2017 Reading Round-Up: Top 5


1. Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy (Notting Hill Books, 2013)

I don’t know why more people haven’t read this book. It’s the kind of book avid lady readers should be raving about to each other and reading reviews of in Electric Lit and the New Yorker to see what other smart women think of it. But no, it’s actually even hard to find in the U.S., and I haven’t talked to anyone who’s read it. (She’s much better known in the UK/EU. I picked up it up in a fantastic bookstore in Galway.) I read this slim book in one afternoon – it’s a long essay commissioned in response to Orwell’s own short essay, “Why I Write.” Levy’s work touches on the first taste and shock of injustice experienced in childhood (in apartheid South Africa, masterfully from a child’s point of view in all its complexity), the experience of motherhood post 1970s feminism, travel and becoming someone else while “away”, risk-taking, the desire to write, figuring out how to write as a woman. It made me cry in a deep and satisfying way (on a bus to Dublin, no less!) that was a relief.


2. Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2016)

These interviews and essays gave me that Emily Dickinson physical feeling of having the top of my head taken off, in particular the one that gives the collection its title. (“Frantumaglia” is Ferrante’s mother’s Neapolitan word for the mass of experiences and feelings that overwhelms and fogs the mind at times, the raw, wet stuff that writing is shaped from… I think). Particularly striking: her thoughts on the Dido myth and its relationship to women’s writing (Carthage originally intended as a city built on love); her mother’s work as a seamstress, how the dresses she made were and were not her; her exploration of her childhood violent wishes and feelings; the shifts in her motivations for remaining anonymous over time; thoughts on writing itself, what it means to be truthful when writing fiction.


3. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics, 2016 (reissue), originally published 1977)

Essays on 1970s L.A. by the anti-Joan Didion, voluptuous and exuberant Eve Babitz, born a Hollywood insider. She is also witty, erudite and snobbish in her own way, as she gives accounts of quaalude-fueled threesomes, and ending up in the most unexpected places, like a baseball game or San Bernardino, via her lovers. There are also her odes to other women, their talent and style, and her thoughtful takes on fame, addiction, and public image. Thank Goddess that NYRB brought her work back into print.


4. Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco (NYRB Classics, 2007, originally published 1973) – John Glassco

Nineteen-year-old Canadian bisexual Glassco sets off for Paris in 1927 with his school pal, to become a poet and burn through his father’s money. Publisher and writer Robert McAlmon takes them under his sordid wing for a long bender in Luxembourg and the French Riviera. Glassco chats with Robert Desnos, sasses Gertrude Stein, judges beefy Hemingway, and writes a little bad Surrealist poetry along the way. There’s probably a lot of bending of fact, as this was written decades later, but it’s entertaining and wonderfully written.  A fun, queer counterpoint to the hacky “Moonlight In Paris” view of Montparnasse in its golden age – the drag queen bars and lesbian literary circles, the roustabouts and pornographers, the would-be artists and dilettantes, who were also hanging around the cafes, never quite finding the time to work on their masterpieces…


5. Contempt by Alberto Moravia, trans. Angus Davidson (NYRB Classics, 2004, original 1954)

I felt so anxious reading this, it was a relief when it was over. The narrator just keeps fucking things up – it’s unbearable! Really masterful portrayal of an unreliable narrator. It reminded me of Lolita, a bit, in the way that the narrator is trying to elicit sympathy in his account, while unwittingly showing the ways in which he’s monstrous. There is also beautiful vivid imagery of the Italian coastline and Capri. I enjoyed the various characters’ ruminating on possible interpretations of The Odyssey, and how they informed the narrative.

2017 Reading Round-Up, #6-10


6. The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2008, original 2006)

Ferrante’s last short novel before embarking on the Neapolitan quartet. The seeds of that project are planted here – a woman trying to make sense of her life after her daughters have grown up and left home. There’s a tension throughout as she watches a Neapolitan family on the beach every day, relating to a woman playing with her daughter, and also sensing the violence that could erupt when the patriarch is around, a tension that increases as she becomes involved in a strange way. A visual theme emerges of dark insects marring a picture-perfect scene (a black moth in a seaside bedroom, a worm coming out of a doll’s mouth) that seem pointed and unflinching, like much of Ferrante’s work.


7. Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press, 2013)

A full transcription of a multi-part interview Cott conducted with Sontag in 1978, which was only excerpted at the time.  (It ends up stretching into a book of 130 pages!) Sontag seems fun, and funny, via this interview. She admits her own contradictions, because of her commitment to constant change. She talks about how rock and roll (Bill Haley and the Comets), the energy of it, made her change her life and find the one she actually wanted to live in the late 50s (leaving her marriage and the academic life behind). They toss around fascinating takes on stuff like: how and why the fragment speaks particularly to our time; what is a miracle; why ritual require silence; loving both “high” and “low” art; being fundamentally Californian or East Coast; how people want to drift towards (over)simplifying, and why complexity has to be kept alive, etc…


8. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (Vintage, 2013)

This was a fun history of the city – not comprehensive, as the title indicates, but rather exploring the roots of Amsterdam’s liberalism, in the widest sense of the word (including capitalist enterprise, for example). The author pipes up with his own opinions and as a character, in a way, in the history he’s telling. This personal authorial intervention isn’t too obnoxious, but I wouldn’t say is entirely necessary either.


9. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead, 2017)

This novel was definitely written in response to the migrant crisis, and I liked how he pushed it into a speculative space of new possibility, rather than simply reflecting the depressing present. I had some minor quibbles – the epilogue, for example, which I had to pretend didn’t exist, the book ended so well otherwise. I also wondered at his very deliberate choice to keep his protagonists from being specifically Syrian or Muslim (although based on the details they might as well have been described as such). I guess this was underscore their “everyman-ness,” but in a way, it has the opposite effect. It would have been a strong statement to have “openly” Muslim characters in a novel with a largely Western readership, especially when every other location and character was grounded in specifics (named cities and nationalities). I remember a beautiful passage about what prayer meant, and had meant over time, to the more devout male character, for example, that made me understand Muslim prayer better. Anyway, a powerful novel, and I’m glad it’s gotten a lot of attention and people are reading it.


10. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (Canongate, 2005)

Essays on what it means to get lost, both purposefully (like Baudelaire in the city), and unintentionally, as a Spanish explorer separated from his group in pre-conquest America, and what you find when you’re found. Lost in a color, as Yves Klein, lost in another person. Solnit’s a phenomenal writer. I think she’s stronger when she writes about subjects other than herself (and she mostly doesn’t write about herself), perhaps because she maintains a final filter, a  reticence to fully reveal her personal life. My favorite essay was on Cabeza de Vaca, and her own re-telling and re-contextualizing of what the “new world” was when the Spanish arrived, and how they missed it altogether. I love the way she is open to any subject, draws connections, and parallels. Her curiosity and love of history, art, anthropology, fiction, film, etc. etc. is invigorating. (She is also one of my favorite activist voices at the moment – everyone should follow her on FB.) I’ve read a lot of her work online, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read, and I’m excited there are many more to eat up.

I’m interested in understanding the fact that everything in life is turning into a show, draining the very concept of citizenship. I’m also struck by how the individual is more and more unhappily dedicated to becoming a character. And it frightens me that a classical effect of fiction–the suspension of disbelief–is becoming an instrument of political domination in the very heart of democracies. It seems to me that for now Berlusconi embodies, more completely than Reagan or Schwarzenegger, the change taking place in the democratic election of representatives.

Elena Ferrante, from an interview in 2003, appears in Frantumaglia. Prescient, unfortunately, interesting that she says “for now,” as if understanding a bigger, more grotesque character was going to appear on the scene…

There is nothing that can justify it…

Writing is an act of pride. I’ve always known that, and so for a long time I hid the fact that I was writing, especially from the people I loved. I was afraid of exposing myself and of others’ disapproval. Jane Austen organized herself so that she could immediately hide her pages if someone came into the room where she had taken refuge. It’s a reaction I’m familiar with: you’re ashamed of your presumptuousness, because there is nothing that can justify it, not even success. However I state it, the fact remains that I have assumed the right to imprison others in what I seem to see, feel, think, imagine, and know. Is it a task? A mission? A vocation? Who called on me, who assigned me that task and that mission? A god? A people? A social class? A party? The culture industry? The lowly, the disinherited, the lost causes? The entire human race? The elusive subject that is women? My mother, my female friends? No—by now it’s blindingly obvious that I alone authorized myself. I assigned myself, for motives that are obscure even to me, the job of describing what I know of my era, that is—in its simplest form—what happened under my nose, that is to say the life, the dreams, the fantasies, the languages of a narrow group of people and events, within a restricted space, in an unimportant language made even less important by the use I make of it. One tends to say: let’s not overdo it, it’s only a job. It may be that things are like that now. Things change, and the verbal vestments in which we wrap them change. But pride remains. I remain, I who spend a large part of my day reading and writing, because I have assigned myself the task of describing. And I cannot soothe myself by saying: it’s a job. When did I ever consider writing a job? I’ve never written to earn a living. I write to bear witness to the fact that I have lived and have sought a yardstick for myself and for others, since those others couldn’t or didn’t know how or didn’t want to do it. What is this if not pride? And what does it imply if not “You don’t know how to see me and see yourselves, but I see myself and I see you”? No, there is no way around it. The only possibility is to learn to put the “I” into perspective, to pour it into the work and then go away, to consider writing something that separates from us the moment it’s complete: one of the many collateral effects of an active life.

From this excerpt, published in the New Yorker.