Monday, January 21, 2019

The city walls of feminism

We need the word "feminism" back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist — and only 42 percent of British women — I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of "liberation for women" is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? "Vogue," by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?
I feel somewhat conflicted about How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran. There are several things in it I don't agree with or can't relate to; yet, I am recommending this book to a lot of people because it is highly readable. It's light, without making light. And it's angry-making too, shedding light on all sorts of ways patriarchy insidiously stains my life.

I know several smart women who hesitate to call themselves feminists, and I really want that to change.

Moran tackles — with varying degrees of depth and seriousness — puberty, body hair, body image, pornography, workplace sexism, love, sex workers, marriage, the fashion industry, motherhood, abortion, and Lady Gaga.

It's all framed chronologically, autobiographically, according to how Moran encountered these issues in her own life. So it doesn't take long to realize that, even while she speaks in generalizations, however gingerly and with some disclaimers, she is describing a very singular experience. That is, Moran's relationship to her own breasts is different than mine, because we have very different breasts. The decision whether to have children or not, whether to have an abortion or not, is a highly personal one, and Moran cannot speak for all women. To be fair, Moran makes no such claim, but the more personal her writing is (and therefore more narratively compelling), ironically the more alienating it may be to readers and thus more divisive in the realm of what does it mean to be a feminist anyway and why should feminism address Moran's first-world problems when in developing countries "real" political and social change is still so far away.

Moran has some interesting things to say about hardcore 21st-century pornography and its availability. Porn constitutes a large part of our sex education, informing our understanding of the mechanics of sex but also our imagination. So it's problematic when "the vast majority of the porn out there is as identikit and mechanical as refrigerators rolling off a production line," and there's no joy in it, so little joy for women, where is the joy in pornography!?

Moran observes that overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and thus primarily of women. "It's a way of fucking yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to," and "slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn't inconvenience anyone."

I like how Moran shows the economic impacts of patriarchy, in everyday terms, to drive home the unfairness of it all, how women spend fortunes over a lifetime on tampons and waxing and reproductive care and ridiculous underwear.

Moran makes Lady Gaga sound like our redemption, I want to listen and dance and learn more and change the world.
Any action a woman engages in from a spirit of joy, and within a similarly safe and joyous environment, falls within the city walls of feminism. A girl has a right to dance how she wants, when her favorite record comes on.
I'm torn about sharing this video clip, because it's not particularly funny (I mean, it's somewhat funny, but not OMG-I-have-to-share-this funny) and it's not entirely representative of the book and you may get the sense that it's dismissive of "serious" feminist issues, but it gives a taste of how feminism is part of the day-to-day and should not be restricted to the purview of angry academics.



Say it with me now: "I am a strident feminist."

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Any book, when read at the right moment...

Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, by Jane Mount, is whimsical and lovely, a true miscellany.

I kind of love it for its lists and groupings, for its bookishness, for its celebration of books — not just their subjects, but their design, and the rooms where they were written and the libraries where they're held and the cats that hold counsel over them.

I hate it for neglecting some of the books I treasure (and how dare it include books I don't like!), for too much of this and not enough of that.

For example, there are six spreads related to food: Regional Cooking, Reference Cookbooks, Novel Food, Everyday Food Inspiration, Baking & Desserts, and Food Writing. Too many? Perhaps not enough for some people.

But only one spread addresses reading in translation; at a stretch, some entries touch on this through A Sense of Place and Journeys & Adventures. So yeah, that's one criticism — very anglocentric.

It's a fun and pretty book but short on substance. At times I thought rather than see all these mentions of books, I'd prefer to be actually reading one of those books. But then I was delighted to recognize an old favourite, and see that my local bookstore was included.

Although, one feature of the book I adored was not about books at all, but rather the chairs one might sit in while reading them. I want a whole book about that, please.

Clearly this project was a labour of love, and it reflects a very singular experience of books.
I know that any book, when read at the right moment, might make my life better, might give me a greater understanding of the universe and the other people in it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Cracking up the concrete like claws

I was reading in the metro this morning and I read a sentence that reminded me of another sentence. I made a mental note of the sentence and read on. Something made me want to check the author’s resources — I’d noticed that she includes research notes at the end of the book. That something — I don’t recall now what is was — was possibly not fictitious, but a reference to something (a book, a movie) in our nonfictitious lived reality.

The sentence was this:
From the Third Hotel, the closest CADECA was on La Rampa, on a street corner shaded by a banana tree, the roots cracking up the concrete like claws.
And the sentence it reminded me of was this:
It's just one of those pieces of Rome that cracks through the concrete of the present day like a bad memory, a way in for grass, for all kinds of untidy thoughts.
And it made me think of the difference between a horror story and a love story, and it made me think that maybe they're the same thing.

I am reading The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg, which put me in mind of one little sentence from Break.up by Joanna Walsh, whose Hotel was listed in the notes. Coincidence, of course, like the coincidence of all horror stories.

There's this thing about how horror springs up when someone's compass is taken away, leaving them unable to navigate the world. Rural horror tends to rely on some literal abyss or dislocation from "reality"; whereas urban horror relies on a different kind of gap in our reality — abandoned lots, alleyways, cracks in sidewalks.

The Third Hotel and Break.up are indeed very similar, women traversing an urban landscape, tracing a lost love, following their footsteps, repeating their words. So they are both horror stories. (The horror of a break-up?) How are they different?

[Possibly I should spend more time writing about books while I'm reading them instead of waiting till I'm done.]

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Once you agree it's love, something about it is over

Love stories are a confessional whispered to a third party, not the lover, because once you agree it's love, something about it is over.
This is not a love story. It's a story about a love story.

When I read a review of Break.up, by Joanna Walsh, early last summer, I thought it might help me process a difficult breakup of my own. I ran right out to buy it, but for some reason delayed reading it. I was feeling a sense of urgency, both regarding getting over this guy, R, but also about writing about that experience and my various epiphanies, but I think I wanted my closure to be pure, uncoloured by this kind of autofiction.

I left Break.up lying on my coffee table all summer. Sometimes it would admonish me to just get on with it, get on with all of it... the writing, the living, the loving.

When months later I finally got around to reading it, I was processing an entirely different lovelife state. What I hadn't known when I acquired Break.up was that I was then exchanging the initial text messages with M, what is no doubt my strangest (and still ongoing) "relationship" to date. Months on I was struggling to pin it down, I wanted to fold it up and put it in a box, tuck it away. For my own good, really. But I let it flutter on, too impalpable to be described.

R was my spring, long gone before I started reading Break.up, and quite unexpectedly, and just as I turned the final pages, he appears to be back in my life.

O was my autumn, a potential romantic interest, then an occasional lover, then a friend. But Break.up cast light on that relationship too. And as I turned the final pages, the friendship cracked.

But it was the summer (the year?) of M. I've never met M in real life. Sometimes I wonder whether he really exists as he's presented himself — maybe he lives in a basement around the corner from me, maybe he's someone I already know. Does it even matter if he exists as anything at all outside my own head?
Your tongue in my mouth: did we speak truer when we spoke online, without bodies, sounding tinkling with the tongues of angels?
The men who counted last year amount to a trinity, my trinity of men — my R, O, and M — my read-only memory.

I met them all online.

And this is the point of Break.up: the strange state of text-based relationships.

I had 13 face-to-face encounters with R. Fewer than that with O. None at all with M. Yet the messages we exchanged number many thousand.
But I don't like phone-talk: so breathily intimate, my ear up against someone's mouth, the crackly physical proximity of my parents' era. I remember everything you said out loud. It's my own words I didn't hear. When I talked they echoed round my skull, or down the line, but didn't stick. As I pushed them out I couldn't hear myself speak. I wonder what I said to you. Type, at least, had memory. Give me the cold keys of my aluminum laptop and I'll play them like a Belleville piano. What's more, writing gives me time for some elegance of response, (elegance is refusal), for some esprit d'éscalier, in the timelapse. An object qui parle, naturally there were things I held back. [sic]
I think of myself as a text-based person — and here I mean literary text as opposed to phone text. I think I'm better "on paper." I like to think about my words before I commit them to paper, before I commit to them, before I commit them. I have never written so much as I did in 2018, drafts of stories and character sketches, poetic outpourings, notes to boys. And never have words been so inadequate.

She considers the rules of the game: the correspondence takes turns. Is it my turn to respond? How long can I take to respond? The gap between messages widens. What if you don't respond?
Now each word has more edges, and they are sharp: your works are more defined now because, though you still write to me, there are fewer of them, and they come less often. All those words we used to have, and now we're monosyllabic! Each stands out, sparser therefore more distinct, changing the focus, making it difficult to judge how far away you are from me.
Walsh travels across Europe for the length of this text.
It's just one of those pieces of Rome that cracks through the concrete of the present day like a bad memory, a way in for grass, for all kinds of untidy thoughts.
When R and I broke up, I walked back and forth across my city, saw the ghosts of us everywhere, back and forth.

Walsh writes things that are eerily similar to lines among my own post-break-up scribblings last spring. Walsh writes: "You, for instance, are not here now, and you-not-being-here accompanies me wherever I go." "Love's not analog, it's digital." (Although, I argued the opposite.) "What I miss is desire."

As I mentioned previously, I didn't entirely connect with this book. The syntax is precious, surely the result of writer's workshops.

Despite the subject, it's emotionally distant, almost alienatingly so. It's too personal to be a universal experience for a reader to automatically embody.

But I love the fragmented nature of this book, travelling from place, to memory, to place. I love the quotes scattered throughout: Breton, Heidegger, Barthes, etc. (I saw a girl reading Nadja on the metro, I wanted to hug her.)

It's important that there's very little about him in this text at all. It's not about him, not really.
In the last year I've read everything I could find about love. What did these books tell me? All about what it is to be a lover, next to nothing about the beloved, in any case, nothing that matched your own specific oddness, or maybe I mean my own. But I have found that writing is not a tool that can be turned upon anything: I have not chosen what to write about, I have only decided whether to write about what I have. Writing is not transferrable, perhaps.
I too have been doing research, reading everything I could find about love, I read this book about love. I've learned nothing.

It's about a year ago that I read Elif Batuman's The Idiot. It's shortly thereafter that I started online dating, and the mood of that book lingered, coloured my experience.

Here's what I've learned in the past year, from real life and from the books:
  1. Relationships happen inside one person's head, they are forged and broken there.
  2. Love does not exist between two people, love is one person's attitude to the world (and with any luck, it coincides with that of another).
  3. Words are inadequate, no matter which words, no matter how many.
Reviews
In the Guardian, Break.up by Joanna Walsh review – the end of a virtual affair:
What I feel in the end is admiration without pleasure. Walsh places feelings on display, yet keeps them austerely inaccessible, and I see the point of this without enjoying the effect.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fighting for Emotional Liberty in Joanna Walsh’s “Break.up”:
Break.up is as much about the loss of emotional liberty in a world that relies more and more on digital connection as it is about the loss of love.

Friday, January 11, 2019

High and melancholy and just a little off-key

"Are you ready?" he asked.

"No," she said. "I told you, I don't want to listen to your stupid tape."

"Yes, you do," he said. "You just don't know it yet." He reached up and slid the headphones over her ears. She could smell his body odor, a mix of cigarette smoke and sweat and sour breath. She was about to snatch the headphones off when she heard a dusty crackling, like the static at the start of a record, and then a man singing, accompanied by rough strokes of acoustic guitar. His voice was high and melancholy and just a little off-key. It reminded her of the way she's felt after she'd drunk the vodka, as though an entire planet were pressing on top of her, holding her down.
— from "Look at Your Game, Girl," in You Know You Want This, by Kristen Roupenian.

Did you read "Cat Person" last year? Go read it now, and be horrified by the prospect of online dating and the impossibility of knowing someone via text.

Since reading this collection over the holiday, several of these stories have faded from my memory already. But some of them are standouts. That includes the now renowned "Cat Person." I would put "Look at Your Game, Girl," and "The Good Guy" in the same of category, maybe "Bad Boy." Insightful, uncomfortable, effective.

I think Roupenian is at her best when exploring sexual dynamics, the mysterious gaps between people. She exploits the uncertainty between people, the failure of trust. You know you want it, but do you know what it is you want so bad? That thing you want — it's dark, aggressive, transgressive.

Other stories border on weird horror, had supernatural elements. Those stories are weaker in my view. Possibly because the space between natural and supernatural elements is so much wider than the chasm between men and women; the tension is not so tightly contained.

Stories online
Cat Person
Bad Boy
The Good Guy (on Medium, members only, but you may be allowed a free article)
The Night Runner (I didn't much like this one)
Don’t Be Scarred (an earlier version of "Scarred," which I liked at first, but then it felt too obvious; I kept waiting for the twist, but the twist was too obvious)

Reviews
Boston Globe
The New Republic

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Thoughts I've had and that I've forgotten to think

Out browsing books, I couldn't resist bringing home A Climate of Fear, by Fred Vargas. It's been a while since I read Vargas. I vaguely recall bingeing and having had my fill, with nothing else to fill the void. But that was years ago. She's still writing.

This mystery starts off with two victims of apparent suicides. They're definitely not suicides. And these two individuals knew each other, having both been on expedition in Iceland years before. Their group had been lost in the fog, stranded for weeks on a remote island — afturganga territory.

But it turn out they have another connection: both were members of a reenactment society, performing the speeches of Maximilien Robespierre.

(And then more apparent suicides ensue.)

So it's in keeping with Commissaire Adamsberg's methods that I should read this, explore the meaning behind the novel's coincidental surfacing on my metaphorical bookshelf. I mean: I've just been to Iceland, am engrossed in all things Icelandic. And I'm also currently re-embroiled in the French Revolution, Assassin's Creed: Unity style, just because it felt like the right way to kick off the new year. These two all-consuming yet disparate interests somehow bound together in this novel in front of me.

I love when books collide with life in unexpected ways!
"You ought to be able to work it out. Try. It was a thought that came to you and you hadn't finished thinking it. You shouldn't lose thoughts like that, hombre. Have to be careful where you put things. And your second in command, the commandant, does he feel the itch as well? Or that one with the stripy hair?"

"No, neither of them."

"That means it must be a thought peculiar to you. It's a pity thoughts don't have names, isn't it? You could call them up, and they'd come and lie down at our feet, crawling on their bellies."

"I think we have ten thousand thoughts a day, or millions we don't know about."

"Yeah, agreed," said Lucio, opening his second bee, "it would be chaos."

Adamsberg went inside to the kitchen, finding there his son, who was eating bread and cheese, as he worked on the jewellery he had started making to sell.

"Are you going to bed already?"

"I need to look for thoughts I've had and that I've forgotten to think."

"Oh, I see," said Zerk, with perfect sincerity.
Vargas's writing is elegant and witty, her characters subtly charming. How quintessentially Parisian.

[Why do I read about Paris? Another all-consuming interest. I miss his voice, the delicacy of his dirty words, utterly non-Quebecois. The power of his gentle kiss on my neck. Ah, Paris.]

Thursday, January 03, 2019

A personal bond with his whisky

You never know what kind of bond an American may have with America, one not only American but also German, not only German but also a pianist, that not only but moreover a composer, not only him but actually anyone at all with America, it's a mystery this bond any Tom or Dick can have with America, the pianist's America was measured out in bourbon, topped up with water and chilled with ice, that was the only way to appreciate whisky in its American incarnation, which is what I was missing, I was sticking with my well-known good taste not innate but belatedly acquired, in the context of an apparently successful marriage which had led me to encounter though not necessarily recognize all kinds of whiskys, single and pure malts, and to despise fans of blended whisky, those drinkers being not enlightened enthusiasts but a lower class of consumers, as conceded by all true enthusiasts distinguished by their refusal of admixture, consumption combines while good taste defines, this is what I'd learned in the context of my marriage, my objective then: success founded on the theoretical knowledge of whisky, I therefore pursued the single-mindedness particular to good taste which cannot be learned for lack of a particular upbringing. These were my prejudices around taste, acquired belatedly and still channeling my judgment in accordance with conventions whose universally relative nature I didn't always understand, I judged without considering the pianist's capacity to judge which had enabled him serenely to sip his tall blended whisky on the rocks without in any way snapping back at this my anti-American sarcasm of the lowest kind, the most questionable sarcasm given the knee-jerk anti-Americanism that the pianist was always condemning and which I'd never meant to be part of, in which I was participating despite myself, which I made no attempt to resist: pro-Americanism would have been equally poorly received, the pianist has never been pro-American, has never supported America for America's sake nor America versus the rest of the world, he has more than once taken a stand against America but without anti-Americanism either knee-jerk or of any other kind, ordering a blended whisky on the rocks was not a pro-American decision and called for no further anti-American critique, yet I criticized the pianist's choice without first taking a deep breath and counting to ten or any other number, criticism he thought uncalled-for, being first and foremost a pianist-composer well up on America, better informed than he is hard to find. The pianist's bond with blended whisky was in some way loaded, so I gathered from the nervy way the pianist had placed his order, as if it were quite a complex order and called for lengthy explanation to the Kaiser's waiter, who it seemed did not serve tall blended whiskys on the rocks every day, the way he snatched up the glass and made the ice swirl inside it. Doubtless the pianist felt a personal bond with his whisky [...]; at the Kaiser Café the pianist was neither between heaven and earth nor between one drink and the next, simply keeping up his unalcoholic bond with blended whisky, an intimate and precious connection, perhaps even more intimate and precious than the pianist's bond with his car, a relationship one doesn't enter into just like that, in open comradeship, but that remains for ever mystical and personal.
— from Blue Self-Portrait, by Noémi Lefebvre.