Tag Archives: book review

Transit by Rachel Cusk

I continue to enjoy Rachel Cusk’s work–a constant good amid chaos. I read Outline a few years ago and The Last Supper just this winter. Transit makes sense of The Last Supper.  Her observations on the human condition are unique and accurate. Her characters are honest, and sometimes they tell the truth.

image from amazon.com

Here are some lines I liked:

  • “[S]he was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human” (3).
  • “It was an interesting thought, that stability might be seen as the product of risk; it was perhaps when people tried to keep things the same that the process of decline began” (27).
  • “[S]omeone who cared about him once wrote that it was impossible not to reject him, that the friend himself has rejected him, that something about him just made people do it” (138).
  • “Fate, he said, is only truth in its natural state” (256).
  • “I felt something change far beneath me, moving deep beneath the surface of things, like plates of the earth blindly moving in their black traces” (260).

I’ve felt these subtle moments, sometimes after years, and it’s such a relief.

Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović

Walk Through Walls is Marina Abramović’s extraordinary story. I mean, of course it’s extraordinary–it warranted a book. And it did. Abramović gives the account of her tumultuous and abusive (my word, not hers) upbringing, replete with political upheaval and familial strife–inexcusable even given the PTSD and OCD that pervades the family dynamic.

Image result for Abramović walk through walls

image from amazon.com

I continue to be interested in reading about powerful women, women who live lives that are very different than the ones they grew up in, women who were able to imagine and create a way for themselves with the degree of freedom and autonomy that their art requires.

Recently, in an interview, I heard Patti Smith say that the artists path is a spiritual path, that pursuing it and making art is a spiritual experience. In that the making of art puts me in a meditative state, which is a spiritual experience, I agree.

Abramović writes honestly, even self critically, about the spiritual and emotional experiences of her life, and the relationships in which she engaged, and even contributed analysis on her painful patterns and what they might suggest. It was all very honest and real and shed some light into my own painful patterns and what can be done about them (hint: probably not a lot).

So many of the artists I’ve been reading about have traveled extensively and have sought esoteric (at least to a Westerners view) spiritual rituals for self growth and healing, engaging in shamanic treatments in Brazil, learning telepathy from Aboriginals in Australia, and completing months-long meditations in India.

Lately, I’ve wanted to have more meaningful interactions in my work. Abramović’s work empowers me to do so. Her art is really weird, and many might view it as sensationalistic, existing only for the sake of shock and awe, but in reading the book, I was quickly and easily persuaded that performance art is very much art. It’s complex and provocative and does all of the important things that more traditional art does.

For as much as her most intimate relationships brought her pain and betrayal, Abramović heals these wounds for herself and others (her audience and her students), time and time again. Perhaps I can find ways to do more of the same in the work that I do. At least I can try.

After reading the book and being inspired by her story, I felt more emboldened to live my life in a way that was more fully authentic to who I am. So currently I am working hard to change a few things about my life, bringing it more into accord with my essential self, trying to set things up in ways that are more conducive to my well being, and wearing these big sunglasses that fully protect my eyes on the top bottom and the sides. (I wore them yesterday while browsing a plant nursery, and it felt great, and zeros effs were given.)

I thought I marked more passages (I know it did!), but in the end, this is all I could find:

“Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do” (182).

“If animals live a long time together, they start loving each other. But people start hating each other” (290).

Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin

I read Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin when it was recommended by a colleague and when just hearing the title made my blood boil as I recalled countless bad Jezebel articles and dead end arguments on social media about feminism over the past few years. So, I read it.

Image result for Why I Am Not a Feminist

image from amazon.com

As expected, Crispin makes some good points, but also made my blood boil. It reads like being in an argument with the most gaslighting, narcissistic lover or family member you can’t escape. You bring up a problem. They put words in your mouth. They turn it around and accuse you of doing the thing that they were doing. Everything gets spun around. They deny saying the thing they just said. You feel like you’re taking crazy pills. Actually, that’s exactly what it’s like to read this book if you are me–a college-educated woman who has identified as a feminist since the halcyon days of undergraduate school.

The good aspects are that there are some smart and critical observations about social justice, and embracing an ideology like feminism, and life in general. She brings up important points and social events that we could probably all benefit from thinking about more critically and understanding in new ways. The bad points are that it is full of soundbites that lack real depth, and in that way it is also not very literary. It reads more like a Ted Talk, and she is constantly essentializing–to the degree that her insights are often inaccurate and/or misleading. There are straw man arguments throughout.

If you think the Crispin has miscategorized the term, and that feminism is still useful, then Crispin’s book will fall short as a manifesto.

Here are some lines that stood out to me (and a response):

  • “In order to make feminism palatable to everyone, they have to make sure no one is made uncomfortable by feminism’s goals” (8). I agree that this is a problem. Not all feminisms will be “palatable” to the masses and that’s ok/inevitable.

  • “If the goal is universality, then these feminists need to simplify the message to such a degree that the only people who would disagree with their pitch are religious freaks and hardcore misogynists” (10). This seemed to be the case with the Women’s March. The voices were so varied that everyone could easily feel good about participating. I didn’t (and don’t) think that’s a bad thing. There will be easy things and there will be hard things. The Women’s March was an easy thing.

  • “If you are surrounded by people who agree with you, you do not have to do much thinking…you do not have to work at constructing a unique identity. If you are surrounded by people who behave the same way you do, you do not have to question your own choices” (15). This is just a great reminder.

  • “What needs to be restored, and can be restored, is a feminist philosophy” (22). There never was a central “feminist philosophy.” Crispin does this throughout–essentializes or argues for or against things that were never “things” to begin with.

  • “There is a way a woman can deflect the worst effects of patriarchal control, and that is through money” (55). As a “Marxian feminist” this just stood out to me. This is a thing.

  • “Outrage culture” (106). I liked this phrasing. Social media and an “easy share” culture facilitates outrages culture, and there’s really no evidence that any of it is helpful.

  • “If you want to create a better world and a better existence for your people, you must participate in the imperfect world that exists now” (143). The whole “better world” narrative isn’t very convincing to me, but the participating part? That’s something with which I can agree. 

The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence

I read The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence because Rachel Cusk mentions it in The Last Supper, and I hadn’t read anything by D.H. Lawrence, or any  literature from the “old white male canon,” in a very long time.

Image result for Sea and Sardinia

image from amazon.com

If you were to go on an extended trip through a long country or several small ones, and if you were to keep a daily journal filled with every detail that reminds you of every exquisite thing you encountered, details that also functioned to take you to a time, a place, a feeling, a current obsession, the food you ate, the drink, and then if you published that book because the whole trip had been funded by a publisher who had been promised a book, I presume you would have The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence.

I’ve made long trips, and kept detailed journals, and I recorded every exquisite thing I encountered that reminded me of a time, a place, a feeling, an obsession, the food I ate, the drink, and I cherish those journals. Rereading them, I can feel the sun on my skin and the free way of moving through the world, urgent to find food or hotel, but not to meet a work deadline. I can remember my interests, my obsessions, the ways other people live, the look of other places, how I was different then than I am now, and for the inevitable better.

I don’t think those journal entries probably have much merit beyond my own memories, just as the Sea and Sardinia is undoubtedly more important to Lawrence and the “q-b” than anyone else. The book is an early modern travel guide. It perfectly captures the difficulties, and the luggage handles cutting into your hands, and the filth of the public, the beauty, and the enduring, the transcending that occurs with travel. Of course it’s also artfully written. Not only does Lawrence have the decency to avoid boring us with a plot, but the reader must look no further than the first line for something lovely: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move” (7). And on the “other,” he writes, “Their naturalness seems unnatural to us. Yet I am sure it is best” (21). There is more of this throughout, which is, of course, what sets him apart as one of the very best. I can say I read it.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I needed to read something artistic, and so I finally read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I read it quickly. (It did not need to be read slowly.) It seemed like I’d read this book before. It reminded me of Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, but not as beautiful as that in terms of the sentence. It was beautiful, though, and smart–one of the best books I’ve read in the genre. I had little patience for the sexual aspects of the book. That’s me though. Lately, those inclusions seem cheap. I used to “get it.” Adding the sexual gave writing that perfect blend of raw and mystery. Anymore I only want to think about birds and botany.

Bluets - Maggie Nelson

image from wavepoetry.com

 

Lines I liked:

“My Thought has though itself through and reached a Pure Idea. What the rest of me has suffered during the at long agony, is in describable” (Mallarmé 2-3).

“Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal” (62).

“…the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it” (62).

“For some, the emptiness itself is God; for others, the space must stay empty” (86).

“…ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet” (86).

“As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more more painful that we expected” (87).

“She is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a livable life, and how she can live it” (88).

“Imagine someone saying, “Our fundamental situation is joyful.” Now imagine believing it…Or forget belief: imagine feeling, even if for a moment, that it were true” (89).

“When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing, but of light” (95).

Words/concepts that inspired further study:

  • the male satin bowerbird
  • International Klein Blue
  • samsara
  • the jacaranda tree
  • the Tuareg
  • The Oblivion Seekers

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem has been in my peripheral for years now. She’s lovely. She’s a feminist journalist. We both have a penchant for large sunglasses. She did waitressed for Playboy to write an exposé. She’s an iconic feminist figure. Sometimes her politics and approach seemed too bland for me to really deeply identify with her. Other times she seemed too out there.

I read her latest book, My Life on the Road, and here’s what stood out to me. Because of her known beauty and brains, she could have chosen a conventional path: marrying for love and money, children, soccer games, and charities–all meaningful work, but too often requires the sacrificing of the self for the good of the others (family). That she chose not to pursue a more conventional path, one that so many women value and judge themselves against, is powerful. Steinem had a choice, and she chose feminism. (I’m fully aware the this observation might seem less than feminist, but I think her beauty is part of her particular feminism, and I’m treating it as such.)

image from amazon.com

The book itself if full of important feminist history. I tend to be exposed to more “high theory,” academic feminism. Steinem’s history is a political one, a public one. She’s a journalist after all, with a wide readership.

First–and this blew my mind–she began the book by dedicating it to her abortionist. Her abortionist. I found this to be completely provocative and outrageous and wonderful and true. And for that I loved it.

Here are some quotes from the book that I thought were of interest (with page number):

On violence against women and a healthy society: “We might have known sooner that the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself—or will use military violence against another country—is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence” 43.

On the economy and the environment: “pressuring women to have too many children is the biggest cause of environmental distress, and economic courses should start with reproduction, not just production” 100.

On our Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton: “she was potentially, as one said, “a great girlfriend” who had their backs” 160.

Cultural problems: “Women are always better liked if we sacrifice ourselves for something bigger—and something bigger always means including men, even though something bigger for men doesn’t usually mean including women” 165.

This one’s just a good line: “Laughter is an orgasm of the mind” 181.

These song lyrics:

It’s a rainy night in Georgia
and it looks like
it’s rainin’
all over the world

Just another great line: “Surrealism is the triumph of form over content” 189.

This is going to take forever: “According to the wisdom of Indian Country on my own continent, it takes four generations to heal one act of violence” 202.

Here’s why it’s so important to me that Hillary Clinton received the presidential nomination: “…when God is depicted only as a white man, only white men seem godly” 205.

A great chapter title that has me thinking about my relationship to Truth: “What Was Once Can be Again” 211.

Truth: “YOU CANNOT THINK YOURSELF INTO RIGHT LIVING. YOU LIVE YOURSELF INTO RIGHT THINKING. –Native  Elders 234.

On women: “Women elders were keeping the rhythm of life” 241.

Something to remember in regards to politics: “Anybody who is experiencing something is more expert in it than the experts” 245.

Parting wisdom to remember: “My father did not have to trade dying alone for the jobs of the road. My mother did not have to give up a journey of her own to have a home.

Neither do I. Neither do you” 251.

Be well, my loves.

M Train by Patti Smith

It’s so hard to find a good new book these days. So when I find one, I tend to spend as much time in it as possible. That’s what happened with Patti Smith’s new book, M Train.

image from amazon.com

I read Just Kids a few years ago and loved it. In her rock and roll heyday (which is still now for many of us), Smith was known for brilliantly blending poetry with rock and roll. So it makes sense that she is a writer and also a fan of writing, which, in part, is what this book is about. It’s also about coffee. It’s about strange rituals and missions dreamed up by an amalgamation of literature, dreams, conversations and her own notions, which has her leaving stones at gravesites of people she knew or didn’t know, caring deeply about a small idea, about a small token, a small memory, a spirit.

I’ve always identified deeply with Smith. Her dreamy, creative way of moving through the world is similar to me at my best self. On some existential level, I know the deep love she knew with Fred, and the deep loss, and the new existing in this strange world, but hers is deeper, more, and a guidepost for us all.

I don’t know that I would like her. The day in/day out of her life seems sometimes boring, and dusty, and littered with cat hair, but there’s something about what she produces as an artist that opens me up, reminds me, shows me something new. So I stay in her books for as long as I can, and then hold on to them again afterward.

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

I read Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon on the heals of reading Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl and Patti Smith’s Just Kids a few years earlier. Gordon’s book pales in comparison to Brownstein, who is a genius–capable of exposing those real and unflattering (and flattering!) human emotions and experiences by showing instead of telling, and to Smith, who’s skill with language has always been a huge part of her success as a musician and artist. It makes sense that Smith and Brownstein would both write books that are both informative to fans, but that also hold up as literary works as well. Gordon’s book doesn’t do that.

Gordon portrays herself as a frustrated artist, and she accurately conveys that frustration in her lifelong relationship with visual art and music. At many times, she says she felt vulnerable, but the reader doesn’t see or feel the vulnerability. Sometimes Gordon seems to confuse vulnerability with victimhood, which also comes off as somewhat confused.

Here’s what I think: I think she is tough, and numb, and this is part of her personality, but it’s also exacerbated by her heartbreak and divorce from Thurston Moore. The pain is still too fresh for her to have any useful insight. One imagines that her heartache still weighs her every day, and without the clarity of some of that pain having lifted, she is not yet in a position to write about her experience in a useful way. She comes off as guarded–the opposite of vulnerable. She pulls back, and the reader pulls back too.

If you are a fan of Sonic Youth, it’s worth reading for the history. If you are a fan of that musical movement, it serves up a fine history. Otherwise, this is one you can skip. If she does this again in about a decade, I’d give the new one a read. Perhaps by then she’ll have deeper insight and also remind us what any of this had to do with being human in the first place.

Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

I read this book almost entirely while lying in bed, while falling in love. Joy Harjo’s a fixture in poetry and literature. Before now, I’d only ever read a poem or two here and there, but I’d never really gotten into her work…that is until I read her memoir, Crazy Brave. It was one of those books that I started reading in a bookstore, and then read a chapter or two from the library, and then finally bought my own damn copy and finished it at home…while lying in bed. I love this book.

image from amazon.com

Harjo is mostly known for her poetry. I don’t enjoy reading a lot of poetry, and so that’s why I haven’t been very familiar with her work. After reading and loving Crazy Brave, I read She Had Some Horses, which is also beautiful, and I love it, and it’s poetry. It’s a collection I see myself returning to.

As for Crazy Brave, what I love about the book is how she captures a creative, feminine life experience that I (mostly) really relate to. It’s soulful. It captures pain, and specifically women’s pain, in a profound way. It shows us another way. It does so in poetic prose–she’s a poet after all.

This is from the back cover of She Had Some Horses, but I think it pertains to all Harjo’s work: “If you want to remember what you never listened to & what you didn’t know you knew, or wanted to know, open this sound & forget to fear. A woman is appearing in the horizon light.” ~ Meridel Le Sueur.

And then I saw her picture and remembered that maybe I met her. Or maybe I heard her read once. She is familiar to me. Her name. Her face. Her work. And yet I only really found her work now, when of course I needed it most.

I was captured throughout the entire book, but  by the end, I was a little lost: WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?! I wondered about the title: crazy brave. Now I think I can say that the larger message was, for me personally, a message to women to be brave, an admonition that it will be crazy, and you will be crazy, and you will be brave, and that is life.

Part of this is about surrendering to the flow of the river, instead of fighting against it, using the strength of the current to pursue yourself, but also acknowledge or accept that the river will be violent, and it will wound you deeply, and it might kill you, and it might lull you to sleep, and part of this we can control, and part of it we cannot control, and this is the wisdom we gain from being in the river. I am reminded of the time I went underwater in the Colorado River, the immense crushing noise turned warm and quiet and then I emerged. Part of this book is about acknowledging fear, working around it, using it, but not being controlled by it. I left the book thinking I should do what I must do before the river does it for me, even as the river does it for me.

Some of the words I loved:

“Yet everyone wanted the same thing: land, peace, a place to make a home, cook, fall in love, make children and music” (19).

“Because music is a language that live sin the spiritual realms, we can hear it, we can notate it and create it, but we cannot hold it in our hands” (19).

“In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music. Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol” (23).

“Water people can easily get lost. And they may not comprehend that they are lost. They succumb easily to the spirits of alcohol and drugs. They will always search for a vision that cannot be found on earth” (25).

“They continue to live as if the story never happened” (43).

“Our  heartbeats are numbered. We have only so many allotted. When we use them up, we die (52).

“All of these plant medicines, like whiskey, tequila, and tobacco, are potent healers. There’s a reason they’re called spirits. You must use them very carefully. They open you up. If you abuse them, they can tear holes in your protective, spiritual covering” (77).

“I noticed a marked change in the quality of light when we made it to New Mexico” (83).

“Each scar was evidence that we wanted to live” (90).

“I told Lupita I wanted to paint, to be an artist. She told me that what she wanted was someone to love her” (102).

“I was given the option of being sterilized” (121).

“I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you” (135).

“We were in that amazed state of awe at finding each other in all the millions and billions of people in the world” (143).

“Her intent made a fine unwavering line that connected my heart to hers” (146).

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

First, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein made me incredibly nostalgic for my graduate school in creative writing at Bellingham, Washington. It made me grateful for my best friend, whom I met there. It made me grateful for the training I received there. It made me grateful to be part of the contagious creative energy of that place.

image from nytimes.com

Sleater-Kinney is a group composed of women. With some privilege. Who were highly intellectual. And well-educated. They understood the conversation, their conversation, the conversation that was happened around them, the way everyone was getting it wrong, or right. Beyond all that, they were a band making good music, and I think that’s an important takeaway from the book, which is worth owning, by the way (and I don’t say this lightly as someone who hates “things” and loves the library).

There are some lovely lines, some deeply insightful lines. I loved the descriptions of fanzines and the embarrassingly long letter writing of yesteryear–something that generations with access to the internet will never understand.  And there were great vocab words (metonym, diffidence, jocose, internecine, lugubrious, interstices, peripatetic)! The book was informational. It was moody. The end is triumphant, while simultaneously sucking the air out of the room because that is life no matter now stupidly depressed or optimistic we are in our tender little human brains.

I can’t tell you how important it is for me to look to female artists, who aren’t trying to be particularly female, nor artist, nor political, but are all of these things and end up providing a path, an option, an expression that is contrary to the rest of it–the blinding, crushing, deafening roaring messages. The dominant voice is so overpowering that you feel all alone thinking it’s wrong, they’re wrong. You search desperately for some whispered message, some quiet, lovely beat, an undertow more powerful than the surface waves, a person across the way who is looking at you and nodding her head to the same lovely beat.

Carrie Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney–they’re looking back and me and they’re nodding.

Here are a few lines from the book that I loved:

  • “[T]o be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved” (3).
  • “It is difficult to express how profound it is to have your experience broadcast back to you for the first time, how shocking it feels to be acknowledged, as if your own sense of realness had only existed before as a concept” (55).
  • “Books grounded me, helped me feel less alone” (115).
  • “A nomadic life fosters inconsistencies and contradictions within you, a vacillation between loneliness and needing desperately to be left alone” (150).
  • On the difficulty of relationships: “When do you ever get to be alone? To think, to read, to reflect, to not have to be “on,” to do nothing to just…be” (152).
  • I feel this in regards to teaching: “An audience doesn’t want female distance, they want female openness and accessibility, familiarity that validates femaleness” (166).
  • “In the end, all I could manage was the kind of shoulder dance moms do when they make shrimp scampi in the kitchen while drinking white wine and listening to Bruce Hornsby” (175).
  • “If you’re ever wondering how sad I was…you would know by the fact that I won the Oregon Humane Society Volunteer Award in 2006” (226). – I have my own similar life markers that look like success, but are mostly a reflection of a deeply sad time in my life.
  • “If the fake crow were looking down on us, he would see a woman in her thirties, living alone, jobless and aimless, with animals to fill the space and to patch the holes” (228). – It’s taken herculean strength for me not to patch the holes with innocent mammals.