Archives for category: Memoir

David Sheilds, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

A little while ago I was telling a friend about my mother. I love my mom, and I love to talk about  my mom, and I’m fascinated to no end by not only her person but our relationship. She embodies my origin story, in that I was once a part of her body, and she raised me to become whoever it is that I am. Her influence over my life is pervasive, moving forward through our shared genes and backwards through our family history. My friend and I began to see that one of the reasons we talk about our parents is that it provides a way, in some senses, to talk about ourselves.

David Shields is on to this; The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead is a work of both cultural and personal memoir on what it means to live, to be given life, and describes Shields’ fascination with his father’s apparent deafness to the ever tolling bell. Let me say plainly that I adore David Shields’ work, especially here. He writes with his own words, and (as you may have heard) with those that came from many others. The Thing About Life is, like life itself, a collage. Relying on quotations from artists, musicians, poets, and thinkers, Shields  also uses biology to describe the way our bodies run their course. He includes other physiological metrics to describe the life of that strange animal we call a human being. At 10 years old, we are physically in our prime; Every year after our 25th, our brains get a little smaller; “[b]y age 35, nearly everyone shows some signs of aging, such as graying hair, wrinkles, less strength, less speed, stiffening in the walls of the central arteries, degeneration of elevated blood pressure.”

Sheilds’ dad is obsessed with preserving his vitality. He eats, perhaps even enjoys,  a sparse and fibrous diet and exercises fanatically. When this book was released, in 2008, he was 98 years old. And still swimming every day. He had a heart attack on the tennis court and played the set through. Shields, at the time of writing, was 51 years old, living day to day with chronic back pain. Watching his father’s body, his own body, decay gradually, Shields confronts death head on, without a trace of romance, or even angst.  His investigation into his own origins, and his fascination with our common fate, becomes a surprising celebration of life itself. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll be Dead takes the guts out of you, but manages to keep giving you a reason breathe.

The Chairs, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

The best thing about The Chairs Are Where the People Go is the way that Misha Glouberman talks about his frustrations. The book’s forward, written by Sheila Heti, describes the text that follows as the product of morning meetings, where Glouberman would talk to her about “everything he knows.” As it turns, out, he knows a lot about negotiation, about managing expectations, and about how people communicate with each other. That’s why, I guess, he also seems to know so much about frustration.

The book is arranged into little meditations of various lengths that are centered on a specific idea, observation, or experience. A lot of them are about the games that Glouberman teaches as part of his Charades classes (–Yeah, he teaches classes on how to be good at playing charades–) : “Get Louder or Quit”, “The Gibberish Game”, “The Conducting Game”, “Fighting Games”, and, naturally enough, “How to Play Charades”. (There’s also one called “These Projects Don’t Make Money”.) There are sections on conferencing, on neighborhoods, on why getting piss drunk is only fun when you’re still really young, and on quitting smoking and wearing a suit. But a lot of them are about living in a city and remembering a lot of almost obvious things that I, for one, often forget: For instance, one section is called “Doing One Thing Doesn’t Mean You’re Against Something  Else”, which uses a few examples from Glouberman’s work with Trampoline Hall and his experimental noise classes to illustrate his point, being that choosing to set some perimeters on whatever you’re doing or making doesn’t automatically mean you oppose everything outside of those perimeters (“Like, if you write a book about Paris, it’s not a statement that no book should ever take place in New York.”). This is helpful advice, and the book has a lot of similarly simple ideas that are sometimes not put so simply in our day to day lives.

In fact, The Chairs, with Glouberman’s casual and friendly tone fueling an abundance of good advice, is arguably a self help book. But before I read it, I didn’t realize just how badly I needed the help.

The Film Club book cover, bookside table, EM Keeler

David Gilmour’s The Film Club is about movies, and parenting, and love, and pain. It reminded me, in parts, of The Stand-In, because of its Canadian-ness, and because I get the vibe that somehow it just wasn’t meant for me, in an almost generational way, even as it was loaded with good stuff I could take away from it. A friend and I were discussing it, and he said that it actually gave him a lot of insight into his own father (who, like Gilmour, dates somewhere between the Boomers and Generation X). This made a lot of sense to me.

Because, after all, that’s in a lot of ways what this book is about. It’s about Glimour and his teenage son, trying to negotiate the border between their lives as Jesse becomes a young man. I was touched by the amount of love, incredible-even-awful-love, that Gilmour expresses for his son throughout the book, and it was interesting to read a coming of age story told from the perspective of a parent.

At the centre of this memoir is a deal these men made, where Gilmour would let 15 year old Jesse drop out of school if he agreed to watch 3 films a week. Gilmour chooses the films, and makes loose units–Horror, guilty pleasures, nouvelle vauge, etc.,–for them to talk about and watch. With his knowledgeable adoration of film, Gilmour manages to teach his son a lot about the world from the living room sofa, and the book is packed with little facts and hundreds of movie suggestions. At it’s heart, though, The Film Club is a love letter from a father to his son, full of pride and fear, trepidation and tribulation. The very last line, borrowed (of course!) from a film, was inordinately moving; I  cried.

My Dog Tulip Book cover, JR Ackerley

Admittedly I don’t read a lot of books about dogs, loving them, caring for them, grooming and breeding and healing and so on. But then again, My Dog Tulip is not a book about dogs;  it’s a portrait of one in particular, Tulip, and how her distinctly canine personality is all her own.

I had a wonderful dog growing up, a big black lab named Sheba. I loved her as a pet, but now that I’ve read about the intimacies and intricacies of Ackerley and Tulip, I’m not so sure that we did the best we could by each other. Ackerley chronicles Tulip’s adventures with a gentle curiosity, and manages to somehow never speak on her behalf, only having  her loving and protective and occasionally beastly self shine through.

Together these lovers try to come to some sort of understanding of each other, though their differing natures dispose them to continual miscommunication and anxiety. All they have are gestures, and Ackerliy is moved often by Tulip’s choosing appropriate places to defecate, which he interprets as her canine means of showing loving consideration. He is also shamed by his occasional inability to understand her needs, even when she’s doing her best to straight up tell the guy. This to me seems to approximately characterize almost all relationships, especially where love is involved.

The crazy thing about this book is that Ackerley never seems gushy, sentimental, he never breaks down into ‘puppy talk.’ Rather he catalogs Tulip’s moods with respect to her internal dignity. While he claims to acknowledge the effect of anthropomorphism–the danger in collapsing animal emotions into human ones–he frequently falls into contradiction: Tulip is given many humanizing characteristics, but only because ‘love’ is a written word, and canines aren’t much for reading.

That said, it seems like one could learn a lot about the meaning of love from the way that Ackerley and Tulip care for each other, from the ways they devote themselves to one another while always respecting each others liberty.

I never thought I’d say this, but I want to learn how to love like a dog.

1. Sheila Heti lives in my neighborhood, well kinda. She’s a youngish white woman in Toronto worried about what art should be like, and what people should be like.

2. How Should a Person Be? is like an incredibly localized map of the neighborhood of these concerns, and Heti’s cartographic co-adventurer is her invariable friend and painter Margaux.  I definitely definitely felt like this book was a map for me, specifically, in a lot of really good ways.

3. But not an official map, more like the kind of sweetly personalized map that a friend will draw of where the good croissants are and how to get back to their house when you visit them in the city that they live in, where you don’t live and only go because you want to see them.

4. But better than that kind of map because I’ve never worried, not deeply, about where to find great croissants, but I have worried about betrayal, and lonliness, and fame, and friends, and whether or not I’m good enough at blow jobs, and what it means to be accomplished at something, like painting or cutting hair or imagining grilled cheese sandwiches. And I’ve also felt that maybe I’m not important, in a lot of ways, and I’ve agonized over my own equivocal enjoyment of that feeling too.

5. That whole business of ‘recognition’ is only part of the reason I liked this book, though. In addition to filling in a little bit of my life by way of reading about hers, this book was also funny and sad and sweet.

6. I read this book because one of my pals said the second time I met him that Sheila Heti is one of his favorite writers. He’s also a Torontonian, and he likes Trampoline Hall and other little things that make Toronto a place worth living and really local and lovable. He said that that he likes her, but is kind of wierded out by the degree of that like because she’s not only ‘from around here, but she’s from around here.‘ Which I took to mean that she’s like us, more so than other people are like us, because not only does she go to the same bars and concerts and pop-up venues that we do, but somehow she’s even more like us, in the ‘we, all of us, are having a moment’ kind of way.

7. And, not to spoil anything, but I kind of felt like that moment, the one we are all having, and by ‘we all’ I mean a very small number, in the long run, but still, that moment is kind of the answer to “How should a person be?”

8.  So I guess a person should be themselves, but throwing their hands in the air, and making a go of it, having a moment.

9. If only we could all make a go of it with the grace and humor and deceptively light touch that Sheila Heti does in How Shoud a Person Be?.

Sometimes, when I’m going to a party, I stand outside for a really long time. Like, a realllly long time, and I just listen in. Then my mind starts going, and I think about all of the possible interactions and outcomes; I write the party, I mentally rehearse the party; bare shoulders and bold thumb prints on the bowls of wine glasses, condensation on beer bottles, exclamations and padding around the kitchen, always the kitchen, in stocking feet.

Mystery Guesy Book Cover, Presents

Of course, if you’re partying at Sophie Calle‘s house, chances are pretty good that you’ll find yourself drinking from champagne flutes and wearing your shoes. Then again, Sophie Calle lives in France, where a house party means something else entirely. And for Grégoire Bouillier in particular, this party takes on such psycho-symbolic significance, that it becomes in and of itself a sort of cosmic event in the small universe of his life.

The Mystery Guest is an involuted party. The pre-party preening is a whorling cortex of pain and the pathetic, wrapped around the peculiar French take on spurned love. Because Bouillier’s relationship with a woman who remains unnamed was of the type that ‘died suddenly at home,’ Bouillier spends about a third of the book attaching meanings almost ad hoc to the objects that are in his orbit; turtleneck shirts, light bulbs, bottles of wine, cut roses in a vase.

In other parts of the book, Bouillier manages to gracefully connect his own prismatic and kaleidoscopic  interiority to another famous party; he traces the outline of Mrs. Dalloway onto the remembered flesh of his former lover, and in so doing reveals anew the circuitry of the mind.

I enjoyed this book immensely! Not having anything like fluency in French, I can’t say if Paris Review editor Lorin Stein’s translation was faithful, but I can tell you that it was beautiful. Great stuff!

Barthes

 

An autobiography written by the author of “the Death of the Author”? Who could resist? Not this nerdy-bird.

Barthes built a playground out of language, and never so much as in this text, a playground out of his own body, his corpus, his work.  Evading the prison of the self, this ramshackle autobiography celebrates instead the pleasures of liberal subjectivity, while at the same time shyly implicating itself in the closed and alienated world of a classed jargon.

My favorite passages are those that stem from the pleasure of praxis: Barthes evokes beautifully the joy of painting, of being an amateur, of hobbies (rather than occupations).

In a number of the fragments, Barthes plays a small joke on the reader, giving scraps of detail from his life, conventionally laying out his likes and dislikes, his memories of a street he walked down in childhood, driving through the country, and then suddenly annihilates those details, revokes the meaning from supposedly meaningful things, and shows us the raw face of the text instead.

All in all there underlies a passion and a hunger for more, for the beauties of experience to be caressed by the elegant hands of the text.

 

David Shields‘ autobiographical account of autobiography and everything else that may have happened to him sometime between then and now: Enough About You: Notes Toward The New Autobiography.

David Shield’s talks about Proust and I reflect on the fashion of loving Proust, not just A Remembrance of Things Past, but the man and his words.

Shields loves him for being a fiction within his fiction-he is at once the author and the character. Maybe, in a deconstructed world, we go back to Proust, who goes back into himself, because when our reality is in question, we realize that the answer is always ME.

The common thread to all of life in the global village is the self.

I like writing, fiction or otherwise, that dances on this border between authority proper and this other thing, this ‘reality’  that is a construct deconstructed, that is fated and is built up the moment prior to your experience of it.

The way Shields describes (with authority) the project of other autobiographers, other artists, when he really acknowledges that his authority is only over the Kingdom of himself. The ol’ Sartrean etc. We live for others, but others live for us. Or at least before us. Or in front of us?

Identity, reality and other ditties. Writing and reviewing are clichés of culture, and we try our damnedest to revive these clichés. My grandest failure is that I doubt my own authority. I can’t name the projects of others with resounding resoluteness because I am unable to really and truly discern or determine the course of my own life.

“Are these my questions, or my parent’s questions?”

David Shields in Enough About You

This is the reason I constantly talk about my Mother. Her life is mine as a pre-parable, and I have seen her from both the in- and the outside. Identity. She is a mirror that I can see my before and after in. Stuttering. Adolescence.

David Shields talks about himself as an invitation for representation, for what may only amount to his experience as experienced for others, his book born for the empathetic imagination. He says he liked John Donne in College, and I get it, because the bell tolls so loudly. That’s the best part of autobiography.

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