2019 Reading, Part III

15. Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress of Modernism by Mary Dearborn (Virago Press, 2004)

A sympathetic biography of Peggy Guggenheim, who was certainly smarter and suffered more than anyone gives her credit for. An amazing life filled with giants of the 20th century: she received moral support from Emma Goldman when deciding to leave her abusive first husband, had intense affairs with Samuel Beckett and Max Ernst (etc.), and a deep, complicated friendship with Djuna Barnes, among many others. Dearborn is perhaps too sympathetic at times, glossing over Guggenheim’s difficulties being a mother to her troubled daughter Pegeen, and not delving too deeply into her sexual compulsions. (I think Peggy’s often unfairly derided for her active sex life, when in a figure like Jackson Pollock it’s depicted as a sign of power and vigor, but this did veer into compulsive behavior, by her own admission. Dearborn attributes the bad press to Guggenheim’s own outrageous autobiography, which she sees as a mistake in some ways.) Fair enough, Dearborn is seeking to tip the scales of history more in Guggenheim’s favor, and perhaps felt she had to overcompensate a bit, given the reams of bad press over time…

Provenance: Impulse buy at the gift shop at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

16. Kiki’s Memoirs by Alice Prin, trans. (Ecco, first published 1929)

I’ve long been intrigued by Kiki of Montparnasse (born Alice Prin), who was muse and model to many artists in 1920s Paris, most notably Man Ray, and generally the life of the party (Queen of Montparnasse). This is a translation of her memoirs, published in 1929 when she was still young. (The original hipster snob Hemingway says in the introduction that it’s a crime not to read them in French, and undoubtedly her voice must be much distinct and charming en francais.) She tells of her poverty-stricken origins in the country, and surviving many difficult jobs in Paris before finding her home in bohemia. She comes off as self-deprecating, resilient, and fun. This edition includes lots of photos and Kiki’s own paintings.

Provenance: Ordered from Better World Books

17. Little Labors by Rivka Galchen (New Directions, 2016)

A slim, sort of uncategorizable book, inspired by Shei Sonagon’s The Pillow Book. Written in snippets, Galchen documents her daughter’s babyhood and new motherhood, mixed with musings on babies in literature, awkward encounters with her neighbor, etc. A fun read. I love an uncategorizable book.

Provenance: Van Stockum bookstore in Leiden (RIP)

18. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

I was impressed by how Moshfegh pulls off the conceit: a beautiful, wealthy intelligent depressed young woman decides to drop out of life and spend a year in her apartment knocked out by sleeping pills and other drugs. Moshfegh somehow spun an entertaining novel out of this. There are some really funny moments, and sometimes the meanness of this character is a too-brutal sting. Once I finished it, though, and still many months later, I’m left casting around for the larger thoughts or point of the work, for example, the inclusion of 9/11 (and maybe there doesn’t have to be one?), but I feel like I missed something.

Provenance: The American Book Center, The Hague

19. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Vintage, 2014)

I wish I had come across this novel pre-hype. I think I’d read too many giddily besotted endorsements to give it a fair shot. (Offill’s new book, Weather is just out and also receiving big praise.) This book is loved because it explores art-making and its sometimes uncomfortable coexistence with marriage and motherhood, with wit and smarts in a collagey-form (that brings in, for example, facts about astronomy). I loved the first third , as a wonderfully distinct character and voice is established from the start, but I lost this sense by the last third or so, when it devolves into a story of a marriage attempting to survive infidelity, which was less interesting. No fault of the author, but the (white) Brooklyn-ness of it all put me off a little, and I also say this as a former long-time resident of gentrifying Brooklyn.

Provenance: Bought new at The American Book Center, Amsterdam

20. Gone Girl  by Gillian Flynn (Broadway Books, 2012)

I have a bad habit of taking challenging books with me when I travel, thinking I’ll have uninterrupted time to focus on them on the plane, and in downtimes during family visits, etc. I then often end up avoiding the book because I’m jet-lagged, or overstimulated/tired from exciting travel and time spent with loved ones I don’t see often, etc. and cart them around for nothing, and then end up buying other, easier books on the trip. This December I decided not to take any books with me, but the plan backfired. I ended up casting around for something to read in rural Virginia where we were staying and went searching in the nearby free book library. Gone Girl was perfect – funny, fast-paced, not too cerebral to pick up between activities or before bed. I’d seen and enjoyed the movie and was curious about the full “cool girl” monologue. Aside from the obvious success of the page-turner aspects of the novel, Flynn wrote a believable dude character, and also captured a particular post-recession time.

21. Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey (Knopf, 2020)

An impressive and ambitious debut novel, a work exploring ideas about women and power. I said more about it in a review for The Chicago Review of Books. In the review, I didn’t mention some of my lingering questions about its success as a work of fiction, as I wasn’t able to articulate them clearly, and it would have been unfair to include them. Essentially, I wasn’t convinced by the narrative voice, the reality of the narrator, her self-loathing and scorn for kindness. There are works of fiction that grab me from the first line, I’ll go anywhere with the narrator, and other times I don’t trust the fiction and keep my distance, I become skeptical about every claim; this book was right on the cusp of this line, I was never fully won over as a reader. I’d like to get better at identifying, understanding and writing about whatever magic a writer employs to make a voice “real” in this sense (both in works of fiction and nonfiction). Obviously, at some level, this becomes a question of taste, but still…

Provenance: Galley copy from the publisher

22. Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.
by Lili Anolik (Scribner, 2019)

This sort-of biography is interesting insofar as Eve Babitz is fascinating, both her wild life and inventive work. Anolik warns in the first chapter that she won’t even feign any distance or objectivity about her subject, and generally approaches her material in her capacity as the fanatical president of the Eve Babitz Fan Club. It’s the maximum expression of the worst possible interpretation of the permission New Journalism gave writers, the centering of the journalist herself in the story.

Anolik was instrumental in reviving interest in Babitz (which eventually led to her work coming back into print) via a feature she wrote for Vanity Fair in 2014 after many years of pursuit, and while she deserves credit for this accomplishment, she sees it as giving her unique ownership over Babitz’ life and work. In the end, she does Babitz a disservice, as an authoritative biography (which she seems more than capable of as a researcher and writer) would have done much more for Babitz’ legacy than a book filled with Anolik’s opinions about key events and figures in Babitz’ life, including Joan Didion and Jim Morrison, whom she trashes. Most surprising, and disappointing, was Anolik’s curt dismissal of Babitz’ novels as essentially not worth reading. This is OK, though, Anolik explains in a digressive lesson on the history of literature, because the novel is dead, anyway… I would recommend this only to established readers of Babitz, otherwise best just to begin with Slow Days, Fast Company and go from there.

Provenance: Bought new at Spoonbill & Sugartown, Brooklyn

23. Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (Atlantic, 2015, first published 2011)

A suspense novel by the Netherlands’ best-known fiction writer, featuring a gratuitously unlikable narrator. I could have maybe forgiven the gross views espoused by the protagonist if the novel as a whole had held up plot-wise, but the story kind of collapses in on itself. I will say that Koch is good at writing tension. I wrote more about this novel here.

Provenance: Clearance sale at Van Stockum bookstore, Leiden (RIP)

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.