Jan and Stevie

I was just thinking, we only get to read the published diaries of people who are already famous for their writing, and that’s too bad. It seems a shame that no one is interested enough in reading my half-baked yet poetical little trains of thought that they would publish them in a book. I know I personally would be interested in reading the personal diaries of damn near anybody.

The current issue of The Paris Review has excerpted the dairies of the Welsh writer Jan Morris, who they call a historian and essayist but who I have always thought of as a travel writer. She was an extremely intelligent writer, in any case, who packed tons of allusions into every thought and always made interesting connections. The Paris Review informed me that she began keeping a daily journal for the first time at the age of ninety—smiley face emoji—and those entries will be published as a book later this year. The excerpts are as charming as they are impressive. Morris writes about the first time she ever flew in an airplane, a de Havilland Rapide biplane she rode in from Cairo to Alexandria in the 30s, but also about her marmalade preferences and the books she keeps on the passenger side of her beat-up Honda, in case she gets bored at a stop light. (It’s two volumes of de Montaigne’s collected essays—actually, one big book that she tore in half to make them fit into the door pocket. When I read this I remembered that I ripped a book in half once, a paperback copy of A.M. Homes’ novel This Book Will Save Your Life that I was very close to finishing. I was about to leave my house for the airport but couldn’t wait until I returned from my trip to find out how the book ended, and since I didn’t want to have to lug one more thing on my trip with me I tore the big book at its spine and only brought the unread portion with me. After I finished reading that I threw it in a trashcan at the airport. Wonderful book.) 

In her diary, Morris also talks fondly about spending time with her partner, “my Elizabeth,” and the small house and gardens they shared in the Welsh countryside, and I guess what I’m saying is that this sort of accounting makes for very interesting reading. All on its own. I know that Morris had an unusual and colorful life, but do I need to know this to enjoy hearing her talk about drinking coffee at a cafe in the village, or what her shadow looks like when she takes a walk at dusk? I don’t know if I do. Big lives are fascinating but so are small lives. And anyway, even those rare people who get to live big lives are also living out the small details in parallel. Everyone has relationships, habits, preferences, private sorrows and little pleasures. These things are always interesting, provided the person finds the right way to share them with you.

I am reminded of the essays of the English poet Stevie Smith, some of which were collected in a volume I treasure called Me Again. This book also has many of her poems and the quirky, heart-breaking doodle-drawings she made to go with them. I love the book so much that I tend to hug it to my chest before I put it back on the shelf. This is because I love Stevie Smith’s writing, of course, but also because I love thinking about Stevie Smith. A good book is good company, the writer’s voice like a friend having a conversation with you, but some writers keep me company beyond the words they’ve written. They live in my imagination as if they’re people I know, or once knew. This is how I relate to Stevie Smith, maybe because her writing voice is so singular, clear, and true. The details of her life seem to fascinate other people too; the playwright Hugh Whitemore wrote a stage play about her and the household she shared with her elderly aunt, and in 1978 this was adapted into a haunting little film called Stevie that, once I got a copy of it on VHS, I devoured and incorporated into my essence like The Blob. 

One of the short pieces in that collection, “Simply Living,” reads a bit like a strange diary entry. In it, Smith talks about the small pleasures of her quiet life with her aunt, and she describes looking out the window while cutting vegetables in her kitchen, “a slim young parsnip under my knife.” She also talks about taking a break from her work mid-morning, every day, to share a glass of sherry with her aunt. Back when I found this book, I shared a similarly close relationship with my mother, who I lived with and then near, in an apartment around the corner from her house. I made a photocopy of this essay and gave it to her because I knew she would like that detail about the parsnip and the knife, and also because I expected her to recognize the similarity of our relationship to the one Smith had with her aunt. I never said as much—things like this are never explicitly said in my family—but I expected my meaning would come through in my gesture. (In my family we communicate like this, in code, via movie quotes, shared books and articles, and from the imagined perspectives of our pets. “Gracie says she misses you.”) After I gave her the essay I even went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of sherry for us to share in the mornings, but we both hated the way it tasted and couldn’t get used to feeling a little drunk so early in the day.

During her lifetime Stevie Smith published a few novels and lots of poetry, to much acclaim. She ran in London literary circles and may have dated George Orwell, and she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. But alongside all this, for all of her adult life, she lived not in the city but in an unstylish suburb, in the same house from the age of three until her death. She worked as a secretary, never married, and lived for only three more years after the elderly aunt who had raised her died. In other words her life was big and small at the same time. But isn’t that true of us all?


Towers of Strength and Sanity

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