Archives for posts with tag: memoir

I’m of two minds when it comes to Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel:

1. Lin’s doing something here, but it may be hard to recognize exactly what he’s doing because it feels like it comes from a realist, even documentary, place. Which is something I think I only recognize because he’s documenting what it’s like to be a twenty-something artfuck in a big city, right this minute in history. In the opening scene, Sam is talking on Google chat with what I call an ‘Internet friend.’ This is a person he’s met with in real life, but it wasn’t easy and fluid in an F2F context; they barely talked IRL. But online, they can take great leaps of intimacy, make easy jokes, and have a private friendship where they can talk about anything. At the tail end of the story, Sam encounters another person that he knows from the nebulous online world, and the time they spend together is a mirror for that first digitized interaction. Sam is motivated by a particular eros, a constant desire to come together with others in the hope that something will happen, and his brief stints in police custody (for shoplifting) are incredible by dint of the fact that these experiences are so easily adapted into his life of aimless coming together. It’s as if the men he sits in a cell with are almost (but not quite) objects or props in the perpetual performance that Lin is both observing and creating. The way that Lin refuses to give the reader a sense of depth to Sam and his nearly interchangeable cast of friends and acquaintances is nothing short of phenomenal. This is a story that takes place completely on the surface, where meanings are interchangeable. Drinking iced coffee in the sun is pleasurable, but empty, just like the community service that Sam is sentenced to after his first arrest is something that passes the time, but there is no take away lesson and Sam shoplifts again, is arrested again. This total lack of a sticking quality, this slickness of being and experiencing the world is something that resonates deeply with me, and I can recognize in myself and my circle of friends. You can just say almost any fucked up shit for the sake of it:

“Luis,” said Sam. “What is happening. It’s Saturday.”

“I think we are going insane,” said Luis. “From not being around people. We are starting to go inside ourselves, and play around inside of our own mental illness. That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What should I eat,” said Sam. “I have two choices. Cereal or peanut butter bagel.”

“Cereal,” said Luis.

And it might not matter. Even when Sam’s one time lover Sheila ends up in psychiatric care, it’s just another borderline meaningless thing. The characters often (and I do this too!) verbalize their feelings, especially if the feelings are positive. They say “I feel good.” Or, “I’m feeling really good right now.” As if the feelings themselves are noteworthy, more so than the circumstances that enable those good feelings. Or maybe it’s in part a reaction to the strange intimacies of text based friendships. Either way, it’s both chilling and strangely vindicating to see this aspect of my life presented [without comment] on the page.

2. But does this strange fealty to life, young and shallow artfucky commodified and digitized life, mean that a book like this is a good one? I haven’t read Lin’s other novel, or his poetry, but I like parts of his older blog Reader of Depressing Books. But I hope that Lin’s other books are nothing like this one, in shape or content. Because I would hate to think that there is more than one of these out there, more than one shallow and repetitive (real!) meaningless story about a person who has awkward and vague romantic or sexual relationships, wandering about in parks and libraries day after endless day, thinking about either being FUBAR or absolutely nothing. In a weird way, Shoplifting From American Apparel is one of the best books I’ve read this year because it’s making me think really hard about why I don’t like it. I’ve read it twice, trying to figure these things out. I’m resistant to the idea that art should be basically meaningless and unaffecting, even if some parts of life are, or come to be seen that way. I want this book to be the only one like it in the world, in all of history, because by virtue of that watery singularity, I can manipulate my understanding of what Lin is doing here into something that coheres into significance, and then do the same with all of the aimless and subjectless G-chats and park coffees that have made up so much of my life. But that would be a lie on both accounts. Lin is like the antithesis of the big young 1990s writers, the anti Franzen, the anti Wallace; there is no reaching for depth, no human virtue glinting under the sharp light of meaning saturated prose, nothing sacred to worship or terribly trying to overcome. Things are just things, the world of experience is permeated with a knowing and ultimately neutral vagueness, and we endlessly repeat ourselves, without comment. So maybe the reason I didn’t like it is just that this isn’t the present I wanted back when it was the future. I’d hoped for so much more.

The Lover book cover, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

The Lover is a small book composed of what initially appear to be almost fragmentary recollections and miniature story scenes, but the overall effect results in a dazzling love story. In this translation, ably provided by Barbara Bray, Marguerite Duras weaves together a variety of tenses, voices,  and points of view to piece together a shifty portrait of the way that memory creates distance just as it recreates intimacies.

The story seems to begin with a simple enough narrative goal: an old woman addresses the reader and begins to describe an important event in her life, her first love. At first, Duras interweaves changes in voice, tempo and tense with a deft, barely noticeable subtlety, but by the middle of the novel, the height of the reverie, these changes are rapid and wildly intense, mirroring the trauma and overwhelming delight of her adolescent love affair with a much older man. The story is set in Saigon (Vietnam), during the French occupation. The nameless heroine, reportedly modeled on Duras herself, is a poor fifteen year old French girl stranded with her mother and two brothers after her family makes a bad investment in the wake of her father’s death.  The lover is a man of nearly thirty, a Chinese millionaire who is overwhelmed by the forbidden desire he feels for the young woman. Their relations are, of course, complex, and often incredibly steamy. They celebrate each other, bodies coming together in private, and their secret pleasures become wrapped up in the violence of the time and of the young woman’s heartbreaking home life. Of course, there is for each of them no small measure of shame: she is so young, he’s from another, wealthier world, and miscegenation was, of course, extremely out of fashion at the time. And yet. And yet Duras pokes holes in her own memories, recalls and recoils from a painful past, destabilizes the experience,  and allows that first love to continue to grow even well past its functional end.

I’m almost there. Three quarters of the way to having read and written about 50 books this year. Where did the time go?

Instead of updating the top 5, like I have for previous milestones, I decided to acquiesce to my pal Janice‘s request that I list the books I’m most looking forward to re-reading, once this project is through. As you know, ranking books is not my strong suit. Like the liberal arts narcissist I went to university to become, I always want to reflect backwards from the text itself, and give primacy to my experiences reading the book. After all, that’s what I know the most about. But because this is a reflexive practice, reconstituted by remembering and rereading and rewriting, my thoughts about each of the books listed below are subject to change.

In no particular order, the 5 books I’m really looking forward to re-reading:

5. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

I got a lot out of this one the first time around, but something about it tore me up. Even as I was reading it I was doing that childish thing where I was fantasizing about having already read through it once, so that I could spend more energy on really seeing the prose rather than desperately trying to make the events described cohere into something solid enough to hold on to. I want to go back and get to know Jenny and The Doctor a lot better in particular. From what I remember, there was a lot of strange beauty in the images that Barnes used to evoke her characters, but Jenny and the Doctor were so slippery, never quite settling into their similes, dodging metaphors left and right. I’m really looking forward to going back into Nightwood to try to parse them out.

4. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

I really fell in love with Nanapush, one of the novel’s narrators. I want to visit him again. Erdrich’s use of language is stunningly effective, though never ostentatious,  and I feel like I need to have her voice in my head. I think this will be the first one I re-read, actually, because it’s a wonderful winter book, so full of small rooms and snow.

3. Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

I’m not quite sure that this counts as a re-read, as I’m planning to read a different translation. The Lydia Davis translation made for a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I want to see what Elenore Marx can do for the text. The thing about Flaubert in general, or so I’ve read, is that he was apparently obsessive over his use of the French language in his writing, and he himself thought that to read in translation was pointless, that the loss of value was far too great. I obviously do not hold this view. Literature requires the cross pollination that translation allows for. That said, it is probably my secret hope that by reading and comparing the different translations of this book I’ll be able to make a mental composite, to average the readings, into some kernel of authentic Flaubert. Turns out  I believe many contradictory things about literature.

2. The Obituary, by Gail Scott

The Obituary is a story that braids many different threads together. There are different perspectives, different histories, continuously displacing one another, and I’d like to go back into it and see what new strands I can pick out. Also, Gail Scott’s playful and experimental use of language is just really exciting! She uses sound and allusion and strange little tricks with letters, and there is a lot of formal innovation going on. I think that Scott and  César Aira are two of the most exhilarating writers I’ve read, and not just this year.  I want to keep being exhilarated.

1. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields.

There’s something about David Shields. Even if you’re not all about his collage manifesto, the man is really really good at what he does. The Thing About Life, which came out before his much discussed Reality Hunger, is partially a collage work, using textbook biology and the many ruminations on mortality that float in the historical ether. But what’s so strange about his method is this: Shields himself is a brilliant sentence maker! Using other peoples words, even advocating free play with plagiarism, okay sure, I see how that’s transformative and just plain cool. But the man can lay it down on his own!  Some anecdotal evidence: My partner and I sometimes play this game where we grab a book at random off the shelf and read a sentence or paragraph out loud. Sometimes we get each other to guess if it’s an ending line, or who the author is. He grabbed Enough About You and read a single sentence of maybe 25 words. Not only did I know it was Shields immediately, but the sentence itself was a tight little story all on it’s own. In fact, Shields may be too polished, too damn good, to read only once. His little book machines are so well constructed that they seem magical, and I think you need to keep coming back to really see just how much is going on underneath the hood.

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.

Cakes and Ale Books Cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler,

The first time I read W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale I was almost 15 years old. I picked it up in a second hand book shop, titillated by its pulpy cover and the promise of scandal. I read it twice that year, almost back to back, with only Of Human Bondage in the middle. For a while, I considered it one of my favorite books, always with the secret hope that I would miraculously mature into a writer like Ashenden. Perhaps because I was so young and knew so little, I didn’t then appreciate the pathos of this fantastically well crafted little book. How wonderful it is to have discovered that an old favorite book can also be a new favorite!

Cakes and Ale is a novel that reads like a partial memoir, both in the history surrounding its release and in the way that Maugham frames his story. The narrator, Ashenden, is approached by a writerly colleague for material for a biography being written on another writer, Edward Driffield, who has recently died, a giant of English letters. The book is really really British, brimful with snark and occasional pomp, and Maugham evinces a near total command of the language he employs, which is precise and droll and often grey.  There are some brilliantly vicious lines detailing the colleague: “I could think of no one among m y contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise mans daily does of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped up tablespoon.” The memoir quality of the work, with it’s first person framing and detailing of nostalgia, is doubled in these instances of insult; Maugham delivers brutal little jabs out of Ashenden’s mouth, but at the time they were read as pointed arrows signalling out some of his real life peers.

This cruel wit was lost on my adolescent self, so enamored was I by the part of the story where the fifteen year old Ashenden is taken in by the eccentric and ‘common’ Driefields. Edward Driffield and his first wife Rosie meet the young Ashenden by happenstance, and he falls immediately in love with them. By proxy, so did I.

I had to buy a new copy of Cakes and Ale when I decided it was time to revisit it. The one I’d read before,that I’ve carried with me to my first apartment, then across Canada, from place to place, has been held by too many hands. It has that dusty vanilla smell of a book that has begun to decay, and it is literally held together with a piece of tape. The newer edition has roomy margins, a sturdy glue spine, and a rather boring cover, if we’re comparing the two.

And reading the newer edition, through my slightly older eyes, really deepened my appreciation for the book. On the one hand, it’s a lurid story about class tourism and sex. It’s also a bitter barb thrown like a rock at a literary establishment that relies on cannibalization and knowing how to order a good luncheon. It’s a coming of age story in the middle of a novel about coming into the winter of ones life. It’s about love, and lineage, and language so clear that we can only wish our memories were made of it.

 

The Pure and the Impure book cover, Emily M KeelerThe Pure and the Impure can be dark at times, even oppressively so, and Colette’s voluptuous prose feels suffocating and liberating in equal measure.  Herma Briffault’s translation yields a work that scans with varied yet consistently gorgeous cadences, and I actually found myself reading at least half of The Pure and the Impure out loud  into the night.

The book is a set of linked remembrances, a lucid investigation into the ways that our being is molded always by desire, by love, and sometimes, if we’re especially unlucky, by both at once. Colette chronicles her adventures in places where the light is low, where bodies lie entwined and the air is thick with the smells of incense, blond tobacco, opium and spirits. She transcribes some of the conversations she has had, and is not afraid to make herself look bad. Her stories, and her friends stories, show the ways in which desire can make a person callous, can be the exact point of their vulnerability, and, in my reading, can make you misremember as you shape the world of what was to  suit the needs of the terrific hunger within.

I really wish that I had read this before I read Nightwood, because I think it would’ve made a fabulous primer for that unmappable terrain.

I had a bit of trouble with some ideas in this book, as beautifully as they were expressed. Every word in the book bears the burden of truth, in a novelistic sense, and there are so many staggeringly strong lines up for the challenge. Yet, at its weakest, The Pure and the Impure reads as a catty and gossipy tell all from the days when a tell all was called a roman a clef. But at it’s best, the book is a clear evocation of the myriad forms that desire may take, a treatise on sensual pleasure, and an exploration of the divide between men and women, and between  masculine and feminine. Perhaps many of the problems I felt with relation to Colette’s sense of this difference are a function of time, of me being here rather than there, or vice versa. Nonetheless, it pained me to see her deride women who love women for being either childish or deluded, especially as she herself describes experiencing her own Sapphic desire. I also thought that there were one or two stray ideas or comments that alluded to a deeply anti-trans* position, though I may have misconstrued their intent. This last observation is not excusable through historically situating the novel, given that Collette was writing at the tail end of the Dada movement in Europe, where gender was fluidly understood and expressed in many circles, and certainly even within some of the ones in which Collette found herself. Despite that, there are parts of this book that I liked so immensely that I will undoubtedly find myself caressing these dog-eared pages for the rest of my life.

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?.

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