March 28th, 2017
This book, which is made up of portions from selected zines that Pérez created from 1994-2014, was a pleasing read to immerse myself in over the course of several commutes and evenings. I don’t think that I’ve read a single-author zine anthology before and there’s definitely something satisfying about it, in terms of being able to get a feel for someone’s style and voice. In her intro, Pérez writes about “document, as noun and as verb”: she’s concerned with documenting her life and also with the zine-as-document and also with various kinds of documents she interacts with (like books and family photos) (11). She also says this by way of introduction, which resonated with me a whole lot: “This is what I look for in stories, in people, in the world, in life and what I hope to convey in my own writing: humor, wonder, simplicity, magic, history, a sense of connection however small” (12).
There are so many good bits in here: lists of things Pérez likes that feel both very specific/personal and very relatable, writing about family and loss and difficult familial relationships and family histories known or unknown, writing about race and culture and representation and other-ness and sameness, diary-like entries about people-watching on public transit, or about the little details of books and meals and the rhythms of days, drawings of household objects, a great mini-zine Pérez made for her 40th birthday, notes from a trip to Oaxaca, and more. And I love that there are end-notes, some of which are for clarification but others of which are Pérez commenting, amusedly/amusingly, on her past self.
December 9th, 2016
I don’t exactly remember, but I think I heard about Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal because some publishing-related newsletter I subscribe to for work reasons linked to this article about the way this book lets readers interact via text message and via its website. When I saw it at the library, it seemed like it would be a very nice thing to read right now, and it totally was. It’s structured sort of like a textbook, with chapters called “units” covering such topics as Language Arts, Geography, Social Studies, and more, with multiple choice questions and sidebars about particular words/topics embedded in the text along with the text-message prompts, all of which are optional but many of which are intriguing. Sometimes the prompt is just a way to get to an audio file: you text a word/phrase and get a link to, say, a recording of humming wineglasses, or of the late poet Kenneth Koch reading one of his poems. Other times, the prompt is for you to submit a photo, like this:
As for the content of the book, the subtitle is “not exactly a memoir” and that seems about right: there are a lot of autobiographical vignettes, but there are also jokes and photos and graphical representations of things in the author’s life (my favorite of which is probably “The Bar Bar Graph,” showing the frequency of kinds of bars in Krouse Rosenthal’s life: salad bars feature heavily; sports bars, not so much). I like how playful this book is, and how touching: its blend of whimsy and poignancy and interactivity is largely in a sweet spot for me, and I am a sucker for good writing about serendipity and connection and unexpected/lovely/unexpectedly lovely human interactions. Some sections felt stronger than others, and some observations fell flat (what am I supposed to do with the sentence, “You don’t really see chubby symphony conductors,” sitting alone on a page by itself?) but I liked the bits I liked much more than I disliked the bits I disliked.
September 27th, 2016
This book, which is subtitled “A Search for the Spirit of Place,” is part memoir/travel writing, part history, and overall pretty pleasing. In Chapter 2, Marsden and his wife and kids move from a seaside house in Cornwall to farmhouse by a creek, farther inland, and the house and the land around it, combined with his memories of childhood explorations of the landscape around his parents’ house, prompt Marsden to think about and write about Cornwall and the landscape and its history, particularly in terms of it being a ritual landscape, a place of standing stones and barrows and graves. (A cave he visited in childhood, he learns in adulthood, has been identified as the oldest known burial place in Britain.) Each chapter is preceded by a black & white image, many of which are photos Marsden took, and each chapter is about a specific place (mostly in Cornwall but not entirely).
I picked this book up partly because the blurb says that Marsden decided to walk across Cornwall to Land’s End, and he did, but I was imagining it as a single trip, which this isn’t: it’s a number of different excursions, punctuated by side trips or work on the farmhouse or its land. Which is fine, but it’s a different kind of narrative than I was expecting. I like the details about the farmhouse, though, which needs some work:
I did nothing about the wisteria shoots that grew through the window of our bedroom, pushing towards the furniture with their slender fingers. A tiny bramble – thorns still pliable, leaves innocent green – had sprouted from a crack in the sitting-room wall, and although a good part of my day was spent cutting back its cousins, this one had a rarity that made me treasure it. (45)
On the page after that, Marsden writes about finding a pheasant in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and then finding one of her eggs amidst the bedsheets. And later, there’s this:
There wasn’t much snow, but when it did come, light and dry one dusk after everyone had left, it blew through the kitchen door where I was standing waist deep in a pit. I watched the flakes drift down like feathers, to rest on the bare earth, on the muddy toe of my boots – unmelting. In that moment I found it hard to imagine the house ever being habitable again (68).
The parts about ritual landscape were interesting, too, about how ritual landscapes react to or frame elements of the view, and I liked the parts about Marsden’s visits to Glastonbury and Tintagel and the clay-producing area around Hensbarrow, and his visits to the Scilly Isles (which used to be one island—he write about snorkeling in water and knowing the bottom beneath him used to be dry land) and Land’s End.
September 16th, 2016
In February 2011, Lucy Knisley (who was 27 at the time) went on a Caribbean cruise with her grandparents (who were 91 and 93), and this graphic-memoir tells the story of that trip. It’s the fourth book I’ve read by Knisley and not my favorite (that would be either Relish or An Age of License), but I like graphic-memoirs in general and I also like Knisley’s art a whole lot.
So, right: at the start of the book, Lucy’s grandparents sign up to go on a cruise with a group of other seniors who live in the same assisted-living facility. But they don’t really know anyone else in the group, and their kids (including Lucy’s dad) worry about whether they’re really up for a cruise. The solution ends up being for Lucy to go along: it’s not a vacation she would choose to take (or would get to take) by herself, but she can help out her grandparents and also have a tropical escape from a New York City winter.
As expected, the cruise is not necessarily an easy or relaxing trip. Knisley’s grandmother has dementia and has moments where she can’t remember where they are or why, which is upsetting to everyone involved, and Knisley has to help with everything from laundry to medications, as well as planning daily activities. She wants her grandparents to enjoy the cruise and experience the ship’s various offerings, but she also doesn’t want to drag them to things they aren’t interested in—but without her prodding, they wouldn’t go to anything. It’s a big contrast to Knisley’s last trip, which was all youth and freedom and self-directed experiences. But Knisley is glad to be spending time with her grandparents, and there are moments of sweetness—a conversation with her grandfather, or the discovery that her grandmother unexpectedly loves being in a warm shallow swimming pool.
I like that the book includes snippets of Knisley’s reading material before and during the cruise—we learn that she read David Foster Wallace’s essay about a cruise (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) before her departure, and then on the cruise itself she’s re-reading her grandfather’s WWII memoir (the book features some great illustrations of scenes from it, including a swimming pool filled with corn flakes on a troop ship that was a converted ocean liner) and she also reads The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan (aww).
September 3rd, 2016
In Labor of Love (subtitle: The Invention of Dating), Moira Weigel explores current and past states of dating in the US, from the turn of the 20th century onward. She does so in ten chapters, each with a snappy one-word title like “Plans” or “Likes,” plus an introduction and an afterword. The book is organized sort of chronologically, sort of thematically, which sometimes works and sometimes leads to moments of repetition. Dating, Weigel explains, was preceded by “calling,” which a) was supervised and b) took place in the home. But in the late 1800s, a lot more working-class women started moving to cities looking for jobs, which led to single men and single women coming into contact with each other in more ways/in greater numbers, which then led to new ways of interacting and finding love/sex/romance.
Throughout the book, one of Weigel’s main points is that the way we date, and the way we talk about dating, is heavily influenced by the economic reality and mood of the moment. In the early 1900s, working-class women who were getting treated by men to days at amusement parks couldn’t necessarily have afforded that kind of leisure activity on their own. In the 1950s, as the post-war economy boomed, teenagers could afford to take dates out for sodas and milkshakes. Throughout the 20th century, consumerism and dating have intertwined: shopgirls made the things they sold appealing but also made themselves appealing, sometimes in hopes of landing a wealthy husband; a culture of consumer choice and abundance where people are used to buying something, using it until they’re tired of it, and then buying something new has overlap with serial monogamy.
Another main point is that wow, gender inequality sucks, and the ways in which (straight) women are sold certain ideas/ideals about dating are pretty terrible. The ideas and ideals may change over time, but they continue to perpetuate inequality, and hm, maybe we as a society should do something about that. (Side note: there is a lot about straight white middle-class monogamous dating in this book, but Weigel does a good job of recognizing that not everyone is straight, white, middle-class, or monogamous, and there were several moments where I found myself particularly appreciating her writing for not being heteronormative.)
Amidst the serious historical and economic arguments, there are a lot of fun/funny/interesting anecdotes. The list of interests from Martha Stewart’s match.com profile (wait, what?!) is great, as is a story about someone going on a date with Rick Moranis thanks to OKCupid. A short section about websites that facilitate “sugar dating” was super-interesting. In a section of the book about hookup culture/dating in college and high school, this made me laugh:
My grandfather, who was a young dater in the 1930s, recalls a schoolteacher admonishing him and his classmates that if they let girls sit in their laps while “joyriding,” they had to be sure “to keep at least a magazine between them.” (78)
I picked up this book thanks to this also very interesting New Yorker article, and I’m glad I did.
August 24th, 2016
The 55 essays that follow this book’s preface are divided into three sections, “Reading Things,” “Seeing Things,” and “Being There” (plus an epilogue). The essays in the first section are literary criticism, mostly; the essays in the second section are about art (mostly, but not only, photography); the essays in the last section are sometimes travel essays and sometimes other kinds of essays about places/being in the world. I found myself pleased by this book right from the prologue: I like that Teju Cole is apparently someone who tries out pens in shops often enough to have something he always writes when doing so, and also that the thing he writes when doing so is a snippet of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. There are things about Cole’s sensibility that make me nod with recognition: he likes poems by Tomas Tranströmer and essays by André Aciman, and it seems like he likes them for some of the same reasons that I also like those things. (It was a pleasure to read Cole’s essay about Aciman’s Alibis, and to remember my own reading of Alibis, where I was when I read it and how the prose made me pause and grin.) I like how Cole is drawn to moments of/the idea of epiphany. I like sentences like this, from “Black Body”: “The music you travel with helps you to create your own internal weather” (7).
In the section of the book about art, highlights for me included a piece about 20th-century West African photographic portraiture by Malick Sidibé and others, and a piece about Roy DeCarava’s photos and photographing black skin when film was calibrated based on white skin and a piece about Howard French’s Shanghai Photographs, and a piece about Richard Renaldi’s Touching Strangers project, and a really really great piece about Dina Kelberman’s I’m Google, which is such a cool project. I also love this list, from a piece about Saul Leiter: “He returned again and again to a small constellation of subjects: mirrors and glass, shadows and silhouettes, reflection, blur, fog, rain, snow, doors, buses, cars, fedoras” (141). I appreciate that there are color inserts that show some of the artwork being discussed, including some of Cole’s own photographs (which are great, especially the one of the US/Mexico border in Sasabe).
The first piece in the last section of the book, “Far Away from Here,” is probably my favorite in this section: it’s about being in Switzerland and taking photos in the Alps and the history of Alpine tourism and travel/travel photos in general, and about homesickness and its opposite. You can read it online here, with more photos than in the book, and it’s excellent. I also really liked the piece about voting in the 2008 presidential election, and pieces about trips to Brazil and Rome and what Cole sees there, partly but not entirely focused on race/race relations/history, and the piece about another trip to Brazil in which Cole tries to find the spot from which René Burri’s “Men on a Rooftop” was taken.
In Kiss & Tell, after telling the story of her parents’ meeting, courtship, and marriage (her mom was 16 when they met; her dad was 25; they married when her mom was 19), MariNaomi recounts all of her romantic/sexual encounters from childhood to age 22—from the boy who kissed her on the cheek in kindergarten to a five-year-long relationship that lasted longer than it probably should have, with all the crushes and hook-ups in between. There are funny stories and awkward stories and stories that are kinda sad; there are drug-fuelled stories (including a really pleasing depiction of an acid trip) and alcohol-fuelled stories and threesome-stories. There are stories driven by wanting, and stories driven by being wanted, and stories about the kind of hook-ups that just kind of happen for lack of anything else more interesting.
I liked the longer pieces in the book most—like the one about a relationship with a model who was in trouble with the law for stealing car stereos, and several intertwining stories about that five-year-long relationship—but the whole thing was pretty pleasing.
July 27th, 2016
In general, I tend to enjoy graphic memoirs, so when I saw this on the New Books shelf at the library, I clearly had to check it out. Turning Japanese is about being young and adrift—between cities, between jobs, between cultures, and in various personal situations, family-wise and relationship-wise. It’s set in 1995, when MariNaomi was 22 and had recently broken up with her boyfriend of five years, quit her job, and moved from San Francisco to San Jose with her new boyfriend. He has a friend who works as a hostess in a bar for Japanese expats; she’s half-Japanese (her mom left Japan at 19 to be with her dad) and thinks maybe being a hostess will be a good way to learn the language and feel more connected to Japanese culture. This isn’t as easy or straightforward as she had thought it would be, and the experience of working as a hostess is not entirely positive, but she does save enough money and gain enough proficiency in the language to plan a 3-month trip to Japan with her boyfriend, the story of which makes up the second half of the book. In Japan, MariNaomi works as a hostess in Tokyo and she and her boyfriend, Giuseppe, do various touristy things, then head south to visit her grandparents in Fukuoka. We see the tensions in her relationship with Giuseppe, but also moments of sweetness, though ultimately a sense of separateness/aloneness prevails. Similar tensions/sweetness/separateness surface in regard to MariNaomi’s grandparents: this trip is the first time MariNaomi has been able to communicate with them without her mother between them to act as translator, and being able to communicate with them directly in some ways highlights the generation/culture/personality gaps between them.
Throughout the book there are various little vignettes—some about work, some about family, some about MariNaomi’s relationship with Giuseppe, some about travel. We get stories about co-workers and customers at the bars in San Jose and in Tokyo, stories about MariNaomi’s previous visits to Japan (and her relatives’ previous visits to the US to see her family), trips to the dog statue at Shibuya Station in Tokyo, and a trip to an ancient temple in the countryside, among other things. The black & white art is a pleasing mix of pages with 6 or 8 or 9 panels and pages with bigger segments, and I found the combination of the art and the story totally engrossing—I read a big chunk of this book on the subway between Queens and Brooklyn, and I was glad to have the big unmissable outdoor stretch over the Manhattan Bridge to remind me my stop was coming up soon—I was totally into the book/not particularly paying attention to where I was for most of the journey.
July 23rd, 2016
The 37 pieces in this book were written in the 1860s, published in a weekly magazine/journal that Dickens ran, and later collected and printed in book form. They range fairly widely in theme and tone, but as Daniel Tyler argues in his introduction to the edition I read, they can be seen to make up “a volume-length consideration of how far (and to whom) sympathy can be extended” (xix). (In one essay I liked a lot, Dickens visits a boat about to depart England with hundreds of emigrating Mormons on board: he clearly isn’t expecting to be particularly charmed by them, but clearly is.) Some pieces were moving, some interesting, some funny, others kind of a slog—I wonder if I might have liked this more if I’d taken breaks from it, but it was a library book, so I didn’t.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t find a lot to like anyway. Not surprisingly, I really liked the essays/parts of essays featuring descriptive passages about London, like this, from “Wapping Workhouse”:
Pleasantly wallowing in the abundant mud of that thoroughfare, and greatly enjoying the huge piles of building belonging to the sugar refiners, the little masts and vanes in small back gardens in back streets, the neighbouring canals and docks, the India-vans lumbering along their stone tramway, and the pawnbrokers’ shops where hard-up Mates had pawned so many sextants and quadrants, that I should have bought a few cheap if I had the least notion how to use them, I at last began to file off to the right, towards Wapping. (19)
Or this, from “City of London Churches”:
Whether I think of the church where the sails of the oyster-boats in the river almost flapped against the windows, or of the church where the railroad made the bells hum as the train rushed by above the roof, I recal a curious experience. (92)
Other high points included a really good outraged essay about the poor treatment of soldiers (“The Great Tasmania’s Cargo”), a piece about being very seasick crossing to Calais (“The Calais Night Mail”), a piece about stories remembered from childhood, including stories that were terrifying at the time (“Nurse’s Stories”), and a piece about walking in normally busy parts of London that become quiet on summer weekends (“The City of the Absent”).
July 5th, 2016
The Odd Woman and the City is a memoir in the form of a collection of vignettes, some of which are just a few sentences each, and others of which span several pages. Gornick writes about New York, about moving through the city alone or with friends, observing and overhearing, and she writes about books and writers, and she writes about herself, how she is and how she sees herself, and it’s all smart and interesting and satisfying. She writes about friendship, how she and her friend Leonard get along because “the self-image each of us projects to the other is the one we carry around in our heads: the one that makes us feel coherent” (5). She writes about identifying with Dickens, Johnson, and other “melancholy Brits,” about identifying with a vision of city-dwellers as “the eternal groundlings who wander these mean and marvelous streets in search of a self reflected back in the eye of the stranger” (9). She writes about moments of connection, about seeing a high school kid help an old woman in the grocery store, or about when she helped an older man on a treacherously icy day, or about watching street hawkers and their customers in upper Manhattan when she was in high school: “People who were strangers talking at one another, making one another laugh, cry out, crinkle up with pleasure, flash with anger […] people sparking witty, exuberant responses in one another, in themselves” (13). I love passages like this:
It’s the voices I can’t do without. In most cities of the world the populace is planted in centuries of cobblestoned alleys, ruined churches, architectural relics, none of which are ever dug up, only piled one on top of another. If you’ve grown up in New York, your life is an archaeology not of structures but of voices, also piled one on top of another, also not really replacing one another: (173-174)
Also great is this piece about Joseph Chaikin, which appears in the book in slightly modified form. I love the descriptions of the differing moods of Westbeth/views from Westbeth, and the central part of Joe’s performance of Beckett in two voices, his post-stroke older voice and his recorded younger voice playing off one another—it makes me wish I could have been there.