Love’s Old Sweet Song

Well hey, June 16th was a good day for reading. It started first thing, for me, with a perfect little essay about junk shops by Luc Sante for the Paris Review, and it ended in the evening with Bloomsday, which is one the best things that happens in Philly, thanks, in my eyes, to Drucie McDaniel’s Molly Bloom.

For those who don’t know, Bloomsday is a yearly celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, so called because the whole big brick of a book takes place over the course of one day in Dublin—June 16, 1904— with the character of Leopold Bloom at the center of it all. Bloomsday started in Dublin, naturally, where people can walk through the city and visit the sites mentioned by name in the book, but these celebrations take place all around the world now, usually in the form of readings. That’s what we do in Philly, every June 16th; for the last 20-some years, the Rosenbach Library and Museum has hosted readings from the book, right out on their beautiful street of brownstones and window boxes, Delancey Street, downtown. Folks from all walks of life—many but not all of them Irish by nationality or descent—are invited to read a portion of the novel, and there’s lots of singing and other music, too. As Rosenbach Director Derick Dreher reminded us this year, the novel and the day are about the sung word as much as the written and spoken word. This is a novel that’s meant to be heard, and hearing it outside, in the city, feels right. That is God, Stephen Dedalus says in the novel. A shout in the street.

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Photo of a Dublin street taken in 1969, from the National Library of Ireland

I went to Bloomsday toward the end of the day, as I usually do, in order to catch Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Drucie McDaniel is, as this point, a star. We’re all there for her. No one else could be Molly Bloom. They announce her with pride and pleasure and a bit of fanfare, and then she emerges, dressed in what looks like a period costume but might actually just be a really cool dress, white and formless in that flapperish way, and gorgeous white ankle boots. She takes her time reaching the podium and once she gets there, she interprets a portion of that final steam-of-consciousess speech in what sounds to my American ears like a perfect Dublin accent. (She’s American too.) It is a wonderful thing to be a part of, and I put it that way because being there feels like being a part of something, not just passive entertainment but a community, a street filled with people and shared good feeling and different types of liveliness and stillness.

As she read I thought about the time I tried to meet someone there, a new friend who I felt a special closeness to and who I’d run into earlier in the day. She didn’t know about Bloomsday but was excited by my excitement about it and said she’d try to come down and meet me there if she could. I went and stood in the back where I could see the readers and also the rest of the crowd, standing around and sitting on chairs arranged in rows in front, and waited for her, weirdly excited to see her arrive. She got there and moved through the crowd, looking for me, and I thought she looked right at me a few times but she didn’t see me. I  wanted to shout her name to get her attention but I didn’t, I couldn’t, didn’t even move, just watched her take a chair and listen to the rest of the day’s readings while I stayed standing and listened along with her.

I thought about that. I thought about the collective tension of a crowd of people all trying to be quiet and still.

I thought about a man I used to see at Bloomsday but haven’t for a few years now, how he used to wear a three-piece tweed suit that you could tell were his real, everyday clothes. I thought about the way he sat on the edge of his chair and rested his Bloomsday program, rolled up, on his knee, the way men do.

I thought about what I’d wear to the show at the record store the next day. All black, probably, here’s hoping it’s not too hot.

When they got to the Sinbad the Sailor part, I thought about taking Joe to Bloomsday last year, when they held it in the church because it was so hot outside. I thought about how we’ve taken to saying those silly words to each other at bedtime, like in the book, when we’re getting sleepy: Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailor and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer…

I looked at the lady whose cardigan had half fallen off the back of her chair. I looked at people’s hairlines and blotchy skin and interesting shoes. I shifted back and forth to try to get a better view and hoped that my back wouldn’t hurt too much, later at home. I watched people walking past pushing babies in strollers, looking either embarrassed or proud to find themselves with an audience. I looked at a black dog’s black, wet nose and she looked into my eyes, like a person. Her owner kept turning and smiling at everyone around her.

I worried that this would be the year I’d find out I’d lost it, that I wouldn’t be moved to cry during Molly’s speech the way I always have. I was thinking and shifting and I couldn’t really see. But it got me, it always gets me, it’s embarrassing but by now I’d miss the tears if they didn’t come. It’s that line—”and I thought well as well him as another”—that undoes me. Why does it affect me the way it does? I think it’s the thought of Joyce understanding the mind of a woman well enough to write a line like that that I find so beautiful; it’s such a wonderful surprise. It’s like when someone who really loves you notices something small and special about you that you never noticed yourself, something only someone who understands you could show you, that feeling of being seen.

Drucie McDaniel finished being Molly Bloom for the year, and I cried. They gave her flowers, like they do every year, and then there was a song, “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” sung by a woman named Abla Hamza. She invited us to sing along for the final verse but only the old people knew the words. And then we all left.

Irish literature, Irish rebellion, and the lost art of letter writing

On Thursday of last week, I had the great pleasure of listening to a conversation about Irish society between two of the most important living Irish writers, the poet Eavan Boland and the fiction writer Colm Toíbín, at the Free Library in Philadelphia. The talk was moderated by a filmmaker and journalist named Sadhbh Walshe, and its purpose was to discuss the legacy of the Easter Rising of 1916 on the 100th anniversary of Ireland’s fight for independence.

Linen hall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.
Linenhall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.

I’ve been to about a million talks and readings at the Free Library, which puts on an excellent authors series every year, and quite honestly I’m often one of about 30 or 40 people there. I didn’t bother buying a ticket for this talk in advance because I didn’t expect a program on this rather narrow topic to come close to selling out, but I had a surprise in store. When I got to the library the auditorium was nearly full, and I was lucky to be able to buy a ticket at the door. Even luckier to find an open seat, which happened to be next to an old friend of mine from college. All around us, and in the ladies’ room too, I could hear conversations taking place in Irish accents, from both the south and the north. It really drove home the points that Toíbín and Boland made about the Irish in America. One of the first remarks that Toíbín made was to quote Irish ambassador Barbara Jones, who said that there wouldn’t be peace in Ireland if it weren’t for the U.S. And the connection between the two countries wouldn’t exist, of course, if it weren’t for the many millions of Irish immigrants who have arrived on these shores over the last few hundred years.

Boland and Toíbín both had many wonderful, insightful things to say during the hour or so that they were interviewed. One of my favorite ideas is one they came back to several times, and which both of them have addressed in their writing over the years: What Boland described as the gap between history and “the past.” History, she said, is populated by famous names and important leaders, nearly all of them men. The past is filled with people, many of them women, whose names we never knew but without whom no “history” would have been made.

They talked about the Irish rebellion and how it had its roots in the Great Famine, and the silence and “erasure” of that tragedy. Toíbín said that he believes the earliest feeling that the English must leave Ireland came from this time. He reminded us that 1 million people died in the Famine, but 2 million emigrated away from it, most of them to America: To Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Haunted by their memories of the Famine, this “angry diaspora” began making “revolutionary noise” to fill that silence.

The two writers also talked about James Joyce, and Toíbín—always so finely attuned to the female experience—made the excellent observation that Joyce was “engaged in the politics of Ireland by letting a woman speak uninterrupted” at the end of Ulysses. Hearing this made me glow with pleasure. (And reminded me to be exited about going to hear Drucie McDaniel do the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the Rosenbach’s Bloomsday readings, as she does every year.)

And to my delight, they talked about handwriting. Toíbín, who grew up in Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland, told a story about the 400-year-old castle there. In the 1950s, his father raised the money to buy the castle, which was no longer inhabited and which he planned to restore and operate as a museum. The people of the town were invited to donate any antiques they had in their homes for display in the castle, and Toíbín recalled that everyone wanted to bring something, not because they would benefit financially from doing so, but because there was a woman named Marion Stokes with beautiful copperplate handwriting who wrote the name of every contribution on a placard. At home later I read about Marion Stokes, and how some 30 years before this, she had participated in the Easter Rising, helping to hoist the tricolor flag as they declared Ireland a Republic. It was clear that Toíbín was still moved by the idea of this handwriting and what it meant to people, to see their things made into pieces of history in this beautiful way by a woman who had been a part of history herself. (He tells a longer version this story in a recent article in the Irish Times.)

Moderator Walshe led this story, quite gracefully, into a conversation about letter writing. Boland talked about how important writing letters home was to the Irish immigrants who knew they may never again see their hometowns again, and who sat down to write them on “the long evenings of their leave-takings.” She read her poem “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” and it was one of a few tearjerkers that evening.

“…And if we say
An art is lost when it no longer knows
How to teach a sorrow to speak, come, see
The way we lost it: stacking letters in the attic,
Going downstairs so as not to listen to
The fields stirring at night as they became
Memory and in the morning as they became
Ink; what we did so as not to hear them
Whispering the only question they knew
By heart, the only one they learned from all
Those epistles of air and unreachable distance,
How to ask: is it still there?”

***

The talk has brought up a lot of feelings and ideas for me, though I can’t see the full shape of them yet. I grew up in a very Irish-Catholic world, attending Catholic church and school in an overwhelmingly Irish-American parish, and my own ethnic background is largely Irish as well, though my name is German, which was enough to mark me as a kind of outsider in my little community. (That and the fact that my German-named father, who was at least half Irish anyway, was not Catholic: unthinkable!) My mother, who was the one who handed down Catholicism to us and who had grown up with the Irish name and background, always showed disdain for the ethnic pride the large Irish families in our parish seemed to have, and I see now that her distaste came from a kind of shame. It was another facet to my feeling like an outsider to the community I grew up in, which ironically (or inevitably, I guess) has at times made me feel desperate to understand it and get closer to it. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out how Irish I really am.

I’ve read an awful lot of Irish writing on this journey, though, let me tell you. In Toíbín’s remarkable characters (so many of them women), I hear my grandmother’s outrageous, flippant turn of phrase; I see my mother’s thin-lipped rebellion. I understand the nature of the silence and stoicism he describes—and the unruliness beneath it. The lyricism and homegrown feminism of Boland’s poetry resonates with me too, on a deep, personal level. Her country’s troubled history won’t let go of her, but in her writing she grapples with it, and appears to have gotten the upper hand.

As I sat listening to the writers talk about Ireland I got those incredible lines from Yeats caught in my head, the ones about the fanatic heart that I sometimes like to say to myself over and over again. “Out of Ireland have we come. / Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carry from my mother’s womb / A fanatic heart.” It always gets my own heart racing, which has a weird way of soothing me, like a mantra for the restless.

What a Book Is

Hey gang! I’ve been meaning to get on here and write something smart about books for a while now, but I haven’t been able to. Ya wanna know why? Cuz I got appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery! And wow did it hurt. I’ve spent the last week or so unable to do pretty much anything, but today I seem to have gotten back a bit of my old vim and zest, not to mention the INTELLECTUAL RIGOR you come here for. And since an interesting new title has recently been donated to the East Falls Zine Reading Room, I think I’ll take a moment to tell you about it.

A few weeks ago I attended the Philadelphia Art Book Fair as an exhibitor. We had a table—we being The Soapbox, the DIY print- and book-making center I belong to—and were selling prints, zines, and artists’ books made by our members and giving out information about our upcoming events. We sat next to the folks from Ulises, which is a bookshop and curatorial project that brings out publications, exhibits, and lectures on a different theme each season. They were lovely guys, and I made a trade with them: a few of my zines for a copy of their publication of Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books. (You can read the full text here.) Carrión, a Mexican conceptual artist, is their project’s namesake.

By this point you may be asking, What is an artist’s book, Katie? My short answer is,
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ! My longer answer is that an artist’s book is a book, but not in the usual way. It’s a piece of art in the form of a book. The artist may make just one of these books, or she may make multiple copies or versions. And sometimes the artist’s book won’t look much like a book at all.

artbooks.jpg
See, here’s what happens when you google “artists’ books.”

The Ulises edition of The New Art of Making Books does not have a spine and is not otherwise constructed like a book in any way except that it is comprised of text that has been printed onto paper. These prints are stacked up and stapled together at the top. This not-a-book structure helps guide us toward an understanding of Carrión’s definition of a book, which he delineates by differentiating between books of the “old art” and the new.

“In the old art the meanings of the words are the bearers of the author’s intentions. … The words in a new book are not the bearers of the message, nor the mouthpieces of the soul, not the currency of communications. … The words of the new book are there not to transmit certain mental images with a certain intention. They are there to form, together with other signs, a space-time sequence that we identify with the name ‘book.'”

About those “old” books, Carrión goes on to say,

“A book of 500 pages, or of 100 pages, or even of 25, wherein all the pages are similar, is a boring book considered as a book, no matter how thrilling the content of the words of the text printed on the pages might be. … A novel with no capital letters, or with different letter types, or with chemical formulae interspersed here and there etc., is still a novel, that is to say, a boring book pretending not to be such.” Haha! No tea no shade!

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So many layers of meaning.

Because The New Art of Making Books is not really a book, we had to get creative about the way we added it to our collection. Storing unusual publications like these is continually challenging, since we need to protect them but also want to store and display them for ease of use and reading. This hinge clip contraption from the thrift store does the job nicely, and serves to highlight selections from the library.

zinelibrary
Of these three, only Daniel Zender’s Escape Plans, on the left, is a “real” book. This edition of the zine You, on the right, takes the form of a photocopied letter inside of a paper bag.

In Carrión’s manifesto / essay / theory / art piece, he reminds us that in the first place, writers don’t write books, they write texts. Though The New Art of Making Books was first published in 1975, it’s even more relevant now, as I prepare this text you are reading to be “published” not as a book, but on a blog, where it can be accessed for free by anyone connected to the worldwide network known as the Internet. But that’s a conversation—about reading, literature, and the changing nature of literacy—for another day.

All Power to the Imagination!

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A batch of comics and zines from The Soapbox

I’ve been zonked out for a few days now, sick with what I’m calling a cold because I refuse to believe I got the flu after getting a flu shot in December. Also because I had the flu last year, and I remember how much worse that was. Still, I feel like hell. I haven’t gotten out of this armchair for two days, and I haven’t worked on the book I’ve been writing so diligently since the beginning of the year, either. My head hurt so much yesterday that I gave up on reading The Remains of the Day and watched the Merchant Ivory film adaptation instead. It was wonderful. I could look at Anthony Hopkins’ face for hours and not run out of feelings.

I’ve got good company in the form of these comics and zines, too, which is making me feel a little less miserable. I always have tons of zines around my house, but these are ones I haven’t read yet, on loan from The Soapbox, the indie print shop and zine library where I’m a member. On Thursday I’ll bring them to Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Kensington to do a sort of pop-up zine library there, which will consist of a few of us members sitting at a table, drinking coffee and inviting anyone with the interest to join us in some reading. Nice, eh?

And have you heard about Amalgam, by the way, the new place everyone’s so excited about? Like, everyone: Owner Ariell R. Johnson has been blowingUpThe internet. I haven’t been to her shop yet and I’m looking forward to checking it out. Ariell is the first black woman to own a comics shop on the east coast, and one of the few in the whole country. It’s a big deal, and by all accounts she’s doing well and attracting business with her idea to combine comics with good coffee. It’s such a good idea. Why aren’t there more places like this??

So—that’s where we’ll be on Thursday, but for now I’m still stuck in my chair at home, trying to resist the urge to read every single one of these zines before our event. Amazing how these tiny, oddball books stuff my head to overflowing with images and ideas. Some of them have no titles, and on others no author is listed. Plenty of them offer a little information, though, which has led me down a few pleasant rabbit holes of interneting, from websites to blogs to instagrams and new online friends. It’s so interesting to me to see this web of connection—the ways in which it’s the same as it was before the internet as we know it existed, as well as how it’s changed. More than anything, I think, it’s just faster. I remember how it worked in the’90s, when I was a teenager looking for connection. If I was interested in a band or a writer, I’d have to wait for the next issue of Spin or Sassy or one of the dorkier metal music magazines I was into, which always had ads in the back with information on joining fan clubs, getting pen-pals, and ordering t-shirts and tapes. Within zines themselves, writers usually included some kind of contact information so you could write them a letter (which they might print in a subsequent issue of the zine) or send them a copy of one you’d written. The information was out there, and there were networks of people who’d found each other in order to share it. It just took longer. You were dependent on the monthly publishing schedules of magazines and the time it took to send a letter through the mail and get a response. The methods we use to communicate with each other have changed (or at least increased) since then, but our reasons for doing so haven’t.

And actually, old-fashioned print zines still offer something that online publications usually don’t, though I find it hard to articulate exactly what that is. I think it has to do with the idea of an intended audience. When you make a zine—even if you’re writing on an extremely sensitive topic—you can feel a certain freedom to express yourself openly because the circulation is so small and limited. There’s something liberating about both sharing something you’ve written with “the public” and knowing that this public will probably only be a small number of like-minded folks. I suppose the same ends up being true for any number of specialty publications, including literary journals both in print and online—these simply attract fewer readers than big, general interest magazines do. But there’s something different about a form of publishing that exists within a subculture. If the intended audience for a poem or a novel is the world (the universe?), the zine writer’s audience is often understood to be other zine writers—or other anarcha-feminists, or other punks, etc. You get the idea. The readership is so small that zines become one half of a conversation, with an implied call to action in every one: If she did this herself, I could do it too.

A few of the zines in this batch are ones I’ve read before, and looking at them now—and becoming totally engrossed by them again—is reminding me of how much this feeling of membership and participation has meant to me over the years. Zines were my way into a community of artists as well as into punk; I used to read descriptions of house shows and grassroots organizing and think, Oh man, that sounds so exciting, I want that to be my life. All these years later I know how limited and fraught with ego and political bullshit this kind of activism can be—ugh, and I hate the word activism, to be honest, it’s so self-congratulatory; I wish people would stop giving themselves the title activist and just tell me what it is that they do—but the dream of all that is still alive for me. Making things on your own, rather than for school or work. Making things with your friends. Start a band, start a revolution. I know that sounds trite but I mean it, I believe in it. And when I start to feel burnt out or weary or jaded, reading zines gets my blood up again.

One of the zines here is an anthology edited by Cindy Crabb, who I have to remind myself is not actually famous because she’s so well known to zine folks. Her zine Doris has been around since 1991, and has probably encouraged hundreds of girls to give writing and self-publishing a try. This anthology, Support—which is a collection of pieces on sexual abuse and its aftermath—is very powerful, and includes letters people have written to Cindy, which she has reproduced by typing them up on a typewriter. At the end of the zine she lists resources for abuse survivors and the people who care about them, and tells readers they can write to her for a longer list. All of this could have been done online much more quickly and easily, and it’s even cheaper than a photocopy if you use a free blog platform. And I love the internet—for lots of reasons besides its convenience and cost effectiveness to publishers. But there’s something about reading stories or information in a print zine that gives you the sense of having discovered something, and I think that’s uniquely powerful. Disappearing into the zine, feeling the rest of the world go silent and fall away, I could be 8 years old again, or 12, one of those ages when no one wants me to know about the stuff I need to know about, so I find it out for myself at the library, alone in a quiet room with my heart hammering. The fact that this can still happen to me is something I find really stirring and moving and excellent.

The tiny print run of most zines makes them rare; as objects, they’re things you can hold in your hand. When you’re finished reading a zine you can put it in your backpack or away on a shelf, and it doesn’t go back to belonging to the whole world the way things you’ve found on the internet do. It’s yours.

A Good Year for Reading

long2I live and die by my datebook. In fact, since I haven’t marked down a date for my death, it’s likely it’ll never happen.

I use my book to make a note of every event I hear about and want to remember, and I draw up daily lists of tasks I need to do, which I happily cross off as I accomplish each one. Every September I buy myself a new book, since I favor the student ones. Don’t ask me why. I think it may be that I first developed a need for a daily calendar when I was in college, and all these years later I still think in terms of getting a fresh start in the fall.

This year I chose a brand of datebook I’d never used before called Bloom. It’s a really nice book, sprinkled throughout with stirring quotations and “reflections” that are lovely but don’t beat you over the head with their positivity. I’ve just come to a page at the end of the year that prompts you to list new things you tried and places you visited, etc., in 2015, with similar categories to fill in with plans for the coming year. One of the sections is called Best Books I Read in 2015, so I gave that a little thought and came up with these seven. More than half of them were written by men, which surprised me since I don’t tend to be very interested in fiction by or about men. But now that I look at it, two of these four men are gay, and the only fiction writer among them—Colm Tóibín—very often writes about the interiority of women. So there you go. I’ve already said something about most of these books or writers on this blog, so here are just a few brief thoughts on each:

  1. A Long Way From Verona, by Jane Gardam. This may be the best book I’ve ever read, actually. It’s up there with The Secret Garden and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, two other children’s books that I first read as an adult, loved deeply, and understood what makes them “classics.” (A Long Way From Verona was considered a children’s book when it was published in 1971, but like those others the ideas and humor are sophisticated and subtle and make substantive reading for any adult.)
  2. The London Train, by Tessa Hadley. Clever Girl is still my favorite of Tessa Hadley’s novels, but The London Train had the same wonderful affect on me, casting a kind of spell that made the real world drop away as I read. Her characters live in my memory as though they’re real people I once knew. Her new novel, The Past, comes out in the U.S. on January 5th, which will be an excellent way to begin a new year of reading. I plan to finish it in time to see Hadley speak at the main branch of the Free Library at the end of the month. If I work up the nerve I may even stay afterward to speak with her, which is something I never do because I consider it humiliating to wait in line for the privilege of telling someone I admire them. That attitude might belong in the category of “hangups” though, so it’s probably not a bad idea to fight it.
  3. I’d never heard of Helen Garner before I bought a used copy of her novel The Spare Room (which is apparently really a memoir, and quite frankly reads like one too). Fine, vivid writing from a strong and unusual personality brought this sad story to life. I’ll plan to look for more of her stuff in the new year.
  4. I freaking love Jon Ronson. I even concocted a reason to interview him once, years ago, just because I loved one of his books so much (Them: Adventures With Extremists) that I developed a silly crush on him after reading it. In 2015 he’s still at the top of his game, in control of his powers to amaze and amuse. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he asks us to take a hard look at ourselves and the way we all participate in “shaming” people who have had a fall from grace. It makes for crawlingly distressing reading. I even lost a little sleep for a few days there.
  5. The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Tóibín. I keep reading Tóibín’s fiction and trying to understand how he does what he does, short of witchcraft. I still don’t get it. It really is magic, the way he transports you. I especially love his women protagonists, like the main lady in Nora Webster, Nancy in the short story “The Name of the Game” from the collection Mothers and Sons, and Helen in Blackwater Lightship. All three of them have a certain canniness to the way they approach their lives; a solitary, dignified stoicism; and a wonderful dry sense of humor. They’re some of the realest women I’ve ever read, and their Irishness is both foreign and intimately familiar to me. Blackwater Lightship is about a young gay man who is dying from AIDS, and the family that gathers around him during his final days. It would be heartbreaking except that Tóibín doesn’t seen to want to break your heart. The whole novel is infused with the sadness of the impending loss, but there’s a gritty hopefulness at the heart of the book that bolsters you in the end. Wonderful novel.
  6. Ask the Dark, by Henry Turner. Because I used to review them for the Philly Inquirer, I have read dozens of so-called young adult books, probably more than 100 by now. And I don’t mind telling you that on the whole, these books do not make very interesting reading for adults. Occasionally, though, I’ll come across a YA novel that is more nuanced, surprising, and challenging than the majority. This crime thriller was one of them. It’s gorgeously written, in the vernacular of a poor Southern country boy, and it is scary AS HELL. I got the book a week or so after I moved into the house I live in now, and reading it in a place where I wasn’t yet totally comfortable was enough to keep me awake at night, staring at the ceiling with huge eyes. I hope this guy gets the attention he deserves for this beautiful book.
  7. Gary Indiana is one of a kind. He’s fucking funny and bitter and so smart it’s scary. Read his memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, if you’re interested in descriptions of modern-day Havana or San Francisco’s underground art-freak scene of the ’60s and’70s, book recommendations from a huge reader, gossipy accounts of the personal lives of well-known American intellectuals, or in Gary Indiana himself. He’s reason enough on his own, trust me.
    (Incidentally, I wrote about this book for the Utne Reader, and they’re giving away a copy of it as part of a year-end grab bag contest. I see they’ve also got cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan’s I Was a Child up for grabs, which reminds me that I loved that book too.)

lt3 garner shamed tiobin Ask-the-Dark-cover-e1422388041251 i-can-give-you-anything-but-love

Here are a few more books I read this year and want to tell you about:

  1. How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing, by Alison Freer. Charmingly written and incredibly useful. I recommend this book to anyone who cares about their clothing even one iota more than the average person. If it bothers you that store-bought clothes almost always have a slightly imperfect fit, for instance, consult this book for tips on how to alter them yourself—or make better purchasing decisions in the first place. I discovered Alison’s writing on xoJane, a guilty-pleasure website I spend way too much time reading and commenting on. She’s one of the site’s best writers, largely because she hits the right note: she’s unfailingly upbeat without seeming smarmy or fake.
  2. Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno. I have a real relationship with Kate Zambreno’s writing. Every time I see she has an essay somewhere, I read it and take it in—she always packs a lot into her writing that takes time to chew and digest … sorry for the disgusting eating metaphors—and I feel oddly proud of her too, as though I’m rooting for her career advancement. Reading her name triggers the same sort of complicated blossoming of associations and feelings that happens when you hear the name of someone you know. I guess that’s a testament to her talent for so-called personal writing; she lets you in, but not all the way, and half of what she says about herself is actually a swirling, heady list of references to books she’s read and films she loves. ANYWAY, I haven’t actually finished this book. I keep it in the bedroom, where I’ve been picking away at it piece by piece. I feel as if the girl in the story is me, when I was in my twenties and confused and pissed off at all the men who stared at me every time I went anywhere. I felt like an empty vessel and I needed their attention as much as I hated it; I mistreated myself and felt afraid all the time, too. I don’t think these are uncommon things for young women to feel, and Green Girl captures that mess of contradictions so well it makes me a little queasy—and, weirdly, wistful—to read it.
  3. Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg. Stone cold classic.
  4. Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, by Peter Hook. Still working on this one too. I had to return it to the library before I was finished. I’m a little obsessive in my love for Joy Division, so this book is one of many documentaries I’ve read / watched on the band. I’ve read a lot of “rock biographies” over the years, now that I think about it, from Richard Hell’s pretentious autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (great title though) to Nikki Sixx’s trashy, vivid (and illustrated!!!) book about his celebrity and drug addiction, The Heroin Diaries. My favorites tend to be poorly written, “real” seeming ones like this, come to think of it. Touching From a Distance was written by Ian Curtis’ widow, who is not a writer and was not in the band with him, either: It’s a family story, really, and one that succeeds in telegraphing a certain rawness of emotion and bleakness of personal circumstance precisely because it is so plainly rendered. See also: And I Don’t Want to Live this Life, by Nancy Spungen’s flipping MOM. Holy shit was that a good read. Super scandalous. (And look at the cover! I must have spent hours staring at Nancy’s face in that photo. Mesmerizing.) The mother is so carping and unkind, and her book is so tediously detailed, I find it amazing that it even got published. spungenAnd yet this is the type of junk I most like to read when I’m feeling nostalgic or morbidly curious about one of my music heroes. In contrast, Unknown Pleasures is, well, a true pleasure, mainly because Peter Hook comes across as such a lovely human being. He chose to write his account of the band in a chummy, conversational style (which I can tell you is much harder to do than it looks), and he makes liberal use of funny Northern English slang. He’s hilarious, and unlike some famous scenesters who have commented on other musicians they’ve known and worked with (I’m looking at you, Debbie Harry), he’s able to call someone a complete asshole without sounding bitter or even unkind. If he says it, you can trust that the person acted like a complete asshole. And I mean, sometimes it needs to be said.

After Josephine Pryde’s “lapses in Thinking By the person I Am”

Josephine Pryde: lapses in Thinking By the person i Am. Photograph by Constance Mensh for the Institute of Contemporary Art
Josephine Pryde: lapses in Thinking By the person i Am. Photograph by Constance Mensh for the Institute of Contemporary Art

I often hear myself telling people that I can’t drive a car. Don’t know how, never learned. It’s boring to have to explain this, but sometimes I meet people who think it’s odd to the point of being problematic somehow, so I tend to announce it upfront so that I won’t have to spring the terrible surprise on them later in our relationship. I grew up in an urban area with good public transportation, I always say. Learning to drive a car seemed like an unnecessary added stress, so I just never bothered. I’m aware that not driving is kind of weird for the same reason I’m aware that a lot of things about me are unusual—not because I think they are, but because other folks seem to. Truly, I don’t imagine anyone cares much about the details of my personal choices, but it does get to be a drag trying to justify my lack of a driver’s license to people who can’t imagine living without one.

What I don’t say, because it sounds even weirder, is that I actually love riding the bus. And the subway, and the trolley, and any type of train. I’ve done so several times a week, if not every single day, for many years now, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. I love being alone in public, cozy in my bubble with other people close by. Sometimes they’re uncomfortably, crushingly close, but I never really mind. I think it’s lovely. It’s endlessly interesting to look at and listen to other people, but safe because, unlike at a party or something, I don’t have to talk to them. (Though I can if I want to, and often I do.)

It’s like what Divya, a young woman in my writing workshop, said about art museums: They’re one of the few places where it’s not socially awkward to be alone. That’s just how I feel on the train, which I can’t help but think of as a place to see and be seen. People who live much of their lives in public this way make an effort with their hair and clothes, I find, even when they’re just going to the store. I take a cue from those folks, trying out new outfits for the runway that is the aisle between two rows of seats. This is Philadelphia, so the bus can be smelly or too hot or, with people arguing with the driver over the fare or a missed stop, tiresome. But it can be unexpectedly glamorous, too.

In Pryde’s show at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, we see a series of close-up photographs of people’s hands with brightly painted nails, several of them holding smart phones. The nails seem to be the point of the photos, like a beauty spread in Glamour or Allure, or an ad. To view them, visitors can sit on a model of a freight train—perfectly detailed with bubbled tags painted on the side, not by Pryde but by a graffiti artist—and ride past on a track temporarily installed on the floor. It’s not unlike the sensation of taking the train to work and peeping on your fellow riders—who expect to have their pretty nails admired as they poke at their phones—as you trundle through the city on some beat-up conveyance that has been jazzed up itself by a graffiti painter who wants you to admire his attempts as beautification, too. The photos call to mind modern junk culture—fashion magazines, graffiti, cell phone chatter—and ask us to see them in the context of, ya know, real art. Here, the only “painting” is a reference to street art, and the advertising language of fashion photography is what hangs on the gallery wall.

After we visited the show with our class, I went home and painted my nails, which suddenly looked plain and boring to me. I told this to everyone when we met again the next day to write about what we’d seen, and another woman said, “The same thing happened to me!” Looking, I’m always looking at other people, at other women, for cues on how to be. I guess I’m not the only one. 

When I ride the 61 bus down Ridge Avenue, I can spy on things and people as they slide past my view. I can also see, through the crowd, details here and there of my fellow riders. Not usually the whole picture-not in person, cuz it’s impolite to stare. I’ll catch a glimpse of an old man’s hand in his lap, his yellowed nails. A thick gold chain necklace looks fantastic on a woman’s pure white cable-knit sweater: I’ll have to remember that for myself. A trio of teenage girls have each made tiny tweaks to their school uniforms to express an identity: slouchy knee socks, a shortened skirt, bright laces in the brown shoes. A tiny baby lies on its back and stares up at the ceiling, its eyes unfocused but bright. The crinkles on an old lady’s face, with soft red cream rubbed into her cheeks and a natty felt hat, so like something my grandmother would have worn. She grew up not far from here, come to think of it, just a mile or so back from the river. It’s the feeling of movement that excites me, even more than the seeing, and the way the motion affects the way that I see. It makes the world-or my time to experience it, anyway-seem as fleeting as it is, everything tearing past almost before I get to know it, everything ending even as it’s beginning. It just feels correct to me, a reminder that we’re always in motion, moving inexorably toward some unknowable end.

I used to play a game with myself every time I rode a train or a bus, or found myself in an especially crowded and warm bar at night, with the soft lights glowing and people around me laughing. Quick look around to assess the ages of the everyone there so I could then thrill myself by saying, “In X years EVERYONE ON THIS TRAIN will be DEAD!” Including me, of course, the center of it all. We had longer, as a group, if there was a baby on board; the thought was more sobering when the youngest person there was me. Maybe I’ve outgrown that game now, but I used to love the sweet melancholy pang I’d get when I thought of it. We’re here now, dammit! Life is for the living! Better take a look around while you still can.

Yes, snacks

It'll be fun
It’ll be rad

This Thursday the 12th, I’ll be giving a free workshop at the Kelly Writers House at Penn on HOW TO MAKE A ZINE. I plan to give a quick history of zines, punk, and DIY, then let everybody loose on the clip art, rubber stamps, and Letraset. Each student will contribute one page, and I’ll paste them up and make copies of our collaborative zine. Reception with snacks to follow.