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.

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:


Texting

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.