In general I tend to really like illustrated/graphic memoirs, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength is no exception. In this one, Alison Bechdel tells some stories from her life, organized by decade, through the lenses of 1) exercise/physical pursuits and 2) ideas about/struggles with self-transcendence. Tied to the latter, there is a lot about Buddhism in this book (particularly Zen Buddhism), and writers like Jack Kerouac, Margaret Fuller, and Adrienne Rich make repeat appearances, too. There’s a lot going on, but I think it really works: whether she’s talking about the Diamond Sutra or her first long bike trip, Bechdel’s narrative voice makes for enjoyable reading. It was lots of fun to read about Bechdel’s childhood forays into meditative physical pursuits, from tossing a tennis ball by herself to skiing with her family to how she started to run “to blow off steam” and eventually realized it was both a way of “recovering” and “losing” herself (66, 68). Bechdel writes about getting very into karate when she was in her 20s, and about doing her first pull-up from a dead hang in her 30s (yessss!), and about various relationships in her life (romantic and familial, and her relationship with herself, and her relationship with her work) and how those relationships changed/shifted at various points as her physical pursuits changed. Throughout the book, I like the interplay between the words and the drawings, and how sometimes they relate in a literal way while other times they only relate metaphorically. One of my favorite pages in the book is near the end, when Bechdel is talking about Buddhism and exercise and drinking and the tensions between them, and the drawings show her setting up and walking on a slackline, with three panels showing (through the colors, the trees, and her clothes) the same place in spring, in summer, and in fall.

A lot of the negative reviews of this book on Goodreads seem to be from people who had issues with the amount of swearing, sex (including queer sex), and bathroom emergencies in these twenty essays. Those things are all fine with me, but humor as a genre isn’t always my thing: it’s rare for this kind of book to get to “I loved it” territory for me. That said, I definitely liked this book, some pieces more than others. Anything involving reality TV (or, honestly, TV in general) is kinda lost on me, so the personal essay in the form of a faux application to be on the Bachelorette that opens the book was not my fave. But things got better for me from there. Shared pop-culture reference-points in this kind of personal essay are fun, and Irby and I are around the same age, so even though the TV stuff was not for me, I was there for the Tori Amos/Ani DiFranco/Mazzy Star/Portishead references—and yes, I too had Björk’s “Post” on cassette.

Highlights for me included essays about relationship dynamics, from “A Blues for Fred” (about getting to a place of being friends with an ex) to “Mavis” (about sex and intimacy with her then-girlfriend/now-wife) to “I’m In Love and It’s Boring” (reflecting on dating an unavailable guy from the place of being in a happy/stable relationship) to “Thirteen Questions to Ask Before Getting Married” (in which Irby answers the titular thirteen questions, which come from a New York Times article). I also really liked “Happy Birthday” (which is about learning about the death of her semi-estranged father) and “Nashville Hot Chicken” (about a trip to scatter her father’s ashes), both of which are more serious/nuanced than funny per se. As far as straight-up humor goes, I loved “A Civil Union”, which involves going to a wedding in suburban Illinois and stumbling upon a Civil War re-enactment.

Temporary by Hilary Leichter

August 15th, 2021

The unnamed narrator of Temporary is a temp, and always has been: in the world of the book, being a temp is something you can be born into, and if you’re a temp, you start young: “My mother arranged for me my very first job, just as her mother did for her,” the narrator says (57). This first job, in a cute little house on a cute little street, “was to open the doors, then close them, every forty minutes, every day, all day long, until otherwise notified” (58). It takes the narrator a while to realize what is happening: “the house was a house for a family, and I was filling in for a ghost” (66).

If this premise seems unappealingly weird to you, you are probably not going to like this book. If this premise seems delightfully weird to you, then maybe, like me, you will love Temporary, which is about capitalism and the gig economy and loneliness and identity and how people interact/relate to each other, but is also straight-up bonkers. I love the way the book mixes hilarious realistic details/moments with settings and scenarios that are surreal or bizarre. Like: the narrator has a brief stint working as a human barnacle on a rock, after her gig on a pirate ship comes to an end. There’s a blimp that drop bombs, and a job at a “small murder business” (77). People fill in as parrots or bank robbers or the Statue of Liberty; the narrator has a temp job at a big company filling in for the Chairman of the Board. But also, the narrator says things like “my favorite boyfriend devotes himself exclusively to pumpkin spice this time of year, in his cocktails and his coffee and his attitude” (144). Or when the narrator’s boyfriends (she has a lot of them) turn the absent narrator’s closet into an office, one of them talks about throwing away stuff in the closet and notes that they “threw away an old bag stuffed with other bags, with little plastic bags balled inside the medium-sized paper bags” (104-105).

I love the structure of the book, which starts with a section called “Onboarding” and ends with a section in the form of an exit interview; in between, other named sections made up of shorter segments give us the story of the narrator’s various placements, all of which she hopes will bring her to “the steadiness” and “permanence.” (Sometimes, people who start out as temps stop being temps. Sometimes, but not always.) Details and plot points from various sections pop up in later sections in ways that never failed to surprise and delight me, and the narrative style (which is sometimes deadpan and sometimes punny) totally works for me. There are also moments of unexpected sweetness, like when the narrator is taking a jog with a ghost (don’t ask) and we get this: “I put on some sneakers and take him for a run in the park, but the dogs distract him. He tries, and fails, to pet every single one” (15). Or this, from when the narrator is working temporarily as a mom, and thinks she’ll rent movies for her kid and his friends: “They can just sit here and watch as many movies as they want. How many days are like that? It’s a good kind of day to have. I make a shopping list for all the different kinds of days I want to provide for my son, and I cross this day off the list” (160).

I wish someone had recommended this book to me when I was a kid, but ah well, better late than never. I had high expectations going into Dealing with Dragons because I’d heard rave reviews from multiple people, and because I love the Sorcery and Cecelia books that Patricia C. Wrede co-wrote with Caroline Stevermer. I’m pleased to say this book did not disappoint: Wrede is clearly having a lot of fun playing with fairy tale tropes, and the protagonist is a princess who’s bored with etiquette and dancing and isn’t interested in an arranged marriage, and therefore runs away and ends up living with dragons/becoming domestic help for a dragon named Kazul. The princess, Cimorene, is great: before running away, she learns various fun and useful things on the sly until her parents find out and forbid her from her unprincess-like pursuits: she’s had lessons in fencing, magic, Latin, cooking, economics, and juggling, all of which are a lot more interesting to her than embroidery or drawing or anything else that princesses are supposed to do.

The setting of the book is great, too: there are dragon-caves, complete with hoards of treasure, and there’s an enchanted forest, and there’s a series of interconnected caves called the Caves of Fire and Night, which are described as containing “caverns full of blue and green fire, pools of black liquid that would cast a cloud of darkness for twenty miles around if you poured three drops on the ground, walls made of crystal that multiplied every sound a thousandfold, rocks that spurted fire when they were broken” (87). Someone has a sign over the door of her house that just says “NONE OF THIS NONSENSE, PLEASE,” which made me laugh because it’s like a mysterious fairytale version of signs you see on Park Slope brownstones that say “No flyers/menus.” And the plot, with its trouble-causing wizards and a helpful witch and politics/intrigue/scheming, is lots of fun: it’s the kind of book where you see how things are going to fit together before the characters do, in a way that’s really satisfying. Now I’m looking forward to the rest of the books in the series!

Memory and absence are at the center of this novel: the narrator, Jessa-Lynn, is dealing (or not dealing) with her father’s death, and also with the absence from her life of her first/only love, Brynn (who’d been close with Jessa and her brother, Milo, since they were all kids, and who later ended up marrying Milo, before leaving him with their daughter and her son from another relationship). Jessa numbs herself with work (she’s running the family taxidermy business) and alcohol, and doesn’t really see any problem with that: she just wants to keep powering through her days, tiring herself out, doing the work she’s always done. When her mom starts making art installations featuring taxidermied animals in sexual scenarios, Jessa is weirded out: she expects her mom to be stable and domestic, not edgy. She can only see her mom’s art as a problematic/upsetting/wrong expression of her grief, and she’s appalled when a local gallery owner wants her mom to collaborate on a show. (Meanwhile, she find herself attracted to the gallery owner, Lucinda, while also being completely incapable of having a functional relationship.)

The book alternates between Jessa’s current experiences and her memories of childhood/her teen years/her earlier adulthood; the memories let us see Jessa’s past interactions with Brynn and also with her dad, as well as more of her dynamic with Milo (who was always closer to their mom, while Jessa was always closer to their dad). I like the way the past and present narratives fit together, and I like Arnett’s writing, though it’s often describing unpleasant things (dysfunction and humidity and sweat; animal guts and insects). Here’s a rare passage describing some kind of nice smells, when Jessa is driving after the rain: “The world cracked open and smelled fresh cut, seeping green over everything. I drove with the windows down and inhaled the world: the dank scent of wet dirt at a construction site, orange clay smoothed into wet puddles at the high school baseball field, the fruity shampoo as my hair whipped around my face” (69). At first, I wasn’t sure how into this book I was: family dramas aren’t always my thing. But as the book progressed, I found myself totally into it; a chapter near the end definitely made me cry, and now I definitely want to read Arnett’s new novel, With Teeth.

I think my favorite poems tend to be about seeing/looking rather than feeling/being, whether the seeing is real or imagined. A lot of the poems in this collection are more on the feeling/being side of things; many of them are about moving through the world in a body that is Black, queer, and HIV-positive, and there is a lot of focus on the interior, both in the sense of what’s inside the body (blood, a virus) and in the sense of the narrator’s feelings about the knowledge of their illness, this invisible thing that they have to carry, that they have to disclose, that they have to live with.

Highlights for me were more outward-looking poems like “summer, somewhere,” which is excerpted on the Poetry Foundation website (and which is about Black boys and men killed by police, and which is really powerful and beautiful and sad) and “Dinosaurs in the Hood” (whose closing lines I love so much). (Here’s a video of Smith performing “Dinosaurs in the Hood”.) I also really like “at the down-low house party”.

Weather by Jenny Offill

July 22nd, 2021

On a companion website for this book, there’s a quote from Thomas Merton’s journals that includes the phrase “I myself am part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place,” which I like a lot (I should really read more by Merton one of these days) and which feels very relevant to this book. Weather is partly about the narrator, Lizzie’s, preoccupation with and dread about climate change. But it’s also about a general mood of anxiety, related to a number of things, from politics (the book is set around the 2016 US presidential election) to family worries (Lizzie’s brother is a recovering addict; she’s also worried about her mom) to everyday life stuff (dread about going to the dentist, dread about a dermatologist’s appointment).

The style of the prose works for me: the book is made of little snippets, mostly Lizzie’s first-person narrative but also other things (stuff Lizzie’s reading, or pieces from her second job—she works in a university library but also starts helping her former grad school prof/advisor, Sylvia, answer emails about the climate-related podcast Sylvia hosts, and we see pieces of the questions/answers related to that work) and I think the style lets Offill change topic or tone quickly, adding bits of humor or depth (plus it’s just an appealing style to me, in general). I do think there are maybe a few too many strands—the portions of the plot tied to Sylvia felt a little too loosely-connected, and I feel like Sylvia ends up being a plot device to explain Lizzie’s increasing fascination with/focus on doomsday prepping. But overall I found this a quick and satisfying read.

Near the end of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey describes the desert as “desolate and still and strange, unfamiliar and often grotesque in its forms and colors, inhabited by rare, furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning, sparingly colonized by weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted and twisted as they are tenacious” (241-242). But the desert, to Abbey, is also “the most beautiful place on earth” (1). In particular, he’s enchanted by the area around Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) near Moab, Utah, where he worked as a park ranger for two summers in the late 1950s and a third summer at some point after that. The book is part nature-writing, part polemic: Abbey describes the rocks and plants and animals around him and also rants about the over-development of the wilderness and the mismanagement of land and the laziness (as he sees it) of people who want to see nature without leaving their cars, or without actually really spending time in it. His politics, as presented in this book, are paranoid-leaning and/or generally distasteful to me, but the way he writes about the desert landscape he so clearly loves is really pleasing, and that was enough for me to keep reading.

I’ve never been to Arches (or to the desert at all) but I enjoyed reading Abbey’s descriptions of the park’s “natural arches, holes in the rock, windows in stone, no two alike” and of the “space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West,” and of desert rains where “the falling water evaporates halfway down between cloud and earth (5, 12, 113). I liked reading about canyon pools and waterfalls, and intense summer storms, and quicksand, and Abbey’s various adventures and misadventures, like when he helps move some cattle to their summer grazing land with a rancher and a ranch hand and is grumpy when he realizes no one has brought any lunch, or when (not in the Arches, but on a previous trip near the Grand Canyon) he’s hiking alone and goes looking for a shortcut back to his campsite and finds himself at a dead end above a sheer drop/isn’t at all sure he’ll be able to get back up to where he started. And I especially liked the chapter in which Abbey and a friend take a rafting trip on the Colorado River while the Glen Canyon Dam is under construction: Abbey describes the whole book as an elegy, but this chapter is especially poignant because Abbey knows for certain that once the dam is built, this part of the landscape will be changed entirely, and it’s a delight to read about Abbey and his friend as they float along, stopping to camp, fishing for catfish or taking hikes through side-canyons, seeing the ruins of Anasazi cliff-dwellings, and more.

One of the rules of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children (a boarding school for children who have travelled to other worlds but have been forced back to the world they were born in, which is our world) is “No quests” (15). But rules sometimes get broken, and this is definitely a quest narrative. Jack (short for Jacqueline) Wolcott and her twin sister Jill were students at the school in the past, but made their way back to the world of the Moors, where Jill has been being spoiled by a vampire father-figure and Jack has been learning mad science as an apprentice to a man named Dr. Bleak. The Moors are a creepy place, but they have their own balance, which is now at risk thanks to Jill, who wants to be a vampire herself and has engaged in some body-snatching to make that possible. (There are reasons/it’s complicated.) Jack needs to stop Jill, and also needs to get her body back, and also wants to see what she can do about making sure that Dr. Bleak is alive to keep teaching her (and to keep the Moors from descending into chaos). (As one character puts it: “the windmill stands empty, with no scientist to hold back the dark and no apprentice to risk the storm. This isn’t how things are supposed to happen in the Moors. You can’t have a single unopposed force” (71).)

So Jack needs help, and her old school friends are happy to assist: Christopher (who went to a skeleton-filled world called Mariposa that is still less creepy than the Moors), Kade (Eleanor’s great-nephew), Cora (who was a mermaid in an underwater world) and Sumi (who went to a nonsense world full of candy) all go to the Moors to help Jack and her fiancée, Alexis, do what needs to be done.

This book (which is the fifth in the Wayward Children series) was perfect summer vacation reading: I started it one morning and finished it later the same day, and the pace and style were exactly what I was in the mood for. I really love Sumi in this book: she’s perceptive and energetic and pushes the action forward while dispensing wisdom to Jack. Like: “panic is fun, but sometimes revenge is better” (41). Or: “The world doesn’t stop spinning because you’re sad, and that’s good; if it did, people would go around breaking hearts like they were sheets of maple sugar, just to keep the world exactly where it is” (107). I also like the moments of humor, like when Jack says she’s heard that “the public house nearest the docks serves excellent chowder that practically never contains human flesh” (142). There are moments of sweetness, too, like this description of Jack and Alexis speaking in sign language to each other (Alexis can hear, but sometimes loses her voice): “Sometimes they’d abandon signs in the middle of a gesture, their message already conveyed, language become shorthand become intuitive understanding” (53).

‘Zine by Pagan Kennedy

June 24th, 2021

The eight chapters of this book correspond to the eight issues of a zine that Pagan Kennedy put out between the ages of 25 and 31 (she wrote this book when she was 32), and each chapter consists mostly of b&w reproductions of an issue of the zine itself, preceded by an introductory essay. As it turns out, I liked Kennedy’s persona for the essays (which is more self-reflective) more than her persona for the zine (which was intentionally self-parodic). My interest in the zines was also not helped by the fact that Kennedy’s cultural touchstones are (mostly) quite different from mine: at one point in one of the intro essays she talks about reading a lot as a kid, and loving books that I loved, too: “the Narnia series, Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time” (26). But those books don’t come up in the zine: the childhood thing that comes up the most is her love of the Partridge Family. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of that show, so references to the characters and the actors who played them were lost on me.)

I did enjoy reading about Kennedy’s experiences as a writer—how she loved being in a graduate writing program with writers who were as neurotic/obsessive as she was, her perception that “The New Yorker seemed to publish story after story about people getting divorced in Westchester,” how her “fanzine was a fuck-you to The New Yorker and the University of Iowa and the Bread Loaf writers’ colony and Ticknor & Fields and Raymond Carver and agents named Bitsy and John Updike and the twenty-two-year-old novelists that Newsweek told me hung out in the hottest clubs and English Comp jobs” (7, 9). I also liked various autobiographical comics in the zine: there’s one about a favorite pair of green sneakers, and another about a best friend who moved away, and another about a health problem and the difficulties of navigating the medical system. And one issue is mostly about a road trip across the US, and includes some really pleasing writing, like this description of a Halloween on the road: “Then I drove us through the swamps of Louisiana, along a highway flanked by burned-out cars and the twisted outlines of trees. A heavy mist swirled on the road in front of us, scudding and eddying on the asphalt and disappearing in tendrils all around the car.” (95-96)