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.

‘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)

I always enjoy Lucy Knisley’s books: I like graphic memoirs in general, and I like Knisley’s style a lot, especially the way that her books combine drawn art and text and photographs (which may have drawn-on embellishments or labels). I got engaged in March, so it seemed like the right time to read this one, which is about Knisley’s wedding (with some background info about her relationship with her now-husband, and some added stuff about weddings in general). I found myself nodding a lot as I read: like Knisley, I’m a feminist child of divorced parents who hasn’t always understood the appeal of marriage or weddings. Also like Knisley, I’m a queer/bi woman marrying a cisgender guy (and like Knisley says re: marriage equality in the US, “changing laws went a long way towards reconciling my feelings about matrimony”) (112). My fiancé and I, like Knisley and her now-husband, are both atheists, so yeah, our wedding will not be a religious one, which means we also get to answer the question that Knisley phrases thus: “how do two rational atheists who don’t believe in “bad luck” design their wedding ceremony?” (208).

Obviously there are differences: I’m not an artist, and my mom is not a retired caterer, and no one in my family or my fiancé’s family has a piece of land on which we can build a barn in which to get married. We’re not planning on having bridesmaids and groomsmen, and I’m definitely not into DIY decor as much as Knisley is/was. But it was still nice to read a book about weddings by someone coming at it from a perspective of wanting to make their wedding their own, whether that’s in terms of saying no to traditions that don’t appeal (e.g. spouses-to-be not seeing each other on their wedding day before walking down the aisle) or in terms of not wanting to buy into what Knisley calls the “bridal weight loss imperative” (97). As Knisley puts it: “I want to eat cookies and be happy” (99). Me too.

I love the part where Knisley talks about how she and her fiancé had totally different online experiences once they got engaged (she saw a ton of wedding-centric ads; he saw none) and she wonders: “Where are the ads that truly target me, as I see myself?” – imagined ads that include “Top 50 literary passages to read before you get married!” and “Most comfortable inexpensive shoes to pad around your ceremony in!” and “10 ways to avoid those uncomfortable religious connotations at your wedding!” and “What’s your game plan? to greet your guests and also eat every single kind of appetizer at the cocktail hour? CLICK HERE FOR ADVICE!” (110) Yessssss I feel so seen. I mean, so far my fiancé is the one doing more of the planning, so maybe he’ll see more wedding ads than I do, but those imagined ads definitely speak to me.

I also love the part where Knisley talks about when she and her now-husband got engaged and how it felt to tell all their friends and family, how they ended that day “full of elation and joy at sharing the news—drunk on it and on our own happiness” (66). The part about shopping for wedding dresses only added to my own dread about that whole portion of things, though Knisley did end up with a dress she loved, which does give me hope. And aw, the part about the wedding itself made me tear up—the way Knisley describes how happy she was walking down the aisle, and how happy she was to be with close friends and family after the reception: “Everything was mud and smoke and the sweet smell of my childhood home after the rain. And John’s warm shoulder. The feeling that the day had been an eternity, and not nearly long enough” (266). Aw. This is such a charming book, maybe especially if you are planning a wedding, or are about to be planning one.

In this book’s prologue, Liz Phair explains that the book is about “the small indignities we all suffer daily, the silent insults to our system, the callous gestures we make toward one another” (4). These are everyday horror stories, for some definition of “everyday”: affairs, relationship troubles, performance mishaps, brushes with danger. As others have noted, this isn’t really a music-centric memoir, but I was fine with that. Phair’s writing has some clunky moments (like when she describes people temporarily without air-conditioning as stuck in their “stultifying domiciles”), but overall I found this very readable, the kind of book where I kept pausing to tell my fiancé about what I’d just read.

As a New Yorker who missed the 2003 blackout (I was living in Massachusetts that summer) I thoroughly enjoyed Phair’s chapter about it, which she starts by talking about how she was “spellbound by the sight of an unlit Central Park at sunset. Dusk is falling, but there are no streetlights illuminating the sidewalks, no traffic signals changing from red to green” (80). I like how the blackout is presented as a moment of potential discomfort and danger but also a moment of chance connections, and how it’s juxtaposed with Phair realizing that she and her guitar player “are into each other”, though he’s dating someone else (81).

I also really liked the chapter where Phair is on a plane and the flight attendant tells her there’s someone on board who knows her and wants to say hi; it turns out to be a guy from her hometown who had a leg amputated after an accident. Phair thinks this guy “probably doesn’t get out that much” and thinks about how to make sure their interaction is fun and positive, and then has to laugh at herself when her assumptions turn out to be totally wrong (116). (He tells her he’s been touring as a competitive wheelchair athlete and his schedule has been packed, and then hilariously gets her to help him out by carrying his prosthetic leg through the airport so he can make his connecting flight.)

And I loved “Red Bird Hollow”, the chapter where Phair writes about how she and her brother would spend time with their grandparents in Ohio. I like how Phair captures moments of connection with nature (feeding the horses in the barn, finding toadstools and birds’ eggs and wild blackberries). And the chapter’s central story, which is about climbing up a tall pine tree, is totally gripping.

I’m probably not the target audience for this book—I’m not particularly looking for encouragement in creative pursuits—but my fiancé got a copy as a gift and I ended up picking it up from the shelf while waiting for a library hold on a different book to come in. Gilbert’s tone is conversational and engaging, and she tells lots of great stories about her own writing life, and about the artistic pursuits of others, all under the broad themes of Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity.

Early in the book, she defines “creative living” as “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear” (9). Later in the book, she returns to the idea of curiosity—noting that she thinks that telling someone to follow their curiosity is better than telling them to follow their passion, since passion may feel too big or intimidating or people may not know what theirs is, whereas with curiosity, you can start small and see where it takes you. I like that, and I liked Gilbert’s own story about following her curiosity, when she realized she was interested in gardening (though she never had been previously). She talks about how she planted a garden, then found herself doing research to find out where the plants in her garden came from. She then realized she was interested not so much in the “garden itself, but the botanical history behind it—a wild and little-known tale of trade and adventure and global intrigue,” which ended up being the subject of one of her novels (243).

Gilbert is big on choosing to look at things in ways that make things easier for yourself, not harder for yourself, which makes a lot of sense to me. Like: she rejects the idea of the tortured artist/thinks that “too many creative people have been taught to distrust pleasure” (209). She talks about interpreting certain situations in certain ways, like when she writes about how a story she submitted was rejected, then later ended up being accepted by the same person for the same publication. The accepted story was submitted by Gilbert’s agent, and she talks about how she could have a negative interpretation of this, thinking that “it’s who you know” that matters, rather than talent (193). But as she puts it, she would rather take it as proof that “miraculous turns of fate can happen to those who persist in showing up” (ibid.) (As she also points out, she doesn’t know the other circumstances around the initial rejection or later acceptance: maybe the first time around, her story was read at the end of a long and difficult day; maybe the second time around, the person reading it was in a great mood.) Even some things she chooses to believe that may seem bonkers (ahem, like the idea that ideas have their own “will” and “consciousness”(35)) can be seen in this same spirit: if you start with the idea that there is an abundance of ideas and that the right one will come to you, your experience of creativity may end up being less pressured, more full of a sense of wonder.

I like how much joy there is in this book, whether Gilbert is advising readers to “Sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self” (161) or talking about a woman she knew who became an expert in ancient Mesopotamian history at the age of eighty or relating a story about a guy in a lobster costume. And now I kind of want to read that novel that Gilbert wrote that came from her curiosity about plants!

In the ten chapters of The Outermost House, Henry Beston writes about the year he spent living in a two-room cottage on the Atlantic-facing beach on Cape Cod in the 1920s. Many of the people on Goodreads who don’t like this book seem to wish it had more of a “plot,” but it isn’t that kind of book. What happens is life: seasons and migrations and weather, and beach-walks at all hours. As I’ve mentioned, I am often more a mood-driven reader than a plot-driven reader, so this was fine with me: I found the book lovely and meditative and enjoyed looking up pictures of many of the plants and birds Beston mentions, from Artemisia stelleriana to the Least Tern. I like the way that Beston writes about the changing light and the ceaseless surf; I like the way he talks about watching the beam from Nauset Light flash on his bedroom wall. I like how he describes how when birds take flight, they move as one; he says they’re “instantly turned into a constellation of birds, into a fugitive pleiades whose living stars keep their chance positions” (23). And I like his description of animals in general as “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of light and time” (25).

As far as the human world, Beston writes about his friends in the Coast Guard, how they patrol the beach day and night, and about the shipwrecks from which they rescue (or attempt to rescue) sailors and fishermen. (One of the shipwrecks he writes about, that of the Portland, was before his time at the Cape, but it was interesting to read about nevertheless.) But his descriptions of nature are really the highlight of the book, and I was enthralled whether he was talking about dogfish or terns or phosphorescence or seeing a meteor streak past one night in July. I love phrases like this: “high in space and golden light the myriads of birds drifted and whirred like leaves” (212). Or passages like this:

The winter sea was a mirror in a cold, half-lighted room, the summer sea is a mirror in a room burning with light. So abundant is the light and so huge the mirror that the whole of a summer day floats reflected on the glass. Colours gather there, sunrise and twilight, cloud shadows and cloud reflections, the pewter dullness of gathering rain, the blue, burning splendour of space swept free of every cloud. (194-195)

Because Internet is an excellent exploration of how people use language in online interactions, and how the conventions of online language and online social interaction more generally have shifted and are continuing to shift with time. It’s smart and funny and the kind of book where I kept pausing to tell my boyfriend things I’d just read; it prompted me to think of my own internet interactions over the years, and prompted me to ask him about his. (I am way more of an “internet person” than he is, which we both already knew, but it was interesting to talk about what we each remember about early online interactions.) It was interesting to think about the fact that people born in an era of widespread internet use won’t necessarily remember the first times they “went online”, any more than I remember the first time I watched television or used a telephone: TV and phones were always there for me, and the internet will have always been there for younger people. I may not remember the literal first time I went online, but I remember my early internet experiences as something totally new and different: I remember talking in chat rooms and message boards on Prodigy and then on AOL, from what must have been 6th grade onwards (I say this because I remember having a chat room name that referenced the names of my classroom guinea pigs).

As someone who was “interacting with strangers” in my first online forays, whether via chat or email or AOL message boards (in high school I had internet-friends via a Seventeen magazine message board called “Whims of Fashion”, which later migrated to Livejournal) I fit into the cohort that McCulloch refers to as “Old Internet People”, though I’m not part of the early section of that cohort (Usenet users and people who were on university networks before Compuserve and Prodigy and AOL took things more mainstream). At the same time I have overlap with the cohort McCulloch refers to as “Full Internet People”, who “began by using it to communicate more with people they already know” – like AOL Instant Messenger conversations with people from school. McCulloch uses these cohorts (there are also “Semi Internet People”, “Post Internet People”, and “Pre Internet People”) to discuss different communication patterns and assumptions. There’s lots of interesting stuff here, especially when McCulloch talks about “Post Internet People” who joined “the social internet after their parents were already there” and had to figure out how to deal with “context collapse” – which is “danah boyd’s term for when people from all your overlapping friend groups see all your shared posts from different aspects of your life.”

McCulloch explores various areas of online communication, including how new words or phrases spread online, how people use emoji (and the history of emoji, kaomoji, and emoticons), “typographical tone of voice”, memes, Facebook “status updates”, and email greetings and closings (including a generational divide between people who start work emails with “Dear” and people who feel that has weird connotations of intimacy). Throughout, she quotes academic research and popular sources while also drawing on her own experiences with being an “internet person,” and the result is really engaging.

Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma

January 26th, 2021

I don’t remember when, where, or why I acquired a copy of this book, but I decided it might be interesting to read after having read A Tale for the Time Being earlier this month, since that novel and this book cover some of the same years in Japan’s history. I did recognize some of the things mentioned in Buruma’s book from Ozeki’s novel (including the “I-novels” of the Taishō period), and those moments of recognition were satisfying. Overall, though, I’m probably not the ideal reader for this book. I found Buruma’s style engaging and readable, but Inventing Japan focuses on military and political history, which is not my favorite kind of history to read. Buruma covers almost a century in less than 165 pages, so some of the reading experience just felt like mentions of people and events flying by. It was interesting to read, near the start of the book, about how in the 1850s early Japanese nationalists made use of some Western ideas as a way to “emancipate Japan from the Chinese cultural orbit” (12), and about how those opposed to the shogunate began “to politicize the imperial institution” (19), and to read, as the book continued, about where those things ended up leading.

The reading/event for this book that Allie Brosh did with Powell’s Books on Zoom was one of the best things that happened in September, but it took me until now to actually read the copy of the book that I’d purchased—I think I was saving it for Christmas vacation reading? Anyway: I am delighted to have read this and delighted that I bought a copy; I’m sure I will be rereading it in the future. It’s a mix of very funny life stuff and very serious life stuff (Brosh had a health crisis, lost her sister to suicide, and got divorced)—and while I didn’t love every single piece in the book, I really liked a lot of them. On the humorous side, Brosh’s childhood stories never fail to crack me up—the piece at the start of the book where she gets herself stuck in a bucket at age three made me laugh a lot, as did the second piece, “Richard,” which was just as good when I read it for myself as it was when she read it at the Zoom event. And, as always, one of the things I like best about Brosh’s work is how she writes about and draws animals—dogs especially, but cats and other animals too. There’s a great piece in which Brosh imagines how confused pets must be by human behavior, and multiple great pieces about particular pets, including a dog described as a “brown pile with no eyes” and a cat who has a complicated relationship with his favorite toy. Another highlight of the book for me was the piece called “Bananas,” about a particular fight that Brosh had with her now-ex husband, which perfectly captures the feeling of “that infinite loop where everything the other person does—no matter how innocuous it is—seems inflammatory.” And I really liked the last piece, about becoming friends with oneself.

Continuing with the theme of “books I bought while traveling but hadn’t read yet”: when I opened my copy of Dime-Store Alchemy, I found the receipt and was reminded that I bought this at Dog Eared Books in San Francisco in December 2012. Nearly eight years after having bought it, I can say that I have now read it and am happy with my purchase. This slim volume consists of short pieces/prose poems about Joseph Cornell and his art and the larger context of his work. Some pieces of Simic’s writing are about specific pieces by Cornell, and the book contains color photos of those works, some of which I’ve seen in person and others of which I haven’t. Images and themes recur: dreams and daydreams and memories; labyrinths in general and New York City as a labyrinth in particular; secrets; chance juxtapositions, especially the chance juxtapositions of the city. “The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen, if recognized,” Simic writes (19), and the book proceeds by that logic. There are so many good images: “A white pigeon pecking on the marble steps of the library watched over by two stone lions” (5); “the chalk lines of hopscotch in the late afternoon sunlight and shadow” (36); “A phantom palace in a forest of bare trees, hoar frost and night” (54). (That last phrase is about one of Cornell’s boxes – “Untitled (Pink Palace)”.)

Simic writes about Cornell’s art and practice as being “divination by contemplation of surfaces” (26): it’s about finding “objects that belong together”; about walking (through the city) and looking to find those objects (14). I love this:

Early Sunday morning in June. It had rained after midnight, and the air and sky have miraculously cleared. The avenues are empty and the stores closed. A glimpse of things before anyone has seen them. (22)

And this, from a piece that also talks about “The Man of the Crowd” by Poe and the allure of people-watching, the mysteries of strangers:

I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind. (10)

And this, which Simic quotes from a journal entry of Cornell’s from January 24, 1947, about the view from the train to Penn Station from Queens:

Just before going under tunnel looked up at freight cars—the word Jane scrawled on a box-car in large letters, red with a touch of pink, then touches of primary colors mingling with a scene of men working on the tracks with a long crane mounted on a car. (8)

In that same journal entry, Cornell talks about taking the bus to 11th Avenue and 42nd Street: here is that intersection in 1940:, eighty years ago, seven years before that journal entry of Cornell’s. I walked through that intersection just this morning; in 1947 Cornell wrote about a cafeteria there, coffee and apple pie. He walked up 11th Avenue that day, like I did this morning; later today, I’ll walk to MoMA and pay a visit to Taglioni’s Jewel Casket and Untitled (Bébé Marie).