Blogging, newsletters, bad books

A few years ago, I took a class on how to review books from Mark Athitakis. I was thrilled to get the opportunity, since I’d was a fan of his book blog, American Fiction Notes. He’s moved on from that to more paid work, and this newsletter.  His tastes don’t always overlap with mine, but his approach to thinking about books and criticism is still a model for me.

After I took that class, I spent five years working for a book recommending site. That drew more on my perspective as an ex-librarian: thinking about what a general audience likes and wants, more than what I like, and want, and think. Though if I really didn’t like a hyped book, I would set it aside, rather than lie. It was a good education in self-editing, and certain angles of the book market, and it’s run by lovely people, but I agree with Mark that bad books, and criticism of bad books, have value too.

After he stopped blogging, I followed his writing by following him on social media, but I missed a lot that way, and was relieved to see him start a newsletter that put it all in one easily accessible location again.

It may be an illusion, I may be looking for it now, but in 2019, I’ve seen more people on Twitter express nostalgia for blogs.

I first got online in 1993, when hitting refresh on Usenet with my dial-up modem connection often meant finding something else to do for a few minutes. I loved the blogosphere, the sense of discovery, of friendly community. There were trolls, but it was not hard for to find interesting places where they were outnumbered and starved. And it wasn’t making fortunes for massive social media platforms.

I started this blog in part because the social media platforms have disgraced themselves so much, so often, and I remembered how I enjoyed having my own personal perch. And I’d been thinking about a John Scalzi post on “How Blogs Work Today.” Newsletters are good, but I’m not sure why they’re better than an email subscription button on a blog. Unless you want to make people pay for them. But I think that’s what edited publications are for.

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Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Gingerbread.jpgI loved this book too much. If I was being paid to review it, I would read it again immediately. First time through, I was too thrilled to be intelligently critical.

This is the first book of hers to sweep me off my feet. Previous ones never drew me in enough, and I’m never a great fan of novels that “retell” existing stories. This one exists in a world that includes the fairy tale world, but it is on Oyeyemi’s particular terms. Her idiosyncratic imagination, and personality, and her charm as a storyteller, have full control here. She is simultaneously brilliant and down to earth, with superpowers of description, deep perceptions of emotional truths, and a lovely and wicked sense of humor. All those gifts are employed to tell a multigenerational multinational family story, with a ballroom’s worth of characters, and excellent magical realism.

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First Ever Writing Retreat

The Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts is five minutes from my house.

In the summers, they offer juried residencies to NY State residents. Those are six nights to four weeks, with a stipend, cleaning service, and a chef.

But in the winter, for a small fee, they offer their studios for retreats.

For years, I have eyed this opportunity, and thought no, that’s silly, five minutes from my house? Then my new artist friend asked me to do it with her (separate suites, but meeting for a few meals), so I signed up for two nights.

It is a perfect atmosphere. I did not realize how much it would mean to be alone in a clean comfortable apartment, with a beautiful view, almost total quiet, no obligations, no interruptions, for 48 hours straight. I will be back.

I learned something funny, but not too surprising, about myself. Each room has a bookcase with an assortment of literary journals, poetry, novels, magazines, nonfiction, and art books. The first thing I had to do after I set down my bags, was to organize that bookcase. Then it felt like good company, and I could write.

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Only a brown woman

The_history_of_white_people_bookcoverThis week I finished The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It is one for the freshman syllabus of the world.  A history of whiteness, really, and of how people have convinced themselves that other people were not human, in order to neglect, destroy, or exploit them. Race ideologies since the ancient world, for the most part, going on to include class and eugenics and immigration… I thought I knew a lot of this history. A quarter of the way through, I was in awe of the depth and breadth of her research. I would love to hear her talk for a few hours, she must be a library unto herself after all this. And a lively clear writer, able to distill centuries of material into illuminating stories, and string them all together across the ages.

Virginia (and Leonard) Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary is ongoing of course, I’m still indexing it for myself, and anyone else who ever wants a writer’s index for it (the original index is trash). I sat down to glance at her this morning before packing for my weekend writing retreat at Saltonstall.  When she talks about writing and reading and the natural world, she inspires me, always. When she talks about people she regards as less than herself, which seems to be most people, she’s horrible. April 1925: “All day I have heard that voice. I did not go to her help; but then every baker and flower seller did that. there was this woman in brown walking along the pavement–suddenly a red film car turns a somersault, lands on top of her, and one hears this oh, oh, oh…Nessa…made some effort to connect it with [her daughter’s] accident last spring. But I assured her it was only a passing brown woman; and so we went over the house composedly enough.”

Her shock is the important thing, her lingering impression of that voice. Not the woman herself, she distances her almost entirely. And this is just typical of her. But it was and is typical of anyone raised, or self-taught, to believe themselves genuinely better than most people. Earlier she wrote about how a friend wasn’t a good writer, but then his grandmother was the daughter of a grocer. Well, that explains it. As if all her genteel Oxbridge-educated friends of good family could all write. Beyond that: the masses, the hordes. The curious individual in the park. The badly dressed. Her scope of human sympathy only goes so far. The interior lives of most people repel her imagination like a reversed magnet, drive her toward abstractions, at best, bigotry at worst. It’s always like biting down on a piece of eggshell in the cake.

And echoes my struggle with Rilke in Paris this week. I have loved Rilke’s poetry and letters. They tempted me to learn German in my twenties. But again, he has that limited sympathy of the self-approving upper classes. This is a slender compilation of his letters and diaries, strung together by his translator, Maurice Betz, and first published in 1941. After wading through half of Betz’s introduction, I skimmed the rest of his passages as much as I could. France and French culture were key to Rilke’s development as an artist, he says, and so was the isolation of his life in Paris, alone in a crowd, enjoying the fresh outsider’s perspective in that stimulating, beautiful, and for him, somewhat frightening environment. Again, that perspective is very useful to an artist. The separation from the mundane, the focus on abstractions, on pure observation. But too much of it, combined with too much refinement, seems to encourage a lack of sympathy for the hordes, like insects, like–whatever icky swarming creature wells up in his anxious mind. And then the writing can become squeamish, heartless, afraid to come to grips with human life.

Betz has Rilke on a pedestal, and echoes his writing style, including his most operatic tones. Only, of course, he’s not Rilke. “An expressive ingredient for the precarious alchemy of his inwardness” is the sort of thing you’ll have to enjoy in order to love this book. Or, after Rodin rejects Rilke, “with a painful accent but not without dignity, the poet bade farewell to the artist whose bewitchment, in spite of everything, he continued to suffer.” To be fair, this is Rilke himself writing to Rodin on the same event: “So there you are, great master, become invisible to me, as if by some ascension carried off to the heavens which are yours.” It’s Rodin I feel for there.

I do love books like this for the first-person view of another time and place. It’s not the best of those I’ve read, but Rilke’s descriptions, and the insights into his writing process, made it worth the price of admission. Which was only my time, since I got it free from NetGalley. And it made me want to dip into Rilke again, without a middle man.

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Women Warriors by Pamela Toler

Women WarriorsI looked forward to this book with anticipation, and anxiety that it would turn out to be more dry or scholarly or… something, than I hoped.

On the second page of chapter One, I laughed aloud for the first time, and began to entertain and annoy my family by reading bits to them. It is that kind of book. One crazy colorful story after another. Toler’s scholarship is evident, and she writes to entertain, in clear energetic prose, laced with a dry and moderately dark sense of humor.

This is not a topic I’d read about intensively before. I had not heard of even half of these women, in particular the many non-Europeans. I didn’t even know that 800,000 women served in the Red Army in WWII.

Toler writes that although each of these women has been treated as an exception to the feminine rule, they are not all that rare, in fact, she found so many that she had to leave out most of them. “I began with hundreds of examples. I ended with thousands.” The density of so many characters shoulder to shoulder made me slow down to read no more than a dozen pages at a time, rationing it over several days. I’m always on the lookout for books that I can read in short bursts, at those times when I know I’m not likely to get more than fifteen minutes to myself. This is an ideal book for that purpose. A lot is packed into each story, and it worked well for me to read one, or three, and chew them over before dipping in again.

I expected geographical or chronological organization, but instead she loosely sorts them into themed chapters: mothers, daughters, widows, ruling queens, Joan of Arc comparables, cross-dressers. These are interleaved with four “checkpoint” chapters that each feature one woman who for some reason sits outside the more usual narratives. If you do want to read all the Chinese stories (for example) together, there is an excellent index.

All this abundant material overflows into digressive footnotes, often three to a page, some brief humorous asides, some with entire extra stories. Readers who hate footnotes could get away with ignoring them. Those who enjoy them will be well rewarded.

In many cases, Toler found fiction and fact inextricably wound together in her sources. She tells you which is likely to be which. She breaks down the deep-set binary between mothers and warriors, and the demonstrably false ideas that “mothers are natural pacifists,” and ‘if women ran the world there would be no more war.’ She observes many interesting and irritating patterns in how stories of women warriors have been framed and told around the world and through human history, beginning with Tomyris, in 530 BCE (though there is archaeological evidence much older).

For me, these stories provoke an uncomfortable mixture of admiration for the nerve and power of these women, and revulsion at the atrocities and ordinary slaughter of battle. Toler is not a great fan of war itself, and does not gloss over the horrors. Many of her subjects are thoroughly ruthless, and a lot of them do not die in bed.

Full disclosure: I have never met the author, but we are Internet-acquainted from our days working for Shelf Awareness, and since then, on social media, thanks to our many overlapping interests.

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The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

I looked up what others had said about this book before I read it, and expected something much more political, which is not right. It includes the political, interwoven with life as that is for all of us to varying degrees. Ross Gay is a black American man, his life involves his blackness, and includes regular experiences of and thoughts about racism. In addition, as for all of us, it includes other painful experiences of fear, loss,  shame, regret, and embarrassment. But this is a book of “essayettes” about joy, the light that darkness cannot overcome.

We are often told to practice gratitude, which sounds like work. Gay’s search for delight, every day for a year, is contagious. He found that the more he looked, the more he found, a truism too easy to forget.

It’s a pleasure to be in the company of his thoughts and observations, his alert upbeat sensual kind persona, a grown man in touch with his childlike self. The essays are brief, friendly and digressive.  There are lots of books, plenty of food and drink. He gardens, reads, bikes, does laundry, people-watches, considers philosophy, music, memories, famous people, and his own evolving responses to the world. He talks to friends, family, birds, animals and insects, sits in the sun with coffee, lists the most delightful architectural features (the breezeway, the breakfast nook). He pees in his car, twice. Once, he walks through an airport carrying a tomato seedling, which elicits a “shower of love.” The goofy vulnerable nature of delight is open for discussion too, how oblivious eccentric enthusiasm in others can make us feel embarrassed when we lack the same openness and inspiration ourselves. “Witnessing the absence of movement in ourselves by witnessing its abundance in another…can hurt. Until it becomes, if we are lucky, an opening.” This is a book of inspirations, a model, a good companion, perhaps to be read cover to cover, but then also dipped into at times when you need re-grounding and reassurance, a reminder to pay attention, get a grip, let go, find the delight.

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(Full disclosure: I read this via NetGalley. And now I’m ordering a copy from my bookstore.)

Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina

riot daysI was never an activist, I just read about them.

The first few pages of Riot Days, by Maria Alyokina, a member of Pussy Riot, felt awfully young and green to me. But then her urgent impressionistic style caught me up in the excitement, idealism and even the affectations of youth, the contagious desire to attack the evil of the world with assertions of freedom. With art.

She and her friends spend a month at a time planning and rehearsing their theatrical “actions,” the guitar music, the costumes, the timing. One day she spends five hours making a “revolutionary t-shirt.” They know their country and its history, they understand the danger they are placing themselves in, of violence, jail, re-education. And they commit to it. They can’t accept the options of inaction, or exile.

After a few successful actions, they target a church, desecrated by its fealty to money and power.  “We scramble up the stairs towards the altar, dropping our backpacks by the Holy Gates. They symbolize the gates to heaven. Women are only allowed to stand on the green walkway before the gates–the soleas–if they are cleaning women. Or brides. In Russia, there are no women priests. In Russia, there is Pussy Riot.”

The police track them down after that. Alyokhina’s son was four years old when they first came to her door. She put them off, but the next day left him watching cartoons in their apartment. She told him she’d be back soon, and locked him in. “I came back two years later.”

It’s still the “fucking gulag” out there. I’ve read about the original gulag, as much as I could, grim as it was. This is a different story, though the conditions are much the same. Women prisoners sew military uniforms twelve hours a day in dangerous and filthy conditions for $3-$20 a month, if they’re paid at all. They are stripped naked and made to do squats, guards “search” their vaginas for documents. They are often drugged with antipsychotic. “Nothing has changed since the Soviet Era. If you hear someone talking about “humane” treatment in Russian prisons, block your ears and turn away. Even better, challenge it as the lie that it is.”  Alyokhina continues to protest, by hunger strikes, by talking to human rights advocates who visit her, and by writing articles smuggled out by her lawyers. Some of that leads to real improvements for all the women prisoners: more warm clothing, better sanitation, better food, more pay. But activism and life can never be about win or lose, only about persistence. They are in a constant battle with the guards, unpredictable day to day, with loved friends who support each other, and also make life harder as they suffer or are taken away.

But Alyokhina does not dwell on her own feelings, and she does not sentimentalize. This is an artist’s rendering of a prison experience, condensed, impressionistic, and slightly surreal, punctuated with quotations and illustrated with sketches that anyone could have drawn: the church, a giraffe, the inside of a prison door. She understands how the right details, simply stated and well timed, can create powerful dramatic effects. Dough balls that seal the cracks around the broken windows in winter.  A friend’s wave from the search room, just before she is transferred to Siberia.

Alyokhina is released, but the prison is still full. ¡No pasarán! she says. “Freedom doesn’t exist unless you fight for it every day.”

This book came out in September 2017, and is still available on NetGalley, where I found it. You could probably read it in one sitting.

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