I loved Tamara Shopsin’s Mumbai New York Scranton when I read it a few years ago, so I was super-excited when I learned she had a new book out this year, and Arbitrary Stupid Goal did not disappoint. It’s an illustrated memoir that’s more a series of vignettes, but with some unifying elements; a lot of it, but not all of it, is about the NYC of Shopsin’s youth, and the cast of characters who hung out at the store her parents owned (which later became a restaurant). We get glimpses of family members and customers and neighbors, and neighbors who are practically family members (especially a man named Willy, whose presence in the book is a big part of it). We also get pieces of trips elsewhere: the time the Shopsins didn’t quite go to Dollywood, or the time that Shopsin and her husband went to a complex of old Nazi bunkers in Poland, or the time they went to Missouri and argued about locking/not locking the car doors. We get a story of a customer who taught Shopsin how to fold a napkin into the shape of a penis, and a story about the time before she was born when her parents’ store got held up and her brother asked the thief if he was a “hand robber” when he meant to say “armed robber” (which totally made me laugh out loud on the subway). I really liked the structure and style of this book, and all the life and humanity and history and community it’s got in it, the humor and tenderness and excellent stories.

(Also: this New Yorker piece about Shopsin and her book by Alexandra Schwartz is pretty great.)

More Than Two is, as its subtitle says, “a practical guide”: there’s a lot in this book about navigating particular kinds of relationship circumstances/scenarios/difficulties specific to polyamorous relationships, a lot of which didn’t feel super-applicable to me (like: being polyamorous and having kids, or coming out to your family as non-monogamous when you’ve historically been in a monogamous relationship, or being in a couple in the midst of opening up a formerly monogamous relationship, or being in a relationship where one person self-identifies as monogamous and the other person doesn’t). And Veaux and Rickert seem pretty judgmental about some things in ways that don’t really make sense to me. (The main instance of this: I understand their point that a couple looking for someone to be involved with both of them can end up being coercive, if the price for continued involvement with one of the members of the couple is continued involvement with the other, even when that isn’t what the third person ends up really wanting. But to me that doesn’t translate to it being a bad idea for a couple to look for someone to be involved with both of them, and it seems like for them, it might. I feel like the answer can be “don’t do it badly,” rather than just “don’t do it.”)

But these are pretty minor quibbles, and I appreciated a lot of the main themes of the book, which I think are applicable to building good relationships of any type. The idea, for example, that “happiness is something we re-create every day” seems like a good thing to remember about life in general: you have to show up and you have to keep showing up, and if things aren’t working you have to figure out what changes you can make to bring you towards the kind of life you want. I also liked the themes/values/ideas that Veaux and Rickert list near the start of the book, which, again, seem really broadly applicable/useful things to think about in a whole lot of contexts: trust, courage, abundance (as opposed to scarcity), ethics, and empowerment. Another highlight for me was the reminder of the concept of the “relationship escalator,” i.e. the way that society tends to assume that a successful relationship is a series of increasing predefined commitments – dating, then living together and/or marriage and maybe children – and that it can take work to not buy into this, and to get other people to recognize the worth of relationships that don’t fit this pattern—and also the related idea that there’s a continuum of relationship styles from “solo” to “entwined,” and the reminder that different relationship styles will lead to relationships that may look different, but that may still be serious, committed, etc. Also, the concept of “self-efficacy”—believing you can handle something even if something you’ve never dealt with before—seems like a good thing to think about/strive for in general, as do a lot of the principles/ideas/techniques related to boundaries, communication, and knowing your needs/working with your partner(s) to figure out how those needs can be met.

When I started reading How to Murder Your Life, Cat Marnell’s addiction memoir, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it: her style is heavy on exclamation points and felt, at first, a bit dumbed-down. But as I kept reading, I found myself liking it a whole lot: the (dark) humor and vividness of the writing won me over, and the flow improves as the book proceeds. I do a lot of my reading on my commute in the mornings and evenings, and this book was no exception, and I regularly found myself a) so engrossed I worried I’d missed my stop, and b) pretty sure that I might be making ridiculous faces as I laughed/cringed/squirmed along with Marnell’s telling of her messy drug-fuelled life.

Marnell acknowledges up front that she has a lot of privilege: the financial support of her family, from rehab to rent money, means her experience of addiction is very different from that of someone not so well-off or well-connected. But that doesn’t make her daily life, when she’s strung out on Adderall and staying up all night and then going in to work the next day, any less of a disaster. Marnell writes engagingly about her life, from childhood and adolescence (dysfunctional family, a dad who screamed at the dinner table, a sister who was sent to reform school, her own experience at boarding school) to early adulthood (interning at magazines like Nylon, working at Lucky and then at xoJane.com, doing lots of drugs, going to rehab, doing more drugs). She writes honestly about being bulimic and addicted to pills and also about her self-hatred and loneliness. I was impressed at how relatable her story felt: when I read about her procrastinating on a writing assignment and freaking out about it, I felt myself getting stressed; when I read about her going grocery shopping for foods to binge on at 4:30 am, I could feel the anticipation of that, even though my typical grocery shopping problem is, like, going to the store when I’m thirsty and coming home with three liters of seltzer and three VitaminWater Zeros and maybe a Sparkling Ice in addition to whatever food I’d meant to buy. Marnell and I are pretty much the same age and both came to NYC when we were eighteen, and it was super-interesting to read a book by someone in my demographic, age-wise, in which so much of the book feels like it takes place in this parallel city that’s adjacent to my own but largely invisible to me: I was never a staying-up-all-night club kid; the segment of publishing I’ve worked in since my early twenties is very different from the magazine industry in which she worked, et cetera.

The fact that An Arrangement of Skin has cover blurbs from Mark Doty and Maggie Nelson, both of whom I really like, probably helped convince me to check this book out from the library, even though I wasn’t actually sure I was in the mood for a book of essays. As it turns out, I was (eventually) in the mood for a book of essays, and this was an excellent choice. The fourteen essays here are largely personal in nature, with Journey recounting bits of her life and her family history, but they also pull in literature and history; there are passages talking about (and quoting) poems by Larry Levis or Thomas James or C.D. Wright, or referencing Walter Benjamin or Gaston Bachelard. (Journey herself is a poet and academic.)

Journey refers, in the first essay, to a point in her life when she “invented a ritual to stop time,” and then talks about poetry as serving the same purpose (pp 4-5). She talks about taxidermy (which she take a few classes in) as another way to do this, and also about it being a characteristic of certain places, as when she says this about Richmond, Virginia: “As soon as someone enters an alley, the wisteria-shrouded path stops time” (121). This concern with the passage of time/memory reminds me a bit of André Aciman, as does the way Journey looks at her past self and the spaces she inhabited or moved through, whether she’s talking about the horseback-riding lessons she took when her family lived in India when she was six and seven years old, or those alleyways and wisteria and porches of Richmond (where she went to college and also lived after the end of a long-term relationship).

I like the style of these essays a lot: in a few of them, like “Epithalamium with Skunk Pigs,” I really like how Journey seems to proceed via a chain of association and memory, in this way where you don’t quite know where she’s going until she gets there, though when you arrive you get the sense that it was actually all carefully mapped out. I also really love the descriptions of places in some of the pieces, especially a paragraph about the now-empty zoo in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park that appears in “A Flicker of Animal, a Flank”: it’s so great I wish I could quote it in full here, but it’s a bit long for that. Ah well: if you read this book, you’ll have it to look forward to. Meanwhile, the book’s very satisfying final essay, “Bluebeard’s Closet,” is available in its entirety on the Blackbird website: this was a really solid end to the book, but I think would serve just as well as an introduction to it.

The Surrender is Toni Bentley’s “erotic memoir” about transcendence/anal sex/submission, and despite the fact that there were things in the book that bugged me, I quite liked it overall. To start with the things that bothered me: I could have done with a lot less Freudian psychologizing, though at the same time, it feels somewhat unfair to criticize the book for its emphasis on something that is apparently a very big part of Bentley’s subjective experience of her life and sexuality. Like, even though for me the appeal of being called a “good girl” feels like it has zero relationship to anything about my childhood or parents, I can’t speak for anyone else’s feelings or experiences; while I may not be able to relate to the way Bentley connects her childhood experiences of shame or humiliation, particularly related to her relationship to her father, to her adult sexuality, I can’t disbelieve her experience of the relatedness of those things. I also feel like Bentley and I have quite different takes on gender and male/female relationships, but, again, her experiences and feelings are hers, so it’s sort of neither here nor there except to the extent that I, as a reader, want a memoir to be “relatable” in some way: I sort of do, but I also see the value in reading memoirs that come from different perspectives. That said, I was annoyed that Bentley wrote these two sentences and that her editor didn’t talk her out of them: “I reckon every woman wants a cock between her legs, ultimately. The question is: Does she want one of her own, or can she tolerate one belonging to a man?” (43). Ugh, really?

Those complaints aside, Bentley is smart and funny, and I appreciated this book’s combination of intensity and humor, and how wide-ranging it is. It includes sections about such disparate things as being an atheist who had wanted to find God/faith for a long time and crotchless underpants and the various styles thereof; it’s got sexy threesome/foursome scenes and philosophical musings about non-monogamy and stories about the experience of jealousy. At its heart, really, is a whole lot about the experience of letting go—the surrender of the title. For Bentley, that surrender comes mostly via anal sex (though not entirely: there’s a section where she writes about learning to go down on her lover in just the way he likes that also has a fair bit of surrender/submission in it). The sections about that experience of surrender and submission were probably my favorite parts of the book, and I think not just because I do find those bits relatable—there’s something so pure and intense about the way Bentley writes about the experience of letting go of her “desire to know, control, understand, and analyze”, about how that makes room for her to experience “openness and vulnerability” (7). Also, I love that Bentley writes about laughing during sex—and not like, oops-we-fell-off-the-bed laughter or oh-bodies-are-weird laughter, but a laughter that’s tied to that experience of letting go. My other favorite bits are the writerly parts—as someone who also feels the impulse to write things down, I really liked sections like this:

He presented me with the first sex I’d ever had that I thought about in words, that I wanted to describe and preserve in words. And so the scribbling began. Every time he came, and left, I went straight to my notebook and wrote it all down. I was experiencing an impossible pleasure, and having it on paper would prove that the impossible existed. (29)

I didn’t enjoy all nine chapters of Future Sex equally, but I did really enjoy this book, which is part personal narrative and part cultural commentary about sex and dating now, with a lot about what sex and dating now is like for a straight woman in her 30s. Maybe I partly liked it so much because I’m in a similar demographic to Witt, in terms of being a never-married woman in my 30s (she’s a year older than me) living in Brooklyn (though she spends a chunk of the book in San Francisco) but I don’t think that’s entirely it. I mean, yes, there were things I found relatable, but Witt’s writing is very smart, very funny, and so right on about so many things, particularly when she’s recognizing and questioning contemporary American culture’s often-gendered assumptions around sex/relationships/what people want.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is the first one, “Expectations,” where Witt writes about finding herself single and starting to question her own assumptions that she would eventually end up in a traditional monogamous long-term relationship. “The year I turned thirty a relationship ended. I was very sad but my sadness bored everyone, including me,” she writes, which made me laugh because it’s so relatable (5). She writes about sleeping with various male friends/acquaintances, including one who’s seeing someone else who apparently has expectations of monogamy, though Witt isn’t necessarily aware of this at the time; there’s a cringe-inducing and hilarious bit where she quotes from a sanctimonious email she got from one of that other woman’s friends that made me decide, six pages into this book, that I was clearly going to enjoy it a whole lot. The next chapter, “Internet Dating” (which is a thing I also have experience with, though my experiences seem to be quite different from Witt’s in some ways) was also really satisfying in the ways that it combines a history of online dating with Witt’s own attempts at it and with a critique of assumptions about women wanting relationships/monogamy and not wanting sex, as in this passage, which is too good not to quote at length:

I saw that it was taken for granted, or asserted by books of biological determinism such as Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, that the monogamous relationship made women the most happy, was where they most enjoyed sex, and that this sort of commitment brought women both freedom and security. This line of thinking forced me into a gendered role that I resented. If every expression of free sexuality by a woman would be second-guessed, it left men as the sole rational agents of sexual narrative. The woman was rarely granted the heroic role of seducer. If a woman pursued a strictly sexual experience, she was seen as succumbing to the wishes of the sovereign subject. If the sex she had with no commitments made her unhappy, it was not simply bad sex but rather proof of her delusion that it could be good. (33)

In other chapters, Witt learns about something called orgasmic meditation by attending the events of an organization called OneTaste, watches live web cams (and talks to some of the people behind them) on a website called Chaturbate, talks about polyamory (largely through the lens of three people she meets in San Francisco who tell her about their experiences with being open/poly), talks about the politics of birth control, goes to Burning Man, and explores her feelings about porn, partly by attending a shoot of Kink.com’s Public Disgrace series. The porn chapter was another highlight for me: early in it, Witt notes that porn “caused [her] friends a lot of anxiety,” and goes on to explore both her own relationship to it and larger cultural reactions, current and historical (71). (The bit about it causing her friends anxiety was surprising/interesting to me. Do I have friends who feel that way? And if not, why not? I feel like I’ve only talked about porn with straight/mostly-straight guys and gay women, which may be part of it?) Maybe my favorite moment in this essay is when Witt is interviewing the female lead performer from the Public Disgrace shoot, Penny Pax, and we get this, which just delights me so much:

Slightly incredulous, I asked if there were moments of genuine pleasure. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Yeah. Like the whole thing! The whole thing.” (84)

There is more good stuff about this book I want to talk about, like sex and capitalism, or how funny some of the descriptions of various scenes/people are, but really, all I can say is, this book was great. I initially heard about it via Alexandra Schwartz’s (also great) New Yorker piece about it, and am glad I eventually got around to reading the book itself and not just reading about it.

Like my last read (Ali Smith’s Autumn), The Outrun by Amy Liptrot was a book I first heard about before it had been published in the US, first via this post over at Tales from the Reading Room and then again from a friend on Goodreads who wrote about how much he loved it. As with Autumn, I snapped this book up when I saw it at the library, and am glad I did.

The Outrun, the book, is Amy Liptrot’s memoir about alcoholism and recovery, about being from the Orkneys and living in London and going back to the Orkneys and finding things out about nature and herself and what she wants her life to be like, and at first I wasn’t totally sure I was going to like it. I’m not sure if it was the book or my mood, but I found the scene-setting of the beginning, where we learn about Liptrot and her family (her father has bipolar disorder; she has a younger brother; her mother became a born-again Christian; her parents got divorced; Liptrot herself was living in London and drinking way too much and having seizures and losing flats and jobs and relationships) felt a bit disjointed to me. But the beauty and energy of some sentences or descriptions or paragraphs carried me along, and once I reached the point in the book where Liptrot goes back to the Orkneys after completing a non-residential rehab program, I found myself totally won over. I was delighted by so many of Liptrot’s descriptions of her sober island life, whether she’s talking about rebuilding stone walls or watching clouds or going to an island uninhabited since 1958 and seeing an old farmhouse there, whether in passages about listening for corncrakes at night as a summer job, or about her time wintering on the small island of Papa Westray (Papay), where she goes on an 11-mile circumambulation of the island with the Papay Walking Committee one December day, despite the sun setting at 3:20 pm, despite cold and hail. I also loved reading about Liptrot’s solo Papay swims, with bits like this paragraph:

There are things about the sea you find out only by being in it. The waves carry stones, large pebbles suspended in the water, thrown around effortlessly. I watch, from a seal’s-eye perspective, a gull descend and land on the water. It seems not to have noticed me. One morning, the sky is reflected in the flat water and I’m swimming in the clouds. (197)

The Outrun, the place, is a general term for “the furthest reaches of a farm, only semi-tamed, where domestic and wild animals co-exist,” a place where “humans don’t often visit so spirit people are free to roam” (2). It’s also the name of the biggest field on the sheep farm where Liptrot grew up. In both the general and the specific it’s a space at the edge of the farm: in Liptrot’s case, it’s at the edge of the farm and the edge of cliffs and sea. It’s a place and mood that Liptrot clearly feels a kinship with, in the way it’s partly wild, in the way it’s windswept, in the way that daily domestic life doesn’t have a full hold on it. Liptrot writes, too, about the wildness of drinking, and the appeal of that, calling her drinking life “rough and windy and tangled” (20). Later, when she’s working with the structure of AA’s twelve steps despite her atheism, dislike of religion, and skepticism about the program, the wildness and bigness of nature is the closest thing she can find to a higher power, and a lot of the book is about how being in nature and learning about the natural world helped her recovery. One of the most appealing things about the book, for me, is the way Liptrot explores this ongoing appeal of wildness and edges, the way she writes about trying to figure out how to have room for those things in her sober life, in a way that’s healthy rather than destructive.

The essays in Calamities all start, until the final fourteen pieces, with the phrase “I began the day,” and I like how that phrase (depending on what follows it) is sometimes grounding/grounded, sometimes disorienting, which is maybe also how I felt about the book as a whole. These pieces sometimes feel like more or less straightforward narrations, sometimes like dreams, sometimes like life but abstracted or at an angle, poetic. There is a lot about reading and writing and teaching in this book, and also a lot about being a person with a body/in the space of the world, and also a lot of smarts and humor. There are pieces I love in their entirety (like one about Gladman going on vacation with her mom and two sisters, or one about Gladman’s experience of 1990s lesbian community, or one about watching Antonioni’s Red Desert with a class she’s teaching) and pieces I found kind of obscure, and pieces where certain lines or phrases were the highlights for me, like “as if someone had written a story about our day, where we stayed on this side of the snow that was falling, and the inside was our city” (87).

I love this, from the start of one of the pieces:

I began the day wanting these essays to do more than they were currently doing and even had a book alongside that I thought would help me, but it turned out I wanted more from this book as well. It was hard to be a book about engineering in architecture when an essayist wanted you to be a book about structures in fiction. But why were you called Atlas of Novel Tectonics, if I was not supposed to think of you this way? (73)

There is a whole lot in this book about narrative and language and the idea of the line and the mark and mark-making, about writing and drawing. Near the end, there’s a great passage, too long to quote in full, that includes the image of language as being “like a live wire set loose, a hot wire, burning, leaving trace” (103). I love that image, and the idea of “leaving trace” feels central to what this book is doing: tracing patterns of living, of being, of thought and intention, traces of the shapes of days.

Elsewhere: I really like Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s review of Calamities in Tarpaulin Sky and also Juliana Spahr’s review of it in the Brooklyn Rail. You can read two short pieces from this book on the Granta website.

Apparently Bleaker House was just what I was in the mood for right now: it’s a travel/writing memoir with a playful form and a mix of nonfiction and fiction (Stevens includes a few short stories in the text, as well as excerpts from an unfinished novel) and I kept finding myself looking forward to the next time I’d be able to pick it up. The subtitle is “Chasing My Novel to the End of the World” and it’s about how Stevens, having done an MFA at Boston University, then had the opportunity, thanks to a fellowship, to travel anywhere in the world to write. Wanting to go someplace different, and thinking that isolation will be good for her in terms of providing time and space to concentrate on her work, she picks the Falkland Islands, where she plans to spend most of her time on tiny Bleaker Island, with a bit of time spent in a settlement in Darwin and in the capital, Stanley, too. Spoiler alert (not really, I think this is pretty apparent from the beginning): the book she writes is not the book she set out to write, but that turns out to be an OK thing.

I really enjoyed the structure of the book, which is a mix of landscape writing about the Falklands, and personal narrative about being there/trying to write, and personal narrative about how Stevens got there (both in terms of immediate preceding circumstances, like applying for the fellowship through the MFA program, and farther back, in terms of what she did in university and afterwards that ultimately led to her doing the MFA program, and also more-loosely connected bits of her life/writing life), and fiction. I liked the interplay between this book and Stevens’s rereading of Bleak House, which is the only print novel she has with her on her trip (she does have a Kindle) a whole lot. I also really liked the landscape writing and the parts about Stevens’s experiences on Bleaker Island or in previous travels, with sentences like this: “I walk for hours and see only monosyllables: cliffs, birds, waves, sand, sheep, rock, moss” (4). Or this, about Boston: “The windows frame the silver curve of the Charles sliding between brownstones and glassy office blocks. It is dusk and everything looks pink” (6). I like how Stevens brings Bleaker Island and its changeable weather alive: she talks about sitting in a glass-roofed sunroom during a storm and feeling like she is “sitting inside the weather itself”; she writes about watching “a sheet of weather approaching the island over the water”; in another storm, she writes that “the sky is filled with so many birds that they look like a new kind of weather: seagulls emerging from waves like an extension of the spray, grey wings overhead dripping down from the clouds.”(99, 115, 202).

I also appreciated the humorous bits a whole lot. There’s a very funny section about Eat Pray Love being the only movie she’s able to watch during her trip (because it’s the only one saved on her computer and there isn’t reliable/fast Internet), and a bit about counting out raisins for her food rations that made me laugh out loud on the subway, and a great exchange between Stevens and the housekeeper in an otherwise-empty guesthouse in Stanley that is so good I feel like I have to quote it in full:

“Wi-Fi?” I repeat. “The Internet?”
Maura looks troubled. “The Internet?” Jane would know, she says. She leads me into the hall, and points at a bulky machine squatting on a table by the door. She looks doubtful as she says, “Is that it?”
“No,” I say, “no, that’s a printer.”
“The Internet?” Maura repeats, again. She shrugs. “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. I’m just not sure where.” (31)

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.