ALL THE FEMALE
 MEMBERS OF MY HOUSEHOLD,
AND REGARDED WITH SUSPICION
 BY MY VERY DOG, NEVERTHELESS SEEMS DAY BY DAY
 TO BE MORE DRAWN BY ME, AND IN RETURN TO
MORE AND MORE IMPREGNATE ME WITH THE
ODOUR OF HIS FRIENDSHIP--
TO THE FRIEND WHO NEVER TELLS ME OF MY FAULTS, NEVER WANTS TO BORROW
 MONEY, AND NEVER TALKS ABOUT HIMSELF--
TO THE COMPANION OF MY IDLE HOURS,
THE SOOTHER OF MY SORROWS,
 THE CONFIDANT OF MY JOYS AND HOPES--
MY OLDEST AND STRONGEST
PIPE,
THIS LITTLE VOLUME
IS GRATEFULLY AND AFFECTIONATELY
DEDICATED.


Italo Svevo also had a close relationship with tobacco, but in his case it was the cigarette, and in particular the last cigarette. In his book The confessions of Zeno, one of his alter ego Zeno's neuroticisms is to repeatedly smoke the last cigarette, in order to re-experience the joy of quitting. When Svevo was mortally injured in a car accident, he asked at the hospital if he could have a cigarette. His request was denied. Ah, he sighed, that really would have been the last cigarette. 

In addition to the dedication, Jerome K Jerome also wrote a fine preface for his book, which I would love to hear read out loud by John Cleese.

One or two friends to whom I showed these papers in MS. having observed that they were not half bad, and some of my relations having promised to buy the book if it ever came out, I feel I have no right to longer delay its issue. But for this, as one may say, public demand, I perhaps should not have ventured to offer these mere "idle thoughts" of mine as mental food for the English-speaking peoples of the earth. What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct, and elevate. This book wouldn't elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading "the best hundred books," you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.



4. Tony Ross in Sticky ends: twenty-six cautionary verses with sticky ends 

To my dear mum and dad -- they always thought that I would come to one. T.R.





5. Ogden Nash in The Face is Familiar 

This collection of poems by the man who gave us "I never saw a purple cow..." and "If called by a panther, don't anther" is a treasure I found in the Central City Library basement. Although the book was first published in the USA in 1940, our copy is the Australian Edition of May, 1943, a fact which some librarian of the past underlined by recovering the book in wallpaper featuring red and blue stripes interspersed with golden crowns. Not that this would have been her only foray into book preservation. Recovering books in serviceable wallpaper was once a thing in public libraries. I imagine this librarian's ghost floating around in our basement checking up on all her handiwork.


Before disposing of the original cover, the librarian cut out the blurb on its flap and pasted it into the book, turning the book into a sort of time-capsule:

In re-issuing this book in an Australian edition, the publishers are confident that it will add considerably to the gaiety of this land at a time when our sense of humour is in danger of being submerged in a total war effort.

It goes on to cite a poem in the book, a dig at Japanese expansionist tendencies on the eve of Pearl Harbour, which the Australian publishers - how realistically I don't know - hoped the Australians would still be finding funny in 1943.

On the other hand, I myself found a comment apropos of Ogden Nash's death funny enough to note down - or maybe I actually came up with it? It's scribbled in my own hand next to my notes for this post. It'd be nice to think I could be so witty as to quip "Merde! Improperly prepared!" in reaction to learning that one of the most famous rhymers in the history of poetry died from eating improperly prepared coleslaw. Googling brings up nothing. If anyone knows the origin of this genial epigram, please let me know!

I was taking notes because I had discovered that a postage stamp honouring Ogden Nash made history by being the first US postage stamp to contain the word "sex"- "although as a synonym for gender", Wikipedia tells us. Whew!

"It appears under the letter O" the wikipedia pundit continues. With my librarian skills I was able to quickly unearth a reproduction of the stamp, just to check that fact. The pundit had it right.




But I could not believe my eyes when I saw the price of the stamp and realised that this could not have happened in the fifties as I had assumed. In fact, it turned out to be issued in 2002, on the centennial of Nash's birth! What, the word sex made history in 2002? Are we kidding?
                                  
The Amarillo, Texas newspaper article where I found this information contained, further along, a telling insight. The other set of new stamps to come out that year was "Discover Canada", highlighting popular tourist attractions. So, images of Foggy Cove and the Icefields Parkway and Buffalo Jump, vying for attention with Nash's racy poem "The Turtle".

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
 Which practically conceal its sex.
 I think it clever of the turtle
 In such a fix to be so fertile.


The dedication I found in the book, to Nash's wife, is not scandalous, antic or clever. It's sentimental, a bit reminiscent of the classic era poetry schoolboys of Nash's time (and of my father's, although he was a generation later) used to learn. "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by..." But it's definitely going straight to the book dedication wall in my pool room.


For Francis

And now to settle for the years,
That flew like frightened birds;
As fee for ten of happiness
I offer ten of words.

July 21, 2016

Fat is still a feminist issue. So is feminism.

Looking back on Susie Orbach at AWF 2016, and forward to Andi Zeisler.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!

Carole Beu, usually the Festival’s most ebullient chair, went classic on us, almost reverent.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!"

Gentlemen?

I looked around to see if I could spot any men behind me, or across the vast reaches of the ASB Theatre which, as I had just noted down, was fully populated. I certainly couldn’t see any in front of me. Aha, two! And a group! And just further along from them, look, two more... and...and ... here you go:



What is it with men anyway? Women would go to a session with a male protagonist of the culture wars. Women would go to a Foucault session, were he still alive of course. I expect women would flock to a Foucault session. Women would go to hear any number of venerable male cultural critics or theorists, I thought, trying to come up with names of some live ones. It wasn't easy. I mentally saluted the life force and staying power of that amazing AWF 2016 trio Gloria Steinem, Susie Orbach and Vivian Gornick.

I clicked my attention back to the stage as Carole began chatting congenially about a certain Fifi. It didn't take me too embarrassingly long to identify Fifi as Fat is a Feminist Issue, Orbach’s 1978 book in which she used a feminist perspective to attempt to move people on from a blame-the-victim approach to weight “issues”.

Carole proposed, perhaps wishing and hoping, that the book “probably changed the lives of million of women”.

Susie Orbach’s calm response: “It didn’t change the world and the problem has actually amplified. It has now eaten into the lives of our children. There are women in rest homes being made to anguish over what they eat.”

“The book is actually most of all about compulsive eating”, said Carole, who was surprised to realise this when she reread it before the festival.

Orbach has never reread it -- she thinks maybe because she's frightened of it. When she wrote it, her insight was that “Largeness is a way of negotiating the pressures our visual culture places on us, about always having to look at yourself in a critical way. If you’re large, you’re exempt from that”. Today it’s different. “It signifies different things. It could mean being from the other side of the tracks or it could mean you have to look at the real me below the surface.”

But above all, largeness is not actually the issue. “You can be a compulsive eater in many sizes. You can be ‘normal’ and be a compulsive eater. I don’t think the real issue is obesity. It’s our relationship with eating. If we started with that instead of creating a stigma about being one size or another, that would address the problem better.”

The issue, in other words, is the notions attached to body size, the social judgments, the psychological feelings. I had never actually read Fifi, but I’ve now had a good look through it (thanks Auckland Libraries and Overdrive for having that available for me on my laptop in 60 seconds) (progress sometimes really is progress). As its electronic pages slipped past, it felt as though I were voyaging through an asteroid belt where the asteroids were big black words: all those angers, depresseds, turmoils, emptinesses, suffereds, swampeds, mirrors, defenses, and so on. It was a scary insight; what would it be like to live there.

The copy I had checked out was a reissue from 2006, for which Orbach had written a new introduction, in which she pointed out, “Dieting is even more popular than it was when Fat is a Feminist Issue was first published 28 years ago. Eating has become a psychological, moral, medical, aesthetic and cultural statement.”

How well said, how sadly and disappointingly true. And side by side with that goes another of the dark sides of living in our “moneyed world”, as Vivian Gornick described it: those companies making money by selling the perfect body (“though they don’t call it that”) to vulnerable people, mostly but not always women.

For one, the diet industry, raking in billions of dollars for products which don't work and people (consumers) conveniently never stop feeling they need, since only 3% of people who lose weight through dieting keep it off, for all kinds of reasons, from physiological changes to psychological pressures. The cosmetics industry, for another.

“To encourage body-hatred all over the world is a gift of later capitalism. We export it all over the world.” Orbach pointed out. I think it was in one of her columns for The Guardian where she discussed research which found a mathematical correlation between the arrival of commercial television and its army of advertising in various countries, and the increase in eating disorders among the young girls in those countries.

“Now the body is a product we have to make, instead of where we are from. We are going to have the branded body. Not just clothes but our bodies will be branded. The brand will be Barbie-esque.”

More and more people's daily lives feed them a stream of images of celebrities photoshopped and manipulated into an unattainable ideal. How healthy a diet is that? “People come in to me for a problem like a job problem and they also have body hatred but they haven’t come for that. They just assume they’ll have that all their life.”

“What do you hope for young women?” asked Carole.

“What I hope for all of us -- to have a life of meaning.”

I was reminded of a passage I read recently in a memoir which might have been Angelica Garnett's, or possibly Jenny Diski's (I trust I'm not the only person who remembers the sentiment and the sensation of past readings but not necessarily the specimen ID). Angelica had received from her aunt, Virginia Woolf, or maybe Jenny had received from her foster mother Doris Lessing, a note expressing the hope that she would have a happy life. Angelica/Jenny wonders, looking back, at the choice of "happy", rather than "good", which she would have thought a better wish. A life of meaning is a pretty good life, for my money.

I am not sure if it were the psychotherapist in Orbach instinctively making sure that we would leave the 60 minute version of the "50 minute hour" with a good feeling, once the discontent had been aired, but that was how it went. There were some likable closing lines from her --  "What's really satisfying is relationships and contributions and finding things that interest you" was one I liked, and there was one about a good ear being the most powerful thing you can offer which was met with a round of applause, surprisingly to me. I found her line about body-hatred being a gift of later capitalism much more rowsing. "Know your enemy" is powerful stuff too.

Because I am not a psychotherapist, but a reader and a writer, rather than lend an ear, I'm going to plant something in your ear: a suggestion for further reading. Susie Orbach speaks about the body becoming a brand. Andi Zeisler, the cofounder of Bitch Media, has written a provocative book about feminism itself becoming a brand. It's called We were feminists once and I discovered it during the Festival while travelling in the Vivian Gornick, Gloria Steinem and Susie Orbach force field. If something seems not quite right to you about a company selling (and people buying) body-hugging little tees, produced by poor women in developing country sweatshops, with "Feminist" emblazoned on the front, this is your book. Who is appropriating feminism, and why, while doing nothing to progress the "unfinished business of the women's movement" -- as Susan Douglas calls it?

I actually went and bought myself my own copy when I had to return my borrowed copy to the library. A book which teaches me the so very useful term "marketplace feminism" needs to be able to be pulled out again and again.

The many aspects of marketplace feminism and the range of the book can be glimpsed by its entry in the book's index, which points you to the following:  "as appeasement, beauty and", "choice and", "fashion and", "feminism and", "as feminist branding", "Mad Max: Fury Road as", "media and", "movies and", "popular culture and", "as prioritizing individuals", "purchasing and", "Spice Girls and", and, "television and".

-- Karen




July 06, 2016

Gloria Steinem: not the Queen of the Auckland Writers Festival

Photo Annie Leibovitz


She could have been the Queen of the Festival. She was the first guest whose session sold out. She had the royal touch, mothers lining up to get copies of her book signed for their baby daughters, in a modern version of the laying on of the hands. She was the only guest to have an interviewer summoned from across the seas (Edinburgh Book Festival Director Nick Barley) (not sure why, actually). She had the raiment - that leather jacket!

But here was the thing. She didn’t want to be Queen. She was not here to represent or embody anything. She was here to share some stories about her life, from the many in her book My life on the road. But no nostalgia! ”There’s something about being part of a movement and being on the road that forces you to live in the present -- which is where we should live.”

Nick Barley led her through the salient points in the book. They talked about her parents, her father who treated her as an adult even when she was little “and I’m very grateful to him”, and her mother, who had been a pioneering journalist but had given up her career in those days when no one thought you could have it all, not before having been diagnosed with “anxiety neuroses”. Steinem's stories of them were, for me and I think for many readers, the most touching in the book. They split up when she was only 11.

She never again felt she really had a home. As soon as she was out of school she took off for India. She told herself she was attracted for the theosophy aspect (her mother was a theosophist), “but really… I was escaping”.

In the Indian villages she discovered "talking circles". People would come out of their houses in the evening and sit together around a kerosene lamp to talk about the terrible experiences they shared, trying to sort out the truth and break the cycle.

We got the first taste of her wicked sense of humour. She recalled that many years later the women's movement developed their own form of talking circles -- consciousness raising groups.

"I’m sure a lot of women here remember those, now we call them book clubs.”

Back in the US, her time in India having helped her skive the suburban ideal she had firsthand reasons to distrust, Steinem began working in journalism. And here of course we came to her notorious turn as a Playboy bunny, somewhat misleadingly described in the Festival programme blurb as “She was famously a Playboy bunny, but one who wrote a magazine article entitled “A Bunny’s Tale”, revealing the exploitative working conditions bunnies endured”. She was a journalist, and Show magazine assigned her to write a story about the Playboy Clubs, with the idea she would go undercover as a bunny for a couple of weeks. She wasn't enthusiastic about it, but it was “the kind of assignment I would get”-- which tells you something about the times.

She had thought that it might at least be somewhat glamorous, but she was being set straight on that before even being fitted for her bunny suit. At the job interview she told the woman she was a secretary, and the reply came back: “Honey, if you can type you don’t want to work here”.

The article, which you can and should read online in the New York University Digital Library, made her famous but, she tells us, "It was a bad career move". Being an ex-bunny became the thing she was most known for, despite it being her least favoured characterisation. "At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. People say "What does she know? She was a bunny".

But there was some satisfaction. The gynaecological exam for aspiring bunnies which she blew the whistle on was discontinued soon after her article came out. And in her 1983 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, she pointed out "My exposé of working in a Playboy Club has outlived all the Playboy Clubs, both here and abroad."

Nick Barley asks a question about Ms magazine which I miss because I’m so stupefied by having heard him call it “Miss Magazine” and asking myself if this could be just an accent thing (I'm still not sure), and then asks her about the historic 1977 conference in Houston on women’s issues, 20,000 women in attendance, their delegates busy drawing up an action plan to submit to the US Congress (the conference was actually sponsored by the US Government).

It’s depressing of course to think how few of their planks have been achieved, and how many of those achieved are nonetheless still threatened (however, as I write this, the US Supreme Court has just blown away attempts by the state of Texas to deny women the reproductive rights the US government has ruled are theirs), but Gloria Steinem hadn’t written a book, and come here to talk to us, just to be our institutional memory, or Cassandra, or whatever.

She talked about the women at the conference, about the Native American women she had gotten to know there, how she had learned so many fascinating things about early Native American history from them. Because, and this is pure Gloria, “We don’t study history from when it started, we study it from when monarchy, patriotism and patriarchy and the other bullshit started”.

About patriarchy, Gloria... Gloria had no hesitation. “It’s about controlling reproduction -- that’s what it’s all about”.

The perfect lead-in for Nick Barley to call our attention to the dedication in My life on the road.

“Such a great dedication. Tell us about it.”

“Shall I read it? I don’t want to say everyone’s read my book!” (a good Steinem laugh) and she does.

 This book is dedicated to: 
Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India. 
Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life". 
Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

"You will do what you want to do with your life," muses Barley. "Do you sometimes feel as if you’ve sacrificed your life on behalf of others?”

“I don’t feel like that at all!” and another good laugh.

Gloria Steinem wasn't going in for any of that "I sacrificed myself for you" blackmail. She wasn't going in for recognition, or packaging, or ownership. (She doesn't even own a car, I learned from reading the book.)

"Women say to me with some alarm, 'My daughter doesn't know who you are!' But does she know who she is? Because that's the whole point."

She pumped for all of us filling the ASB theatre to use the occasion as an opportunity to spread the word about what we are doing and thinking. “Use the mike!” she said when Q&A time came around. And some people did, websites were promoted, organisations cited. But a lot of people had questions, and none were turned away.

Q "Where do you want us to be in fifty years?"
A “I want it to be wherever you want it to be. I'm not here to tell you where to go -- you know things I don’t know. “

Q Should we should talk to people who are “against feminism”?
A Well of course. “If I am fucking up I don’t want someone to hate me, I want them to tell me!”

A woman wanted to talk about the rights of sex workers. Steinem was honest; she has a problem with legalising “sex work”, though she does not want to criminalise it. “What happened to mutuality?” Is it about cooperation or submission? She doesn't see it as just another exploitative job, as is the risk if we term it "sex work". In her life, she says, she's only known one woman whose choice to sell her body was truly free of coercion.

Advice to a 14 year old feminist, who wanted to know where to start in her school where "nobody even knows what feminism is": Find an instance of injustice (how do the budgets for boys and girls sports teams compare) and organise people to challenge it.

"Change that one unfairness and that will be feminism”.

I saw a hopeful, funny person, the humour more pithy than came across in her book...

"Who are your anti-abortionists?" No hands went up.
"Maybe they don’t read books!"

... and the hope more matter-of-course.

I’m not sure it was clear to me from the book how enjoyable a member of your, um, book group she would be, but the evening left no doubt about it.

 She sent us out telling us to talk to other people after exiting. I took it as a sort of beau geste, but as it happened, my daughter and I, standing in the signing line with her copy of A life on the road (the Christmas present I didn't choose for her, thinking, What will that long ago stuff mean to her?, only to see her choose it on her own), found ourselves next to funny smart Michele A’Court, author of Stuff I forgot to tell my daughter and it all happened just as it should.

When we arrived in front of Ms Steinem, I heard my daughter say that she didn't care about having her name in the book, she preferred a message, "whatever you would like to say to me".



--Karen

June 30, 2016

"A little life" and some big doubts at AWF 2016

The last set of our Writers Festival posts opens with Karen going against the crowd. Here's hoping that of the three types of cranky (entertaining, angry and annoying), this will prove to be in the first category.



So doll-like! Of all the ways I had imagined Hanya Yanagihara, author of The Dark Novel of 2015, doll-like was not one. She sat placidly -- or carefully-- in her black armchair like an objet d'art and I am not sure I saw any movement at all below the neck the entire time she was seated. Even her turning her gaze from Anne Kennedy in the interviewer chair to us in the audience during her responses seemed to happen in slow motion.

A low, modulated "Hello" and we were off. Somewhat disconcertingly to me, as I had been lured by the programme listing's promise of 'intense conversation' which seemed to imply opposing viewpoints, by way of introduction we had Anne reeling off a sequence of hyperbolic quotes in praise of the book, something which seemed not to disconcert Yanagihara at all.

I should lay my cards on the table right away. That book, A little life, had left me unconvinced. But I was looking forward to this session. Between the establishment honours it was garnering (Booker Prize shortlist etc) and the ardent reader fandom (a comment left on our online catalogue declared it "an experience, not just a book"), I couldn't help wondering if I had missed something. Or maybe been too in thrall to my personal tics. Like with the gougères.

Gougères, if you don’t already know (I didn't), are French cheese puffs, and, I just realised, a metaphor for my difficulty digesting this book. When Yanagihara describes Jude, her main character, a man traumatised by horrendous sexual abuse suffered as a child, who has become a top of the top litigator, while also having an extraordinary aptitude for theoretical mathematics and extraordinary musical talent, as always wanting to throw together some gougères for when his friends come over, I winced. I wanted Holden Caulfield to be one of the friends coming up the stairs, just to hear what he’d say.

But this is the thing. There is no Holden, because, as Yanagihara told us at the start in her very composed response to interviewer Anne Kennedy’s holding a first tentative light up to her book, “I wanted to make an hommage to the way my friends and I live”.

More in particular, she told us, she wanted to show that becoming an adult doesn't mean you have to get married and have children. For me who works in a library, this didn't strike me as news. But anyway, Yanagihara gives us four male friends, who have moved to New York together after their graduation from University, all rigorously unmarried but who seem to spend their time working, acquiring and achieving just like married men of their ilk.

They acquire wealth (apartments, country houses), habits (various, only in one case of the drug type, but it doesn't take him down), and partners (corporate, sexual, and other), and they achieve success. Lots of success. They all become stars in their fields, and all without doing anything as boring as striving. How is that?

But Yanagihara forestalls any question about her book's credibility (the 4-0 record of the friends being only one of many challenges in that sense). She tells us it's supposed to be that way, because she used a "fairy tale template". We need to suspend disbelief, is what I understand her to be saying.

“This is not a book you can go into and not surrender to it, and I hope what it gives you is the intimacy of a certain world”.

Surrendering to a book is my preferred way to read, but I wasn’t able to surrender to A little life. It might be that books about the world of wealthy Manhattanites just aren't that enthralling to me, unless executed with the wit of American Psycho, for instance, or if it's a fringe version, as in Netherland. So there's that.

But also. The heavy-handed, unimaginative depiction of the violence done to poor Jude, even more than the amount of it (every time he escapes one torturer, he falls in with another just as bad or worse). Yanahigara's editor did say that the sheer quantity of it was simply not believable, she told us, but “I told my editor if things are not quite believable they should still be true".

I suppose she means emotionally true. I'm with her on that, but I couldn’t find any true feeling in the sexual abuse scenes that are, after all, central to the book’s wallop. It should have been there, and it should have been horror and pity, but all I felt was unease and nausea. It gave me pause when I realised at a certain point that it was the same feeling I had in reading the child rape scenes in that Navajo “memoir” (The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams) which turned out to be a hoax, written by an unsuccessful non-Navajo writer of gay leather porn. A suspicion of being rendered a voyeur. That the reading experience was going to be voyeuristic rather than cathartic.

Tenderness, when it appeared, seemed always the outcome of a bargain. And desire? How ironic (or maybe I should say manipulative, given that the reader is, I believe, supposed to think it an image of suffering) the use of a photograph of a man in orgasm (Peter Hujar’s Orgasmic Man) as the cover image for a book in which there is no spontaneous, unbounded sexual desire. In which Jude's lover, new to a sexual relationship with a man, explains it away with an "I'm not in a relationship with a man, I'm in a relationship with Jude".

Was that when the word 'facile' first came to me?  Facile which is one of the adjectives Hanna Yanagihara uses for a group of friends that she described as one of her inspirations for A Little Life, in an article she wrote for Vulture last year:

"...I was an editor at a now-defunct magazine about the media industry called Brill’s Content… It was my first magazine job, and I found it terrifying, like being moved from the high-school literary magazine to the high-school debate team: Everyone was smart and facile and articulate and argumentative. One of my co-workers [...] was a man named Seth, and it was through him that I became friends with two of his friends from college: Joe, who was a copy editor at the magazine, and Jared, who was Seth’s former roommate and an editor at Inside.com. I found them all fascinating."

I can't help but be reminded of the answer she gave when Anne Kennedy asked her about the writing process behind the book. "I knew exactly where I was going with it" she said.

And so she did. At various points we heard that she wanted it to be a long novel, a claustrophobic novel, a novel with no natural stopping points, where the violence would be "unsanitised", and which would be "very personal" to her. And that is where she went.

I think anyone intrigued by the subject matter of this book -- the lasting effects of trauma, the arc of friendship, its strengths and its limits -- who want to immerse themselves in a story, who are happy to set aside scepticism, who find social or cultural commentary intrusive, who would like to push the boundaries of their emotional endurance, should try going there with her.

Don't worry about the gougères. Maybe talking about gougères in Manhattan is no more pretentious than talking about quiche in my native California (which is to say, not pretentious at all, unless perhaps when the filling is kale, or ramps -- oops, don't they buy ramps in A Little Life?).

As her last question before Audience Q&A time, Anne asked, as interviewers do, “What’s next for you?”

The first laugh of the interview from Yanagihara! A strong, low laugh. But I didn’t catch an answer and I’m pretty sure that if there was one, it was a gloss over.

During Q&A, a sincere young male whom I dubbed “Mr G” in my notes stepped up to the microphone and asked whether Yanagihara could share any revelations that had come to her while writing the book “if it isn’t too personal”.

No, she couldn’t.

“I think this would be a great place to end” said Anne.

--Karen



 
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