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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.



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. :)


32. Sarah Falkner, Animal Sanctuary

19 Aug

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I bought this book off the Starcherone table at my very first AWP, three years ago, on the recommendation of the publisher, and it has been sitting on the to-read shelf ever since. I should give Cathy at 746Books a huge shout-out for forcing me (I mean, inspiring me) to deal with problems like this.

Animal Sanctuary is the fictional story of Kitty Dawson, a failing and somewhat desperate 1950s female movie-star who opens an shelter for big cats after having acted in many movies featuring animal disasters. Kitty’s story is mirrored by the story of lesbian university student who became her body double while on location during her last film in Africa. The student is seeking a missing girlfriend, with a complicated disaster story of her own.

Despite those improbable events, this book is not plot-driven (which goes a long way towards explaining why it sat on my shelf for so long). The pleasure is much more complex, lying in the tensions and meditations on gender, narrative and otherness that Faulkner sets up with the above characters. The first doubling, of the female ’50s screen star and the big tawny cat in captivity is great. It’s not something I would ever have thought of, but both share a combination of beauty, power and imprisonment. Both are majestic and victimized, sexy and sad. The second doubling, of the lesbian university student, herself doubled in her lover, adds a layer of intrigue: the two girls are looking for meaning, looking for a way to participate actively in their world that feels authentic to them.

The narrative progressed in a self-conscious way, with, for example, a chapter that alternates between sections in dialog between Kitty and her psychotherapist, on the one hand, and the film director and an interviewer, on the other. There are art-grant applications, summaries of scenes from movies, conversation snippets, a chapter of snippets of film theory . The changing texture of the reading experience kept things interesting. And I thought Falkner’s prose was quite good.

The second half of the book focused on the art career of movie-star Kitty Dawson’s son, Rory Dawson.

We meet Rory when he’s on vacation in Mexico with his lover David, an older, more successful, artist. The echo, here is about spectacle populations. The Mexicans are a double for the film-star/ woman/ other, while Rory and David are the doubles for the director/artist appropriating the other. I appreciated another sophisticated doubling, but the Rory perspective, with whom the reader was supposed to sympathize, made me want to tear my hair out.

Rory and David are interrupted in their Mexican vacation by some asshole rich-people collectors, the Whaleys. David explains to Rory that the price of success in the art world is sometimes hanging out with such people (this is true).  But Rory is pissy and horrified at the collectors’ culturally insensitive travel objectives. They want to see touristy things! They hire a car instead of taking the perfectly good bus! No one knows Spanish or cares about really understanding the culture! David colludes with them! He plans a new conceptual piece using a theory-concept (about gift economies) that he doesn’t really understand!

I just found this so irritating. Rory is the son of a movie star. By wanting to make it in the art world, he is setting out to make extremely high end luxury goods for the super-rich, and no amount of ideologically correct bus travel can change that. Moreover, his famous name means that he can insult the Whaleys and get away with it. And of course he does, and in later chapters is an art star himself. His mission (and later the mission of animal sanctuary employees) is to understand the other, see through their eyes, correctly use their shamanistic rituals in his art.

This is an elegant construction for Falkner’s book: She’s setting up oppositions and then trying to bridge them through understanding. I think in terms of what she was aiming for, it was successful. But I personally found the argument frustratingly useless and self-centered. Understanding doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t change any of the underlying facts of the power dynamics she’s trying to critique.

At one point, Rory lives in a dual-chambered cage with a lion for months, allowing the lion to see him, but he can’t see the lion. Whatever Rory’s intent, only one participant in the piece is there voluntarily, and it’s not the lion! I kept wondering if Falkner’s intent was to make Rory satirically ridiculous, but I don’t think it was.

In the end chapters he comes in for critique by a female art assistant, not for his ideologically correct approach to using indigenous rituals in his art, but for basically being a successful artist and employing her. She’s not making any art of her own—kept too busy at Rory’s—but wants to be an art star herself, and blames Rory and the corrupt art system for keeping her down. There’s a hard-to-pinpoint way that the whole book felt like this to me: Of someone wanting to have their critical cake, and eat it too. I enjoyed the medium, but not the message!






30. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

11 Jul

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Oh, this book is lovely.

Claire Bidwell Smith’s story of losing her parents to cancer, a few years apart, in her late teens and early 20s is moving and beautiful, infused through its pages with what good, nice, wonderful people they all were. Despite the teenaged Claire’s tattoos and anger that her parents were sick, the book is rich with how much they loved each other. You don’t read much about happy families, you know? And Smith’s was unlikely. Her father was 55, with grown children, two divorces and a second career as a steel magnate when he met her mother, a Manhttan food stylist (years ago, before it was a rom-com staple!) in her late 30s, also twice-divorced, and in her turn convinced she’d never have children. Claire was adored. “Even at eighteen I already know that she poured all her energy into raising me,” she writes of her mother.

And oh, this book is so heartbreaking.

The Rules of Inheritance came out in 2012, and I bought it new in hard-cover but haven’t read it because I know the author. I had a brief, intense friendship with her during the period that the book covers, a friendship that was interrupted by her several moves and her career change. I think I’ve always been afraid of how painful it would be to read. I knew that though the book is a tribute to Smith’s mother and father, it’s also, mostly, about the terrible grief and loss that she lived with during the time I knew her, a shadow-life I never really saw. “Grief is like another country…. It’s a place,” she writes. In her grief, she drank too much and threw herself into bad relationships and lied to her friends and sometimes went home to hide in the footwell of her desk to sob. She had a car accident, and no one to call afterwards. In her own words, she “can’t shake the feeling that there should be someone else here… some adult, someone more qualified and responsible than me, should show up and take over. But there is no one.” She did dangerous, terrible things because in some magical way she imagined they would bring her mother back. She’s articulate and full-hearted and she brings the reader along in her sorrow.

Here’s a beautiful passage:

Finally I realized that twenty-eight was ten years since my mother died.

I realized that when I was eighteen, it wasn’t just my mother who died but a part of me as well. … It was like, without my mother I couldn’t possibly go on. I couldn’t grow up, become a woman, do things that she would never know about, go places she’d never been, think things I couldn’t tell her. So even right now, there is a part of me that refuses to believe that I am the woman I have become. Except every so often I catch a glimpse. I see it in a passing glance in the mirror, hear it in an accidental laugh. … Suddenly there are these two parts of me, then and now, staring back at each other, wondering where the other came from.

The Rules of Inheritance was such a difficult read, but I think it would be a wonderful book to give anyone confronting the death of a loved one. I also read it with interest as a mother because it was so revealing about the teenage daughter’s psychology in a crisis.

Despite Smith’s losses and her painful years dealing with them it’s always obvious to the reader—though not to her at the time—that she will rebuild herself, make a life, survive beautifully. And she does.

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.









10 Books of Summer Challenge

3 Jul

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I have been a sucker for a book challenge ever since reading the entire summer reading list in the fifth grade (we were supposed to pick, like,  two books out of 25 classics, so being a dork I read them all). The most recent, I suppose, was this very blog—in which I challenge myself to review every book I read—but now I’ve become interested in this girl from 746 books’s “20 books of summer” challenge, despite that the challenge is no more than “make a list of 20 books you’d like to read and then read them.”

But in addition to being a dork, I am a contrarian, so I am going to use the challenge to read books I don’t want to read. Specifically, the items cluttering up my to-read shelf for months or years that somehow I’ve never gotten around to. Either I got them for free and felt bad throwing them out, or I worry they’ll be depressing—very literary of me, I know—or I’ve tried to get into them and failed but have the good intention to try again. I will force myself to read them in the order they were randomly sitting there when I walked over to the shelf. Happily, because my book shelf is disorganized, this random selection includes a couple of books I actually was hoping to read sometime soon. Unhappily, Hunger by Knut Hamsen was still on the shelf, and I had given up on that book as unquenchably repellent and was just wating to donate it.

Also unhappily for the Diverse Books movement, though most of these writers are women and one is a transwoman, I think every one of them is white. I am not the hugest supporter of identity politics, but I do make an effort to keep my blog from being all white. All I can say is I’m going to try to make up for it in the fall, maybe take some recommendations from this blogger’s list.

Ok! Here is what the rest of my summer looks like:

  1. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

A memoir written by a woman whose sister disappeared as a young teen, and was later discovered to have become a child-prostitute. Pros: Recommended by a friend with good taste. Cons: Sounds depressing.

My Sister LIfe

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

The story of a bullied teen’s decision to transition into being a woman. Cons: Got it for free at a Lambda event; don’t like teen fiction; probably very political in a rote, generic way. Pros: The author makes a cute girl; topic is inherently interesting.

Rethinking Normal

3. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

A memoir by a woman whose parents were both diagnosed with cancer when she was fourteen—and who have both died by the time she’s 25. Story of loss and coming of age. Pros: This book was written by a friend of mine and I have been meaning to read it for years! I bought it when it was new in hardcover! Cons: Worried it will be depressing.

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

Some mind-bending cultural theory by a History of Consciousness professor at U Berkeley on what feminists can learn from cyborgs, and how early primate research falsely created femininity. Pros: I am already in the middle of this, and am really looking forward to getting back to it! Cons: Hell of dense.

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5. Animal Sanctuary, by Sarah Faulkner

A quirky book from Starcherone press about an eccentric ’60s movie star who opens an animal sanctuary. Cons: Sounds annoying and not plot driven; I was talked into buying this by its publisher at AWP. Pros: I like the cover.

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6. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

A satirical novel about the Soviet space program by a contemporary Russian writer of cult acclaim. Pros: I have liked past Pelevin books. Cons: Pelevin is kind of opaque and self indulgent. I must have picked this up for free off a slush shelf at work.

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7. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

A YA book about a mermaid by a McSweeney’s author. Cons: I hate YA and the premise sounds way too twee. This was a freebie that I never intended to read. Pros: It’s set in Boston and I have liked an earlier Michelle Tea book.

8. The Crooning Wind, Three Greenlandic Poets

Oh my God, why do I even own this this!?!!

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

A graphic novel about Margaret Sanger, an early crusader for reproductive rights. Cons: Didactic and neo-liberal. Hideous drawings. Pros: An interesting topic. Graphic novels are usually quick reads.

10. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

Published in 1890 and hailed as the beginning of the modern psychological novel, Hunger is about a young writer slowly starving to death in a generic small European capital. Cons: Relentlessly creepy and unpleasant. Pros: It’s a classic! I can say I’ve read it!

11. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

I can’t figure out what this is about, exactly, but it’s a feminist classic novel from the ’90s, (or is it a text?). Pros: I’m looking forward to reading it. Cons: It will probably have no plot.

26. Explosion, by Zarina Zabrisky

28 Jun

Zarina Zabrisky

I lived in Moscow in the 1990s in the heyday of a nightlife newspaper called The eXile, a skinny, obscene paper with a shocking pink X on the cover run by two American frat boys who wrote very good political coverage and spilled the rest of their ink celebrating the economic and cultural moment that, as they said, rendered any man with an American passport able to fuck any Russian girl he wanted to, for money, for gifts, for breakfast at the Starlight Diner in the morning. There was some self-awareness and humor in this stance, “In my country, I’m a total loser, but here I can get pretty chicks!” But it was a callow take on a noxious moment, too.

I always liked the paper for its honesty.

I was young and female and dating in Russia at the time, and the prostitution was a fact I had to deal with. Russian girls who were out at night in bars and restaurants were, mostly, selling sex. If not pro then “semi-pro” as the terminology went. There were prostitution nightclubs where all the other women were hookers. There were many, many bars with young and beautiful women sitting alone on the barstools, silently waiting for male clientele. Routinely, I was assumed to be one of them until I started speaking. (I am American and speak Russian with an accent). For me, it was a strange period of power inversion. I was used to men pursuing me, not an environment in which the women were the pursuers. I was used to being sexually interesting, but most men discovering that I was American and thus not available for the night suddenly found me asexual and pointless. I’d see the brightness leave their eyes, feel the sudden shift as they waited for their moment to get away. I became invisible as they looked over my shoulder for the next girl.

All this to say that it feels like I’ve read 1,000 Perestroika memoirs, but it wasn’t until reading Zarina Zabrisky’s Explosion that I realized I’d never read one from the perspective of one of the Russian girls who were selling sex at that cultural moment. And that now that it’s come, Explosion feels essential and obvious, and I am overjoyed to have discovered it. (Also, thanks to Melanie Page at Grab the Lapels for having recommended it!! See Melanie’s review of the book, and interview with the author.)

(Also, perhaps a note that needs to be added: There were lots of girls in Moscow who were not involved in the prostitution culture, and I knew them too. But they’re mostly not who Zabrisky’s book is about.)

Zabrisky’s stories cover a time span in Russian history from Chernobyl (harrowing story, with the reveal so well done it’s still giving me chills) through Perestroika and the wild ’90s, to eventual emigration to the United States and the present. The heroines (and one hero) inhabit different worlds—some urban intelligentsia, some daughters of alcoholics in the provinces, one successful emigre business guy. In the earlier years they concern mostly the prostitution culture, poverty, drugs. The later American stories reflect more on Russia as a country and a motherland, and ask what it means to lose it. They ask, having lost it, which Russia it is, exactly, that the emigres remember and want to love? They lament the state of the country’s current politics.

The details Zabrisky reveals about being a young woman in Russia at that time are excellent. In a story called “Honey Hued Eyes” the sixteen-year-old girl narrator has been having sex with a female friend with the titular honey-hued eyes, “all boys being away in the army.” (So funny! I knew lots of Russian girls with early teenage lesbian affairs, ostensibly for the same reason.) But then she decides to lose her virginity to a gross old guy who gives her a gypsy cab ride. Here’s how she explains it:

“One winter day, I got a ride from a gypsy cab. Gypsy cabs were illegal cabs. Plenty were available; men would give girls a ride for free “for a talk” and would ask for stuff, but if you said “no,” it was a “no”—usually. It was dangerous at night and girls got raped …but that was their own fault, right?”

On the day the story takes place, the narrator writes, “Then he asked me if I wanted to fuck. And, though normally I said no, I said yes.” They have sex. He offers her money, which she turns down. And then he offers her advice, which is to never give anything away for free. He says he works for the KGB and offers to set her up as a prostitute for foreigners in the fancy hotels. “We will pay you three thousand roubles a month and in five years will find you a nice Finnish or Swedish man and marry you off abroad. Deal?”

The story is only a few pages long. The narrator turns down the offer. We find out that she got pregnant young, moved to Finland and ended up married to a Finnish man anyway. Her honey-hued friend was not so lucky. The two girls’ twinned fates make the story a short, brutal revelation on the casual commodification of young womanhood and concurrent valueless-ness of young womanhood.  Maybe more obvious in Russia at that time, but true everywhere.

In the next story, the narrator’s sister is a prostitute for foreigners working in a fancy hotel.

The book sometimes got too melodramatic for me. I didn’t believe the teenage junkie in “Beast” would kill her boyfriend; the story about nostalgic drunk women lionizing Pussy Riot felt… about as complex as that sounds. But I always found them rescued by the details. (How does a girl manage baby diapers in a village without running water in her house! Awful, fascinating question. The friendship that young mother strikes up with another young mother at the local well feels, in its way, just like Brooklyn.)

I came to this book connecting with the parts about Russia, but left it connecting as a woman, which, oddly, is kind of my story with Russia itself. The magnified Russian femininity—the high heels and hookers and even the mothers and motherland—has always been a distorted mirror to hold up to my own, and to learn from.




25. Inside Madeline, by Paula Bomer

25 Jun

Paula Bomer

This blog post, which deals with Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeline will be number one of two that could fall under the subheading, “horrible stories about girls”—look for the second one, concerning Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky in upcoming days.

I like horrible stories about girls and I am also exhausted by horrible stories about girls. I understand horrible stories about girls. I remember their concerns—anorexia, promiscuity, rage, drug and alcohol abuse, hooking up with other girls, pregnancies and abortions, men in bands, “breasts” (a story title in Inside Madeline) “pussies” (same), denying or coming to terms with your body, relationships, passivity, mirroring yourself in other girls. All of those things.

Paula Bomer and I have more in common than that, too. The stories are set in Boston, where I grew up. The one named “cleveland circle house” conjures a neighborhood for me, a T-stop. She is also a crisp, smart, cold narrator whose casual alienation from the things she’s describing makes her good at her job. This is something I think about myself, in the (unpublished!) short fiction I write, and something I like in the fiction of friends—Alden Jones’s Unaccompanied Minors, another book of short stories about young people and sex, comes to mind.

These stories are page-turners, gripping, very easy to read in one sense, and difficult in another. I had a hard time with the gruesome body descriptions. “A week later her other nipple burst” about a girl growing breasts. “I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest. I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face. The girl’s body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself” in a story about anorexia. And then this, from the title story, “inside madeline”:

“When she bathed, she practiced more. The water lubricating her, in went one finger then two then three. Soon her hand slid deftly in. She then put bars of soap and within weeks, shampoo bottles inside of herself. Up went her rubber ducky. Up went the washcloth. Her mother would knock impatiently on the door…”

I cringe at this UTI waiting to happen!, but this story is one of the most difficult and best, about an overweight teenage girl who becomes obsessed with her vaginal capacity, and pursues the promiscuity to prove it. There’s a harrowing gang-bang scene that happens to one of the girl’s friends. The story is long, almost a novella, and the girl is cruel to herself in various ways, until she too ends up in the hospital for anorexia.

The two anorexia stories serve as brackets for the rest, rather nicely.

If my rapture is modified, I think partially I am just too old. I would really have identified with this in my 20s, found it ballsy and awesome. The cavernous Madeline scaring the shit out of everyone with her vaginal prowess is a clever idea, a great character, and also so sad. (Could this metaphor of absence, of ever-expanding internal negative space be played as empowering? I’m not sure and in any case Bomer doesn’t try. By the end of the story Madeline is anorexic, negating herself from the outside in as opposed to the inside out, the flip side of the same coin.)

But as a woman in my 40s I wanted more self-awareness in the narration, more character behind the characters. Some girls are really fucked up about sex and their bodies and womanhood, and some girls are not. Exploring the fucked-up terrain is awful and riveting. Bomer’s stories twist and thrash with it, kind of like a cat suffocating in a garbage bag (to steal an image from another Boston-area chronicler of halfway houses). Turn myself this way I’m tits, that way I’m a vagina, I’m anorexic, I’m fat, I’m obsessed with other women and also blind to them. I’m dying in here, in this feminine skinBut there are usually reasons behind these feelings, reasons involving love, family, community the particular details of a particular person’s psychology that make her herself, and not just a girl. Such reasons are the way in and also the way out of the bag. Inside Madeline doesn’t provide much in the way of reasons, which has a certain purity as a work of art, but also feels lacking.

Here’s my friend at Grab the Lapels reviewing another Bomer book, Nine Months.