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37. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

17 Oct


So, this is a ’90s feminist classic that’s half confessional and half art-and-gender theory. The book is told in a series of letters and journal entries in which Chris Kraus, a not-very-successful maker of experimental art films, falls in unrequited love/obsession with “Dick,” a celebrity lecturer/ media theorist. Chris is married to Sylvere Lotringer, another academic celebrity. (Both of these people are real. Sylvere is, among other things, a founder of Semiotext(e), and Dick, according to Wikipedia, is Dick Hebdige, writer of academic punk-rock books such as Subculture: The Meaning of Style and Cut N Mix.)

The affair may or may not have been real too, but either way it’s mostly in Chris’s head. She tags along for drinks with Sylvere and Dick, who are colleagues, and is struck with lust/obsession for Dick. She and Sylvere start writing him unsent letters together and in just a few days have over 50 pages of material. When they tell Dick about this, he is freaked out. Eventually Chris and Sylvere do show Dick the letters, but it’s not clear if he reads them. Chris and Sylvere split up. Chris and Dick have sex. It doesn’t go well, but that doesn’t end Chris’s obsession.

The engine of the book is the parallel between Chris’s self-diagnosed weakness and humiliation when it comes to Dick—she’s fully aware of how pathetic the endless unrequited letters are—and her position as a woman in the art/intellectual world.

As an artist/intellectual, Chris is a less successful than either Dick or Sylvere.There’s a great passage where she shows up at some hot art party at the same time as another woman, and both are on the list not by name but as a man’s “plus one.” It’s an embarrassing, telling moment. Chris thinks her secondary position is not because she’s less skilled than Sylvere and Dick, but because as a woman she’s…left out. I Love Dick echoes this exclusion in the “relationship” with Dick, which is one of ongoing stonewalling and rejection.

Here’s a representative passage, in which Chris writes to “Dick”:

“Right now Sylvere is in Los Angeles at your school making $2500 for talking about James Clifford. Later on tonight you’ll have a drink and he’ll drive you to the plane, because you’re about to speak in Europe. Did anybody ask me my ideas about Kitaj? Does it matter what they are? It’s not like I’ve been invited, paid, to speak. There isn’t much that I take seriously and since I’m frivolous and female most people think I’m pretty dumb. … WHO GETS TO SPEAK AND WHY? I wrote last week, IS THE ONLY QUESTION.”

Chris thinks that it’s her gender that’s keeping her out of the bad-boy art/intellectual circles. And perhaps she’s right. This is one way that the title has nice resonance. I Love Dick can mean that Chris loves Dick, the person. It can mean that Chris loves a guy who’s a dick. And it can stretch to mean that Chris loves dick itself, a ‘dick’ that stands-in for the entire male-dominated art and academic world. Chris loves this generalized Dick and wants to be a part of it, but dick does not love her back.

As a woman in the art world, what Chris is expected to do—how she is allowed to participate—is by making women’s art. In a long section about the conceptual artist Hannah Wilke, who did things like make vaginas out of dryer-lint balls (! I always knew there must be a use for dryer lint!), Kraus writes:

“At a certain point, perhaps the early 70s, her work began addressing the following question: If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal,’ why not universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?

Kraus’s combination of theory and memoir does just that. And its feminist joy is that the ploy works. Though Dick isn’t listening Chris continues to speak and since she publishes the letters she is eventually heard. Even her unwanted thoughts about Kitaj make a cameo. Moreover, on the eve of 2017, I Love Dick has been optioned by Jill Soloway as an Amazon series. Kraus may soon be better known and more loved than either of the two men she felt inferior to.

I liked the book, though I think there’s a serious flaw that undermines the argument: Chris doesn’t love Dick. She has seized Dick, against his stated wishes and mostly at random, for the purposes of her art. At no point is there a personal connection between these two people, or an emotional connection, or even much of a sexual connection. So does the metaphor hold? How true can the book be if that part’s not?

Moreover in the logic of the book Chris is the excluded and rejected party but I think there’s a more compelling sense in which she’s an aggressor. She violates Dick’s privacy, harasses him, publicly humiliates him. Repeatedly, he is quoted telling both Chris and Sylvere that he is uncomfortable with the attention. And though he does have sex with Chris (somewhat inexplicably), the next morning he’s quoted saying:

“But you don’t know me! We’ve had two or three evenings! Talked on the phone once or twice! And you project this shit all over me, you kidnap me, you stalk me, you invade me with your games, and I don’t want it! I never asked for it! I think you’re evil and psychotic.”

It’s an uncomfortable point that the book does not resolve.



36. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, by Orlando Figes

12 Oct

Orlando Figes A People's Tragedy

Since Russia is in the news, I thought I’d re-read A People’s Tragedy, a door-stop history book on the Russian Revolution by the English historian Orlando Figes. The book was published in 1997 and took advantage of the sudden ’90s-era political freedom in Russia to unearth previously unavailable archival material.  It’s one of those wonderful history books that goes both macro- and micro-, outlining the wide sweep of the politics and using the stories of ordinary people swept up in extraordinary events to make the material come alive.

Figes starts in 1891 with the tercentenary celebration of the Romanov empire. He argues that Russian society was rapidly modernizing and democratic forces were growing, but unfortunately the last Tsar’s response to these trends was to double down on a 17th-century vision of his own holy, Godlike rule. The more pressure there was for democratic reform, the more autocratic Nicholas became. The whole extremely bizarre Rasputin episode, in which the tsarina became best friends (and allegedly, but probably-not-really lovers) with a peasant holy-man, made sense in this view, as an exemplar of the tsar’s self-imagined close relationship with the common Russian people. Never has there been a more disastrous effect from a person drinking his own Kool-Aid.

Romanov Family

The story of the Revolution, from the popular uprisings against the Tsar, through the establishment of provisional democracy, into civil war and finally the Bolshevik dictatorship has to be one of history’s most terrifying. Figes’ title A People’s Tragedy reveals his take on the events: He believes that both the Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power were, in broad strokes, the will of the Russian people. By his account, the peasantry, the soldiers, and the urban working classes participated en masse, if not in organized political parties, then in the marches, strikes, insubordination, riots and land seizures that tore down the old order and opened the doors for the Bolsheviks. In its second half, the book details what followed Bolshevik seizure of control: famine, pogroms, looting, vandalism, bestial tortures by all sides, police-state brutality and millions dead. The book’s photo-plate sections gave me actual nightmares. Figes concludes that the uprising backfired massively on the very peasants and workers who supported it.

(I am told that there is much to contest in this version of events; Figes book is just one historian’s conclusions. And as an Englishman writing in the ’90s he has a preachy “Russians have a lot to learn about democracy” tone. He also really likes to mock the female revolutionaries and soldiers; a story about a women’s battalion that had seen active duty on the Eastern Front becoming “hysterical” during the relatively non-eventful siege of the Winter Palace seems hard to credit.)

Again and again reading this book I had cause to reflect on how fragile the social order is, and how terrible the results can be when it breaks down. If we’re ever inclined to think “let’s just destroy the system and see what happens next,” let’s please think twice, or read this book first.


35. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

30 Aug

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I have a soft spot for Michelle Tea, because of her debut novel/memoir The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, which I somehow read when it came out in 1998. Tea is around my age and also from the Boston area, and we hung out in a some of the same places. In the late ’90s and as a young person it was a new thing for me to see a memoir set in a milieu I was familiar with; I don’t remember the details much more than that, but I remember loving the book and finding it relevant to my experience.

Since then Tea has become a major alt-culture figure in the queer literary scene. The latest edition of Passionate Mistakes has an afterword by uber-cool lesbian poet Eileen Myles, for example. Tea has written many things in many genres, and Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is her attempt at a teen novel, though of the quirky, intellectual type that gets published in hardcover by McSweeney’s.

I found it sort of readable and sort of desperately boring. It’s about a 13-year-old girl who discovers she has magical powers. In fact, she’s the girl all the local legends have been about, and it’s her job to do something really big that will save everyone!  If there is a more hackneyed plot device at this point, I don’t know what it is. I would like to personally round up all these ordinary teens with magical powers, starting with Harry Potter and ending with Tea’s heroine Sophie Swankowski, and subject them to various George Saunders torture-worlds. That would be entertaining.

Tea’s personal spin on the premise is also kind of predictably Social Justice and annoying. Her heroine Sophie learns about indigenous peoples (the vocab has to be explained to her by another character, which at least is realistic) and their various histories of magical tradition. Sophie is Polish, so her main magic comes from that Old Country, but a Mexican-American character named Angel contributes her lore as well. There’s lots of special candles and reaching within to create emotional shields and making sure to respect everyone’s cultural traditions.

There were things I liked about the book. The decayed urban landscape of Chelsea, Massachusetts made a great setting. Some action took place in the town dump, which was interesting. There were talking pigeons who quoted poetry. Angel is a girl whom everyone thinks is a boy, and it seemed like Sophie might have a huge crush on her once she grows up a little. Sophie’s single mom worked at a free health clinic and was realistically angry, stressed and exhausted. Sophie was just getting old enough to feel sorry for her, which was also realistic and interesting.

Tea is a compelling writer, and there was so much that these people could have learned, gone through. I found casting spells and learning about hokey generations-old curses to be the least interesting direction to develop them in.

34. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

23 Aug

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This book has an almost laughably Scandi and depressing premise: A young writer in the mid 1800s in the Norwegian capital of Kristiania (now Oslo) has fallen on hard times, has pawned almost everything he owns, and increasingly, is starving. He gets a bit of work here and there, but not enough to keep the roof over his head and food in his stomach. Hamsun won a Nobel Prize prize in 1920, and Hunger is almost universally lauded as being one of the first modern “psychological” novels, since it takes place entirely in a first-person POV of a character who is increasingly losing his mind.

(Just a side note on that: I don’t see anything in Hamsun that I don’t see in Dostoevsky…??)

The first time I tried to read it, I was too tenderhearted. The character’s predicament is  vividly and horribly life-and-death. His hair is falling out; his veins are bulging; at one point he tries to eat his own finger. It’s so gruesome I couldn’t bear it. But then along came the #20BooksofSummer challenge and I had to pick it up again. This time I tried to approach it from a more distanced perspective and think of the character as less of a real person. Some of his points of biography are the same as Hamsun’s, but the purpose of the story, I knew, was not autobiographical or really intended to be about the horrors of hunger. Instead, Hamsun’s aim was to present a person as a whole, including the passions, appetites, delusions and irrationality. He was trying to show, through his hungry man, a different type of man than the one acknowledged by his time. In this reckoning, the character’s fits, his madnesses and grudges and even the extremely vivid and erotic encounters he has with a woman who catches his fancy, are more important than his hungry condition. With that in mind, I was able to read and even very much enjoy Hunger. Though it was still intense, surreal and a horrible adventure.

10 Books of Summer Challenge: Update

22 Aug

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Here’s an update on my progress on #20booksofsummer:


  1. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

2. Rethinking Normal, A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

3. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

4. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna J. Haraway

5. Animal Sanctuary, by Sarah Faulkner

6. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

7. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

8. The Crooning Wind, Three Greenlandic Poets

9. Woman Rebel, The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge

10. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

11. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

To recap, I took the first 11 books on my to-read shelf, from the organized part in the beginning (not the stacks of more-recent arrivals piled in front of the organized part), which, as fixtures on the to-read, are all books that I’ve been passing over or haven’t felt in the mood for in quite some time. Years, in some cases. I don’t think any one of these books had been on the shelf for less than a year, and one at least has been there for three-and-a-half.

What I have learned from this experiment is that books are great even when I don’t like them. At least, the kind of books that wind up on my to-read shelf are. Despite harboring doubts about every book on this list, I have loved reading through them. Even the ones I didn’t “like” were thought-provoking. My reading this summer has been richer and more interesting than when I have the freedom to choose what book I’m in the mood for.

It’s hard not to buy books (though I’ve done OK this summer; I think I’ve added only three to the shelf, which might be a personal record (usually I add many more)), but I plan to keep doing this. My new goal is to read entirely through the to-read shelf, emptying it out for good. When the summer is over I’ll take a new random-ten books. I’m really looking forward to it.

I guess the conclusion is up with challenge and down with personal preference. :)


33. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

20 Aug


The dateline at the end of Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin, reads “—Moscow, 1992” which is enough to make a person familiar with recent Russian history break out in full-body chills. Moscow, 1992. Russian society was fully in the throes of perestroika, chaos, collapse and regeneration. The story in the West has always been that this was a wonderful flowering of democracy, but for many Russians it was a period of lawlessness, hunger, total uncertainty, and the end of everything they’d been asked to believe. Pelevin is a cult figure, the most important Russian writer to emerge from the era. He was 30 years old at the time he wrote Omon Ra, living at a time and in a city of almost unimaginable upheaval. Chills.

The book—which is a masterpiece, I can’t believe I’d never read it—is about a Russian boy in the Soviet Union who dreams of being a cosmonaut, but in Pelevin’s hands it’s dreams themselves that will be under interrogation. Is there any reality to them? For main character Omon (a strange name, itself chosen because of a dream), things are determined not by the outer reality, but by the inner.

As a little boy, for example, Omon realizes that he can be a pilot because he sees some pilots on television and:

“…was struck with a sudden thought…that if I’d just been able to glance at the screen and see the world from the cabin where the two fliers in fur-lined jackets were sitting, then there was nothing to prevent me from getting into this or any other cabin without the help of the television, because flight is no more than a set of sensations, the most important of which I’d already learned to fake, sitting in the attic of the winged hut with the red stars, staring at the enlistment office wall that was where the sky should be, and making quiet droning noises with my mouth.”

He goes on:

“That means, I thought, I can look out from inside myself like looking out of a plane, it doesn’t really matter at all where you look out from, what matters is what you see…”

Of course, latent in the book is the era in which it was written: The channel, as it were, that Russians had been looking at, had just been changed. Are you staring at the enlistment office wall or at the sky? What skills might you need to survive when the two become interchangeable? Pelevin takes a fatalistic approach to the question. Omon reflects:

There’s obviously some strange correspondence between the general outline of a life and that stream of petty events which a person is constantly involved in and regards as insignificant. I can now see quite clearly that the course of my own life was already set, determined before I had even begun to think seriously about the way I wanted it to turn out. I was even given a glimpse of it in simplified form. Perhaps it was an echo of the future. Or perhaps those things which we take for echoes of the future are actually its seeds, falling into the soil of life at the very moment which in distant retrospect comes to seem like an echo out of the future.

He goes to flight school. Nothing is as it seems, in ways too brilliant for me to spoil in this review. Omon’s journey could be called a blistering indictment of the Soviet Union—or at least a profoundly disturbing one, since this is a world in which men’s legs are broken to fit the planes instead of the planes being built to fit the men. But there’s a strain of dry humor or meditative detachment throughout, that says that the author knows you can’t  blister something which was never really there.

I wish I could comment on the book’s end without giving away its punch. I’ll just say it is now officially my favorite closing strategy since Infinite Jest, and references another Russian classic, Moscow—Petushki.

31. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna Haraway

29 Jul

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This dense academic work, written in the 1980s by a Marxist-feminist History of Consciousness professor at U Berkeley, was lurking on my shelf at #4 in the #20BooksofSummer challenge. It will definitely be the most challenging book on the list.

I was interested because it contains Haraway’s most famous essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” And I’m interested in cyborgs because, well, dear reader, you try to count people walking down the street in New York City, and see how long it takes before you see one who doesn’t have a smartphone in their hand. The phone is the last thing we touch before sleeping, the first thing we touch upon waking. It contains our lovers, our social lives, the photos of our children. We turn to it for entertainment or consolation in an awkward hour. We live in there often better than we do out here. And if you count drugs as molecular prostheses, well, the ship has sailed: We’re cyborgs. Whatever our value-judgements on that, it’s a profound human transformation that seems worth trying to catch a glimpse of as we speed through it.

Haraway was writing in the ’80s, before the emergent technologies had really emerged, so her sense of the cyborg is coming less out of our daily digital reality and more out of the traditions of cultural theory she’s been educated in. Cyborgs, she writes, are “creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.” Their value, to her Marxist-feminist project, is metaphorical. If I can break this down much more baldly than I think she would (and perhaps inaccurately; I am no expert here, reader beware!), the cyborg as a half-natural, half-created thing is a powerful tool because it helps us understand that seemingly naturalized social categories, like “women” and “race” as not-so-all-natural after all.

This is the old-fashioned stuff of my Brown University education. The first essays in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women, well before we get to the cyborgs, are about how the academic branch of “social biology”—in particular in the ape studies of the 1950s—has created a story about human beings influenced by narratives of patriarchy and domination, and thus has falsely “proved” a natural order of patriarchy and domination.

If the scientist are all men, for example, and they believe that human societies are run by dominant males, they’ll find that ape societies are run by dominant males. In one influential study (which I remember reading about in college) male-led science teams did a test that removed the dominant male from an ape group, and discovered that chaos and fighting ensued. They concluded that dominant men kept social order. Haraway draws on later woman-headed studies to point out alternative conclusions. Maybe if they’d removed the weakest male, the chaos and fighting would have been worse. We don’t know since they didn’t check, testing instead for what they expected to see. Or maybe with removal of the dominant male, cooperation and negotiation increased and the ape society got more equal and better for all its members. “Negotiation” may have looked like disorder to the patriarch.

Haraway also critiques the language of this old-fashioned science, which suggested that female apes engage in “prostitution” and allegedly trade sex for “status.”  Again, she suggests there may be behavior outside the frame. Could the female ape be seeking pleasure? How does the researcher know her motivations? Summaries of later women-led studies on apes provide plentiful alternative conclusions to the view of human “nature” as being led by dominant males, with whom females trade their sexuality for safety, protection and status.

Again to go broad-strokes, I think that Haraway’s larger point is that proving this ape-study idea of the female false undermines the whole category of female. A “woman” is a moving target, depending on who is seeking her.

“‘Woman’ only exists as this kind of imaginary being, while women are the product of a social relation of appropriation, naturalized as sex. A feminist is one who fights for women as a class and for the disappearance of that class.”

I’m not a Marxist-feminist, so I find that kind of thinking to be going too far. Can we correct our biases and look again at men and women in nature, more carefully? Can we focus less on traits of females and more on activities that are female? (Like, carrying children, giving birth, breastfeeding; I know! I know! Un-PC of me to mention it).

I was also not convinced by the Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway’s contention is that embracing our cyborg reality will be liberating. For the reasons above, and for others, such as that the multi-nature of the cyborg is a good model for political movements that have to simultaneously represent many groups—women of different class and race statuses, for example. It’s a truism of this kind of Marxist-feminist philosophy that people with different experiences can’t be unified. Each experience matters; any movement must honor the particular without trying to universalize.

“Cyborg feminists have to argue that ‘we’ do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole.”

I suppose the cyborg-as-metaphor could be useful in those ways, but in 2016 metaphor seems to be the least of our worries: Let’s talk about the cyborg-as-reality. Who is producing the machine parts? Who is profiting from them? How are they controlling those of us who are ever more dependent on them for our fertility, our sex lives, our social lives, our happiness, our work? If the Marxist-feminist project is to create a society in which no group dominates any other, the cyborg does not, to me, seem like an ally.

The Manifesto ends with a tribute to the futures imagined by some excellent science fiction writers—Samuel R. Delaney, Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr. and Vonda McIntyre, among others.





29. Rethinking Normal, by Katie Rain Hill

7 Jul

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The random books on my to-read shelf that I’m now being forced to read by the 20 Books of Summer Challenge turn out to be amazing! I should trust myself (or maybe not trust myself?) more often. Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill was a book I received free at a charity event, in a bag with at least three other transgender memoirs and a lot of teen LGBTQ fiction. I’m not that into teen fiction. I tried a couple of the books from that haul and disliked them, and this one has been unexamined on the shelf ever since. I probably would have eventually given it away, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

Katie Rain Hill was the first openly transgender teen to graduate from high school in Oklahoma. She became a media star whose arc I now vaguely remember, since she had a transgender boyfriend, and the headline “transgender girl dates transgender boy” was of course irresistable. In Rethinking Normal she tells her story, from her happy pre-gender early childhood, through her increasing feelings of dysphoria, depression and despair—over a problem for which she had no name in the early 2000s—to finally her blissful discovery of transgenderism and eventual transition from male to female. There’s such a compelling natural arc to this material, and Hill and her co-author made a true page-turner out of it. Katie comes across as a reasonable, rational and generous narrator, who forgives people who shun her (when they come around), and credits even estranged family members for their best efforts. She’s likeable, and watching her become happy and healthy was really satisfying.

As a mother, I cried at the part where Luke (Katie’s pre-transition name) finally discovered transgenderism on the internet, and immediately went to get his mom to explain to her that this was what his problem was, and this was what he’d been wanting. The mother, poor woman, had been witless with helplessness and fear for years, unable to help her depressed, suicidal small child. (His first suicide attempt was at 8.) His mom was a religious woman in a conservative mileau, and had no affinity for trans issues but she (miraculously!) said, “Ok, if this will help, tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I’ll do anything to keep you alive. Make a list.” She admitted later she expected someone to firebomb their house, but she supported him anyway. As a mother, I completely understand that.

I also found this story uplifting for personal reasons. It was great to read a trans story that brought me back to the roots of why I think freedom of gender expression should be a human right. There are lots of people, like Katie, for whom the current categories really don’t fit well. Why shouldn’t it be up to her, or her family, to decide on her own identity? Making little kids like Katie less totally fucking miserable is a worthy goal in a humane society. To me, it’s worth some inconvenience to the majority.  I know trans activists think the bathroom issue is nonsense, but as a woman in her 40s, who has been at the receiving end of about 30 years of creepy behavior by men (not all men, but they’re out there, you know?), breaking down the gender wall in places like locker rooms and bathrooms is sort of a problem. And I don’t think it makes me a bigot to say so, though from the vituperation by trans activists, you’d think any reasonable woman who had her doubts was Satan incarnate. The bathroom issue is inconvenient. It will create scary situations for women. To deny that is ridiculous. I would find the activism a lot more compelling if people would just admit it, and say, “Let’s do it anyway, for kids like Katie.” Her story reminded me of that, for which I was grateful.

I could go on. I also am genuinely freaked out by all the people taking drugs and getting these surgeries because transgenderism is now trendy and considered to be radical…the types who think being trans is undermining the system, and who don’t compute that they’re directly enriching the drug companies, and are signing up to do that forever. The Man is laughing about that one all the way to the bank. But again, Rethinking Normal reminded me that being trans is a matter of life and death for some people, and they’re the ones who matter, not the politics, not the drug companies. Great book.









28. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

6 Jul

My Sister LIfe

My Sister Life by Maria Flook is number one on my list in my 20 Books of Summer challenge, inspired by Cathy at 746 Books. I’ve been avoiding this one for a few reasons. One, it has a depressing subject matter: It’s a memoir about how the author’s sister’s disappearance as a young teenager. Two, it was a little unclear from the cover copy what kind of book it was, since it seemed that the sister’s story would also be told. I wasn’t sure if it was a true memoir or a fiction hybrid, which gave me an off-feeling about it. And Three, a shallow reason to not read something: I’ve been avoiding Amazon by getting used books through Powell’s, and this was a particularly yellowing and unattractive book. A fancy design conceit where there was a hole in the front cover to indicate the sister’s absence looked vandalized and disturbing.

But how wrong I was to hesitate! This book was enthralling from the get-go, when, in chapter two, I realized that this would be a bad-mother memoir. In her first scene, the mother is getting dressed for a cocktail party, trekking “back and forth from her bureau to the closet dressed only in her strapless bra and panties.” She applies her “French Jean Patou perfume, pinching the rubber bulb of a cut-crystal atomizer. Next, she stooped before the full-length mirror to adjust her seamed stockings,” which she does “with insulated palms” wearing her short, white-cotton gloves for church. These details add up, gorgeously, until Flook explains that:

“Families take pride in their piety or in their prosperity, rejoicing in a father-and-son business venture, in a gifted child’s scholarship or in a prized commission in the military. But in our household Veronica’s enterprising sexuality overwhelmed our individual goals and spilled into family matters. Her erotic aspect emerged in her every routine and came more naturally to her than maternal duty.”

Flook’s thesis is simple but powerful. This cold, narcissistic woman did not provide love to her daughters and prevented their spineless father from doing so, either. The oldest sister, Karen, became promiscuous and ran away at age fourteen, to become a child prostitute. She lived in a trailer park with an abusive older ‘boyfriend’ named James and his other girlfriend, a woman named Ruth, who also ran a whorehouse where Karen soon started working. Amazingly, Karen preferred life with Ruth and James to the one at home with her well-off but frigid and mentally abusive parents. She left the world of luxury cruises and European vacations for the trailer park and prostitution without regret. Pitifully, she responds to Ruth and James’s affection and interest in her. James helps her steal a winter coat. They go out for ice cream and let her keep some of her earnings from prostitution. It’s extremely sad, but in Flook’s hands feels psychologically plausible.

Maria, the youngest child, also became a juvenile delinquent though a slightly more functional one. Her sister’s disappearance and the years where the family didn’t know if Karen was alive or dead turned Maria into a writer. She becomes morbid and obsessed with accidents and death, which she describes as “just keeping my eyes open.”

The book is powerfully written, full of subtle, sneaky metaphors for loss, and startling images that the writer uses to try to understand her experience.In one place she writes:

When one child goes missing, the remaining child is left untethered. I have seen a dog pull free of its collar and in its sudden freedom shudder, as if any connection it had had to the world remained in the coil of leather.

In another passage she recalls a childhood moment with Karen (as she does frequently) when little Maria has half-blinded herself with chlorine and her sister gives her a lollipop.

“I stared at the sucker” she writes. “Its glassy red bauble twinkled, exaggerated in my half-blind state. The candy warped the light with a kaleidoscope effect and it was just too beautiful to eat. ‘Aren’t you going to taste that?’ Karen asked me. Karen’s eyes weren’t blurred by the chlorine and she didn’t see the miraculous gift she had given me.”

Karen’s loss is a curse but it endows Maria with unusual powers.

I’ve written recently about terrible-stories-about-girls books, and how they unsatisfyingly present the drugs, promiscuity, abortions, etc., without seeming to delve into why. Flook delves. She may lay too much blame on her parents—the section where she explains that her mother bought her a pony to get her to spend more time away from home feels a little self-serving. But at least she’s looking for answers, making a powerful and articulate case for how she understands the forces that formed herself and her sister.

The second half of the book when Karen reappears and the sisters have some opportunities to be reunited but never really reconnect was less satisfying, especially since it brought up the same questions that made me hesitate over reading My Sister Life in the first place. How much of Maria’s startlingly clear retelling of Karen’s experiences is real? Karen doesn’t seem like she’d trust her sister enough to entrust such detailed recollections. One of the most unusual aspects of the book is that it does delve into the details and emotions of Karen’s experience  as a child prostitute so tenderly—Flook is retelling from a distance, and she doesn’t have the flatness of affect, anger, or defensiveness that often clouds such material when the author has been through it. The central question that kept me reading became How does she know? How did Flook and her sister heal the breach between them well enough to create this book? Frustratingly, that question was not answered.


27. The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

30 Jun

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Thriller writer Patricia Highsmith—of Talented Mr. Ripley fame—published this groundbreaking early lesbian classic anonymously in the 1950s and later reissued it under her own name, when that could be done without destroying her career. (How times have changed, right?). But, amazingly, the changing times matter very little in the reader’s enjoyment of The Price of Salt. The book is a nail-biting romantic thriller that functions just as well today as it did in the fifties, despite that its forbidden love is now out-and-proud.

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The vintage cover with Highsmith’s pseudonym

The story is about a shop-girl in Manhattan with dreams of making it as a set designer, who meets and falls for a married woman living in New Jersey. At first the erotic subtext of their relationship is repressed. The ‘falling for’ is something neither one of them can quite admit, the shop girl because she has a boyfriend and doesn’t quite know she’s gay, and the married woman, who has had lesbian affairs before, because she has a small child and is in the middle of a divorce. Or possibly because she’s manipulative and prefers to watch the shop girl want her than to let the shop girl have her.

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Beautiful young Highsmith.

The “salt” of the title is passion. Both women are to some extent capable of passing in the straight world. Both have huge incentives to do so. Both have to choose between eroticism, thrill, “salt” over almost everything else. For the married woman the price is so high it’s not easy to say that she should pay it. She faces terrible choices, and her response to the escalating stakes in both the affair and the divorce is half-rational at best. The shop girl, despite her naive passion is a cool customer; it’s wonderful to watch her discovering her own mind and sticking to her own desires, against massive pressure.  The complexity of these characters is why the story still works. I’ve read it’s what set the book apart from the other lesbian pulp of the ’50s.

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This last bit will be a spoiler, so STOP HERE IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THIS BOOK!!

It’s my theory that the happy ending was forced by conventions of the genre. There’s a chapter that feels like a real, complex, ending (a chapter I wanted to be the end), and then a last chapter that feels like the kind of movie scene where people run through the airport to catch each other before the plane takes off. I am so curious what the author’s thinking was about those two choices.