I’ve collected and written about such a lot of stuff over the years, it’s hard to choose just one object to talk about on Thursday. That’s when I’ll be participating in this Show & Tale event in Brooklyn, which should be interesting. We’ll each take a few minutes to show and describe an object that has affected our creative practice, and I plan to bring something that I wrote about in my book White Elephants, which is basically entirely about the weird old things I find and fall in love with at yard sales and then buy and bring home and hoard. I’ll have some copies of the book for sale as well. If you’ll be in the area, come on out!
How has it taken me this long to write a zine about Philadelphia? My ancestral homeland, the grimy, spirited, no-bullshit, beautiful place where my heart lives (along with the rest of my body): In this zine I tell you why I couldn’t live anywhere but Philly. Have a look.
This weekend was the occasion for a major clean-out around here; Joe and I hosted a reading and party in our home / zine library, and we expected (and very happily got) a larger crowd than we’ve had for these events before. In order to get the downstairs ready for a bunch of people to comfortably sit and stand and eat and gab and listen to zines being read from, we had to sort through and put away piles of books and other junk before breaking out the big guns: a duster! A vacuum cleaner! A rag to wash the stupid molding! Maybe you’re supposed to do this stuff more often than every, uh, six weeks, but that’s alright. The place looks pristine now, very calm. And since I took the opportunity to do some real organizing, I decided to make a project out of dealing with some of the many books that I own.
I actively try to keep from acquiring books. I use the library for most of my reading needs, I no longer allow myself to hoard magazines, and even though I review books for work and therefore receive a fair number of them in the mail, I give almost all of those away after I’m through with them, too. But still. I have a ton of fucking books. The large bookcase in my front room holds all the books that are dearest to me, the ones I have a hard time imagining not owning because I loved them and, in many cases, still refer to them often enough, in my own writing or in conversation with someone who is politely humoring me. In the other downstairs sitting room is a pretty and tall but narrow bookcase I bought years ago that is called a “ladder bookcase” because it’s made to look like a step ladder propped against the wall. Most of Joe’s books live on that one. His and mine started out huddled into two separate collections on those shelves and have now sort of blended together, I notice, seemingly on their own at night while we were asleep. There’s also an end table in that room where I stack up library books I’ve checked out, magazines we haven’t finished, and zines we’ve gotten at events that we haven’t yet read and filed away in our zine library. There’s another small bookcase in the bedroom, and that’s the one I want to tackle because it’s the place where I keep books that are still … live. They’re ones I haven’t started yet or that I did start but haven’t finished for one reason or other. I looked all these over with a very critical eye and found a couple for the donation pile right off the bat. I have also made a small stack of books that I am interested in reading, at least in part, but don’t want to keep like trophies afterward, and in fact am already tired of looking at. It’s time to read them and be done with it.
The first book I want to finish I probably will keep, though; I bought it at a very nice used bookstore in Kutztown, PA called Firefly when I was there for a visit and a stroll around town on Saturday. It’s a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called The Discomfort Zone. (I got the reference in the title just now! To get it yourself you’ll have to read his essay “Two Ponies,” a wonderful piece about Charles Schulz and growing up in the ’60s and ’70s and Franzen’s own family.) Since I got a lot out of his other essay collection, How to Be Alone, but haven’t kept up with his career enough to realize he’d put out a second one, I was happy to find it. I’ve also been picking through Kate Zambreno’s novel, Green Girl, for several months in very small portions at a time. I don’t know why I have been reading this book in this way. I like it, relate to the poor main character shamefully strongly, and think Zambreno is an enviably good young (as in under-40) writer. Her essay “One Can Be Dumb and Unhappy at Exactly the Same Time” stunned me with its breadth and depth of feeling and experience (and again, for me, relatability, that much-maligned concept among literary folks, but an idea that certainly feels significant to me, for at least some of the reading I do). Now I’m wishing I had hoarded the issue of Frequencies it appeared in, but here’s an excerpt for us both to enjoy. I guess I’ll continue picking through her novel at my strange slow pace; no need to rush it, if that’s how I need to take it in.
After that I’ve got a few lesser books to work through. There’s a book of interviews with female rock musicians that was published in the ’90s called Women, Sex and Rock’n’Roll: In Their Own Words by a music journalist named Liz Evans. I found it at a thrift store and it smells very strongly of cold cream, which makes me think incongruently of my grandmother every time I pick it up. As the title indicates, the interview portions of each chapter have a conversational feeling because they’ve been left in the voices of the speakers, which makes for pretty good reading, but I’m not terribly interested in all the artists featured in it. I’ve read the Tori Amos essay already (good old Tori, she’s so WEIRD) and the somewhat baffling Kristin Hersh one too, and will probably want to read Björk’s entry and Dolores O’Riordan’s one and maybe Tanya Donnelly’s too. Then it’s back to the thrift store with the ’90s ladies of rock.
I also have this pretty little book on entertaining that I bought at a library book sale for a quarter. I acted like this was a joke purchase but it did actually occur to me that maybe I should bone up on my entertaining skills if I’m going to keep hosting people in large-ish numbers at my house. I won’t name the book because I want to tell you honestly that it is pretty terrible, advice-wise, and I don’t wish to be nasty toward the lady who wrote and published it through her own press like 18 years ago. One of the tips for cleaning up before a party is to get a bunch of bins or boxes and fill them with your clutter—including dirty dishes!!!!—and then hide the containers in the basement. I feel that my hostessing skills, boisterous and haphazard as they are, have already moved lightyears beyond disturbed-sounding advice like this, and yet I can’t stop reading through the tips in the book. I guess there’s a small part of me that still, even after years of conscious un-schooling in the values of our dominant crap-ass culture, feels a pang of longing at the idea of “self-improvement.” As a teenager I loved reading the kinds of women’s magazines that make me feel disgusted and bored when I see them now; back then I used them as a kind of rule book on how to be, and I still get a certain pleasure out of the idea that I could use “tips” to better myself, backwards as that idea is. These days, I find the best rules for living in slightly loftier places. Take this eye-opener from that Franzen essay I mentioned, “Two Ponies.” After talking about Charles Schulz and his work and early life, he has this to say about the man:
“Schulz wasn’t an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip every day for fifty years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It’s the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz’s early sorrows look like “sources” of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humor in them.”
Emphasis mine. Because: THANK YOU FOR SAYING THAT, and ain’t it the truth?
The final book in this little stack—I’m making myself deal with the whole stack before I get back to my library books, which I’ll tell you about in another couple days; I made some GOOD finds there last week—is an Anchor Book of New American Short Stories anthology from 2004, edited by Ben Marcus. Don’t know where this book came from, if it was initially Joe’s or mine, or even if I’ve read any of it yet. I know I’ve read “Tiny, Smiling Daddy” by Mary Gaitskill, but I read that one in her own spooky collection, Because They Wanted To, years ago. (All her stuff is spooky, and so uncannily true.) I need to read the A.M. Homes story, “Do Not Disturb,” because I can’t remember whether or not I ever have, and she’s one of my all-time favorite novelists. Looks like Lydia Davis has one of her signature, very short pieces in here as well, which I’ll also read. The rest I can do without. Gotta clear the shelves for more books.
Till next time, K
I just finished reading one of those rare books that is so wonderful and unique, it opens your eyes, and everything looks new again. I found a book like this in my twenties, Notebooks of a Naked Youth by Billy Childish. The language and images and ideas were so fresh and raw and new that it startled me out of my old life and into a new one, and I remember thinking at the time that, without articulating this to myself, I’d assumed I could never feel that way again, since childhood and adolescence were over, and I’d lost a little (okay, a lot) of that feeling I used to carry around with me all the time, that life was one ongoing surprise, like a gift I was always unwrapping. But here was this wonderful, frightening book, with a character who described his crippling headaches in words I’d never heard before except for in my own migraine-rattled brain. He was me, I was him; I was transformed.
And now, some ten years later, it’s happened again: I just met Jessica Vye, the hero of Jane Gardam’s novel, A Long Way from Verona, and I felt I was meeting a more perfect version of myself who is living a different but parallel (and of course fictional, but what does that ever really mean) life. Heaven.
Jessica is nine years old when the story begins, and she tells it to us from her now-13-year-old perspective, which is full of hilarious and precocious insights about life and love and art. Because—as a visiting author tells her after she shares something she wrote with him—she is a WRITER, BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT! The novel takes place in England during the second world war, where gas masks and air raids and fairly shocking deprivation are all part of normal daily life. The story is sad and worrying and hopeful, and absolutely lovely for its sweetness. If you have not read the book—especially if you are a person who writes things, and maybe even more especially if you are a person who was ever a young girl—you should read it soon. You’ll thank me, I promise.
Evidently A Long Way From Verona—which, incidentally, I had never heard of before, and found by browsing the shelves at my fine local library in Philadelphia—was meant as a children’s book when it was published in the 1970s, and has since been read and loved by many adults, some of whom are, ya know, critics. I am reminded of other young teenage narrators that I first read as an adult and fell in love with, like 13-year-old Jason Taylor from David Mitchell’s magnificent novel, Black Swan Green. That one’s said to be semi-autobiographical, which I think comes through, and has been called a YA book too, but I don’t know. Between me and you I have found that a lot of young adult novels make for thin, simplistic reading (for adults), and neither of these did. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is another book I read for the first time as an adult, and absolutely loved. Hilarious, spirited, truth-telling young girls are my favorite kind of human.