Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review: The Mystery Guest: An Account by Gregoire Bouillier

title:  The Mystery Guest: An Account [purchase here]
by: Gregoire Bouillier
translated by: Lorin Stein
pages: 120
genre: memoir
source:  New York Public Library

I have needed this book several times over the past six years without knowing it.

The Mystery Guest is Bouillier's true account of what happened when the love of his life, who, without any warning, literally walked out on him five years prior, calls him out of the blue and invites him to be the "mystery guest" at a birthday party for an artist he's never met, where he ends up (unknowingly) participating in an uncomfortably personal piece of performance art.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Bouillier processing what happens when someone he cared for deeply inserts herself back into his life as abruptly as she withdrew years before.  Reading his processing was incredibly cathartic for me, as I've been the person abruptly dropped several times in my romantic past:
  • Six years ago, months into what I considered to be developing into a pretty strong connection, K called on a gorgeous Friday afternoon to end things with me as he ran his errands. I had been napping (I was in my first year of teaching first grade at the time, and by Friday afternoons, I had given all of the energy I had to my little kiddies and desperately needed to recharge) and through the fog of newly abandoned sleep, all I caught was something about dry cleaning, that he felt he could only pursue something serious with me, that he wasn't in a place to be pursuing anything serious right now, and that he was about to lose the connection as he was getting on the subway.  It was an elevated, delicate variation on the "it's not you, it's me" theme, and seemed an inaccurate, incomplete picture.  The blow took three minutes to deliver and weeks to recover from.
  • Five-ish years ago, I had been dating S for several months and had met his friends and his father (which is a story in and of itself! His father makes for epic storytelling, and I mean that in the best possible way...), when he disappeared.  Poof!  Gone.  Two or three weeks went by when I finally got word that he was very busy at work but could spare half an hour to meet me for a drink, during which I basically broke up with myself because he was too exhausted/burnt out/wasn't present enough/didn't care to say what needed to be said.  I left him in the bar with 25 min left in his 30 minute break.  It's surprisingly easy to end things with yourself when you're the only one doing any of the talking.
Bouiller and I share many parallel experiences.

Like Bouillier, I like clarity.  I'm not good with ambiguity.  My mind wanders into a zone of over-analysis that can, at its worst, be crippling and excessively annoying to those I'm closest to.  Almost against my conscious will, I replay conversations, moments, interactions over and over again trying to pinpoint the exact moment when something shifted, so I can figure out what exactly I did wrong (so I never do it again!).   I vacillate between giving the other person a benefit of the doubt far more generous than any reasonable person would allow, to inditing them as the coldest, most unfeeling man to have ever encountered, and pause everywhere in between, searching for WHY?????.  But the gods of circumstance shined on Bouillier, and he receives his answers in the most perfect manner for a writer.  On page 93, he writes "
And just when you think you've thought of forget the book sitting right there on the bedside table."  Without giving too much away, I envy Bouillier in that he finds some sort of explanation in the pages of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. He gains some (wonderfully artistic and perfectly literary) insight into the ever elusive WHY?????, can take it in and move on.  If all human behavior were that simple, and if all answers could be found in the book on the bedside table...

Like Bouillier, I have also been woken from a dead sleep by an unanticipated voice at the other end of the line.  His offered a hello, mine a goodbye.  Of this moment, he writes: "I could hear how soft and gummy my voice was, how drowsy-sounding, and without even giving it any thought I realized that she must under no circumstances be allowed to know she'd woken me up.  That was crucial, even if it meant sounding cold and detached--and why on earth did she have to call...when I was fast asleep and at my most vulnerable, my least up to answering the phone...In real life, it goes without saying, the ideal situation eludes us, and no doubt that's a good thing for humanity in general, but just then I'd have done anything to keep her from guessing that she'd caught me sound asleep in the middle of the afternoon." (page 6).  In my situation with K, the last thing I wanted, when I was about to be cast aside, was to appear at any more of a disadvantage than I already was, and Bouillier's fear of being perceived as weak completely resonated with me.

Like Bouillier, I've had long lost lovers reappear out of nowhere.  S asked me to lunch last summer, for no other discernible reason other than that he was in town.  K found me on Facebook a few weeks ago and messaged me to find out if I were still teaching.  Personally, I prefer the past to stay there, unless there's a compelling reason that benefits us both for their reappearance. It's as if they only considered how they would feel talking to me, and gave no thought to the fact that I would experience some sort of emotion having to, in turn, talk to them.  They certainly felt some urgency years ago to put distance and silence between us, so why reach out now? And the WHY?????? reappears...WHY???????  I hate the WHY?????

And like Bouillier, I've felt compelled to change something about myself when finding myself suddenly by myself.  Bouillier goes through a lengthy turtleneck phase post-breakup.  Of it, he writes:  "Since I'd always hated turtlenecks worn as undershirts and despised the men who wore them as the lowest kind of pseudo-sportsmen with, as they say, the lamest kind of collar, I started wearing turtlenecks as undershirts the moment she left.  Basically, I never took them off.  No doubt this was magical thinking on my part (if I never took them off, nothing would ever take off on me); at any rate, these turtleneck undershirts erupted in my life without my noticing until it was too late and I was under their curse.  You could even say they'd inflicted themselves on me, so that now I hardly remembered the wind on my neck, which is the very feeling of freedom itself." (page 18).  I thought a lot about this idea of the "freedom" he was trying to gird himself against, and upon reflection I realized that several of my tattoos have come about post-heartbreak, but for the opposite reason.  My method of self-protection seems to be to race toward that "freedom," to get back on the horse as soon as possible, to show myself and the world that I'M FINE, so then maybe I will be.  The idea for the tattoo has usually been percolating for months and has nothing to do with the relationship at hand, but there's something about finding myself alone that lights a fire in me to get it NOW.  My first tattoo came on the heels of K, and my most recent came after H  (about a month ago, H, the Chekhov enthusiast I mentioned previously, made his hasty unanticipated exit).  It's almost as if I'm subconsciously (as Bouillier was no doubt conversely doing with his turtlenecks) trying to reassure myself that life is continuing and I'm actively participating in it.  I'm evolving.  I'm changing.  And the person who walked away doesn't know the person I am now, at this moment, anymore.  That they'll never know that I've changed is irrelevant. It's the act of moving forward where I find comfort.

I'm absolutely going to purchase a copy of this book.  It was (and is) reassuring to know that there's someone, somewhere, as neurotic and overly-analytical as I am when it comes to affairs of the heart, who has been dropped and has lived to tell the tale.  I'm sure this is a book I'll come back to again and again, as my romantic history unfortunately tends to repeat itself, but next time at least I'll know to look to the book on the bedside table. 

Rubric rating:  9.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Shameless (non-book-related) plug: Sarah Kendall Trio LIVE @ The Bitter End tomorrow night @ 8:30pm

I went to high school with some insanely talented people:

(Carrie is on the right)
  • Derek Waters (doing awesome work in LA as an actor/writer/comedian)

And, last but certainly not least, there's Sarah Kendall...

...whose band the Sarah Kendall Trio I have the privilege of shooting (with my camera) tomorrow night at the Bitter End here in NYC.  Show starts at 8:30 and cover is $7.  Feel free to come by, grab a drink, hear Sarah Kendall's angelic voice and watch me try to unobtrusively take some pictures.  Their EP Oh Really?  is available now on iTunes.  

Review: Darling Beastlettes by Gina Abelkop

title:  Darling Beastlettes [purchase here]
author:  Gina Abelkop
genre:  poetry
published: 2011
source:  I purchased a copy at her reading at the Mustard Beak.

"Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words."
~Paul Engle, New York Times ( 17 Feb. 1957)

Have you ever read something and come across a phrase or a line that made you stop and think "DAMN I *wish* I had written that!"?  That happened more than a few times as I read Darling Beastlettes over the weekend.  Gina's stunning collection made the 2 1/2 hour Greyhound bus ride to Hartford, CT surprisingly enjoyable (despite the dude sitting next to me who took  "Greyhound bus" to mean "moving booze-free karaoke bar" and rapped aloud to himself for all 2 1/2 hours...with choreography...).

Poet Gina Abelkop, founder and editor of feminist press Birds of Lace, is supremely gifted at creating haunting, otherworldly images and turning out gorgeous verse.  At the heart of her poems are women, real and imagined, recognizable and authentic.  Adroitly observant, the themes Gina tackles aren't new (gender roles, sexuality, femininity, love, lust, etc) but they feel that way due to the welcome freshness and honesty of her perspective.  

My favorite stanza from "Heather in Curls":
"Ask for a hideaway bedroom, one with a secret fireplace, a stack 
of fabric that leads in well-tread steps to another country, one with mountains. 
You can cry over them as much as you'd like, they'll be there forever."  (p. 39)

A snippet from "Greta" (my FAVORITE piece in the collection):
"...At night
opened her breast like a gushing fruit
and fed reveries of love.
Nightingale wanted some
she could crawl inside.
Others looked upon her snidely,
ripped at her raw chest, 
wouldn't fit,
closed their own in return.
All this gore and nothing." (p. 61)

GAH!  Brutally observant, her delivery is at times as fanciful as it is raw...which isn't easy to pull off without coming across a tad manic (which she does not).  As I said in a previous post, I don't know much about what experts say makes a poem "good," BUT I know what speaks to me, and Gina does.

Rubric rating:  8. I am absolutely keeping an eye out for her future work :)

You can read poems by Gina Abelkop at:  La FoveaTwo Serious Ladies, and Everyday Genius, among other places (check out her blog for a far more comprehensive list).  And if you happen to be in LA, check her out at The Empty Globe at Pieter Projects w/ Kate Durbin @ 8pm, or at the Saturday Night Special Reading Series @ Nick's Lounge, both on May 25th.

Friday, April 20, 2012

EVERYBODY loves LISTS: Earth Day Reads

Happy Earth Day!  Here are a few of my favorite environmentally-conscious reads from my personal library:

title:  The World Without Us
by:  Alan Weisman
About the book:  [from the Strand website]:
In this exacting account of the processes by which things fall apart, Alan Weisman writes about which objects from today would vanish without us: how our pipes, wires, and cables would be pulverized into an unusual (but mere) line of red rock; why some museums and churches might be the last human creations standing; how rats and roaches would struggle without us, and how plastic, cast-iron, and radio waves may be our most lasting gifts to the planet. The book is also about how parts of the world already fare without a human presence: Chernobyl; a Polish old-growth forest; the Korean DMZ. And, it looks at the human legacy on Earth, both fleeting and indelible. 320p.

title: Field Notes from a Catastrophe:  Man, Nature and Climate Change
by:  Elizabeth Kolbert
About the book: [from the Strand website]
Long known for her insightful and thought-provoking political journalism, author Elizabeth Kolbert now tackles the controversial and increasingly urgent subject of global warning. in what begins as a groundbreaking three-part series in the New Yorker, Kolbert cuts through the competing rhetoric, and political agendas to elucidate what is really going on with the global environment and asks what, if anything, can be done to save our planet. Now updated and with a new foreword. 225p.

title: A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
author: Robert M. Sapolsky
About the book: [from the Strand website]:
The author of 'Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers' sets out to study the relationship between stress and disease. But he soon learns that life in the African bush bears little resemblance to the tranquility of a museum diorama. The book is the culmination of more than two decades of experience and research. 304p.

title: Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion
author: Alan Burdick
About the book: [from the Strand website]:
Alan Burdick tours the front lines of ecological invasion in the company of world-class scientists in Hawaii, Tasmania, Guam, San Francisco; in lush rain forests, aboard an Alaska-bound oil tanker, inside a spacecraft-assembly facility at NASA. Wry and reflective, animated and provocative, OUT OF EDEN is a search both for scientific answers and for ecological authenticity.340p.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (subtitled: I absolutely overuse parentheticals).

title: Brideshead Revisited [purchase here]
author: Evelyn Waugh
genre: fiction
pages: 315
published: 1944
source:  New York Public Library

GENERAL SPOILER ALERT:  If you've never read Brideshead Revisited, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here.  Since it was published in 1944, I'm writing with the assumption that I'm the one late to the party and many of you lovers of literary fiction have probably either read it already or are super familiar with the plot.  So, if not, stop.  Now.  You've been warned.  

Confession time:  Until a few years ago, I thought Evelyn Waugh's name was pronounced Eh-vah-lynn Wow, and that he was a she.  I wish I were kidding.  One of the great epic fails in book snobbery.  Regardless, every time I passed the "W" section at the bookstore or library, I'd see her his titles with their gorgeous cover art...but upon reading the back summary and coming to the words "set against the backdrop of World War II," I usually put the book back on the shelf.  With few exceptions, I love historical long as the book doesn't take place entirely in the trenches. Before you yell, please note that I'm sure my bias has kept me from discovering a great many tomes. I just have a hard time getting into several hundred pages of war and destruction and blood and death and politics and guns and moral turmoil and brotherly bonding/bromance, etc.  I know full well that there are many notable works of literature (mostly by dead white dudes) with fabulous plot lines and gorgeous prose (A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls...well, just Hemingway in general, War and Peace,  All Quiet on the Western Front), and I'm sure I'll slug through a few of them for the general-betterment-of-self/expansion-of-overall-cultural-literacy at some's just not my favorite.  

BUT a few months ago, I DVR'd (yes, I still DVR) Brideshead Revisited when it aired on Ovation and fell in love with the story.  And when Waugh's name came up again in the Mitford biography I'm reading (he was friends with Nancy Mitford and is said to have taken inspiration from the Mitford kids among other Bright Young Things of the era), I read up on him and decided to add this and Vile Bodies to my 30-before-30 literary bucket list.

Brideshead Revisited is, in fact, set in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the years leading up to World War II, though only the prologue takes us anywhere near the trenches (phew!).  Charles Ryder, our narrator, and his unit are stationed at Brideshead, which serves as catalyst for Charles to reflect on how he came to know the house and to tell the story of his two great loves who grew up there: Sebastian and Julia Flyte. 

I know there's debate as to whether the nature of the deep relationship between Charles and Sebastian had a sexual my opinion, Charles' love for Sebastian (and vice versa) was absolutely romantic (see the definition), in terms of their relationship being imbued with their desire for adventure and their idealization of and total dependence on the other, often steeped in a reality exclusively their own.  Also, I think they probably had sex at one point. Or at more than one point.  Or at least fooled around.  It was an era of experimentation (booze!  jazz!), and it wasn't super uncommon for young men to experiment that way in boarding school or when away at college, or because they were, in fact, gay or bisexual, etc.  (n.b. Tom Mitford, brother of Nancy Mitford et al, for example, is thought to have had at least one homosexual relationship in his youth and according to this Telegraph UK article, Waugh may or may not have been involved at one point with a gentlemen who has been said to have inspired Sebastian). I loved the contrast Waugh was able to strike between the love shared by Charles and Sebastian and the love shared by Charles and Julia.  Charles and Sebastian's relationship imploded because, in a way, they preferred to cling to the idealized version of the other (it's hard to live in the reality where the person you feel closest to is an alcoholic with some fairly deep emotional problems.  I think, in many ways, Sebastian's flight to Morocco, etc. occurred out of love for Charles, to protect Charles from destructive force he knew he had become.  Maybe on some level, Charles understood it as the gift of a unmarred, idyllic past, as he says on page 203 "These memories, which are my life--for we possess nothing certainly except the past--were always with me.").  Charles and Julia's romance imploded because they failed to move beyond the reality of their situation (i.e. Julia's deeply entrenched Catholic belief system was a tad restrictive, and then there was her nagging insistence upon avoiding eternal damnation...a bit prohibitive to a divorce/second marriage to another divorcee who also happens to be an agnostic).  It's a book as much about denial as it is about desire, and how both can be acts of love.  

My favorite character by far was Cordelia, Sebastian Flyte's young sister, and I died laughing at scene where she talks Catholicism with Charles upon their first meeting:

"[Cordelia says] 'D'you know, if you weren't an agnostic, I should ask you for five shillings to buy a black god-daughter.'
[Charles] 'Nothing will surprise me about your religion.'
[Cordelia] 'It's a new thing a missionary priest started last term.  You send five bob to some nuns in Africa and they christen a baby and name her after you.  I've got six black Cordelias already.  Isn't it lovely?' "(p. 82)

She's so precocious, and fancies herself to be so forward thinking, yet she acts almost as a mirror against which Waugh is able to reflect back everything he saw wrong with the Catholic church at the time (and possibly with religion in general, but given that he and I never discussed the matter, this is purely conjecture), but she's also such a likable character due to her youth and wit.  Through Cordelia especially, Waugh shows us how no person is only one thing; that no thing is either solely good or bad.  

Waugh was such a dynamic and flexible writer.  He possessed such a gift for characterization and voice! I wish I had even a fraction of his stylistic dexterity!  (Just a fraction! I'm not greedy!)  Even at the most tragic moments, Waugh's wit (I can't help noting these observational zingers as evocative of Oscar Wilde at his best in The Picture of Dorian Gray) shines through.  For example, when Lord Marchmain is dying, his mistress Cara says this of his condition:  "His heart; some long word at the heart.  He is dying of a long word."  (p. 288)

Rubric rating: 8.5.  I need to read a few more titles by him before I definitively and officially induct him into the personal pantheon, but DAMN was he talented!

Update:  I've now finished 3 of the 30 titles (27 to go!) on my 30-before-30 literary bucket list, with three more in progress.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald **
Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger **
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy **
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Pale Fire by Vladmir Nabokov

Arcadia by Lauren Groff  (in progress)
Celebrity Chekhov by Ben Greenman
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
Blindness by Jose Saramago **
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruiki Murakami
Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart 
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson **
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notely **
Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky
The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
The Old Child and Other Stories by Jenny Erpenbeck 
(in progress)
Spirit Seizures by Melissa Pritchard


The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell 

(in progress) 

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
Zona by Geoff Dyer
Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

** rereading

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"We all have extraordinary coded within us, waiting to be released."

~wisdom from my fortune cookie

Birds of Lace reading at the Mustard Beak

Friday night, feminist press Birds of Lace sponsored a reading at Queens art space Mustard Beak featuring the work of Gina AbelkopCarrie MurphyRohin GuhaJason Helm,  and Niina Pollari.  

A few words on the Mustard Beak art space:  it's located off the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop of the L on Gates Ave in the basement of an apartment building.  Now, to enter the space, you have to descend the absolute scariest concrete stairs I've ever used:  uneven, of drastically different heights and widths, covered in broken glass and trash...if I had known I'd be straight up urban hiking, I would have worn slightly more appropriate footwear (i.e. not my new amazing wedges!  The way back up after several Yuenglings was equally treacherous, if not more so. You have been warned!).  

That said, what a great art space!  Spare and intimate, with Christmas lights strung along the pipes and a pleasant note of incense in the air (politely and effectively disguising the typical musty basement smell), it was perfectly suited to hold the 20-30 people in attendance.  Ideal for the starving artist on a budget.

I'm a big fan of small, independent presses.  I feel like, more often than not, major publishing houses, in the interest of profit, either publish authors they feel like may bring major literary accolades OR writers who they can acquire for cheap and publish at a profit, which leaves a lot of young talent in the lurch (i.e. a writer working out of the box, or who has created something a bit more innovative might not sell as well as a, say, poorly written YA paranormal romance novel about chaste teenage love).  I am continually delighted by work that I stumble upon coming out of some of the small presses.  

A few highlights from the readings:

Gina read from her poem collection Darling Beastlettes, which is now taking up residence in my to-read pile.  Full disclosure:  I don't know a ton about poetry in terms of what makes a poem technically "good," BUT I know what I like.  Abelkop is really adept at creating interesting and lyrical images, which she reads beautifully. I'm really looking forward to curling up with her collection!

I went to high school with Carrie, and am so proud of all she's accomplished.  She recently completed her MFA at New Mexico State University, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011 for her poem "Ocean City" by NAP magazine, and her first full-length collection of poems is available NOW from Keyhole Press.  Buy it here!  Loved the pieces she shared and I can't wait to get my hands on my own copy of Pretty Tilt.

In other news, I got a new Flaubert inspired tattoo!  Pics coming soon, once it's healed a bit more :)

Monday, April 9, 2012

ZERO willpower: the overwhelming state of my "to-be-read" pile

I should not be allowed to walk into a library unattended.  It's worse than when I'm left unattended at Strand.  Because the books at the library are free.  I ALWAYS walk out with far more than I could possibly read before they're due.  I walked in to pick up Paula Fox's Desperate Characters (which had come in from my epic holds list), and walked out with Roberto BolaƱo's 2666 and Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document.  

Now my current "to-read/to-be-finished" pile consists of those, as well as Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (which I'm almost finished.  Damn good book!) and a halfway finished The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, which weighing in at 600+ pages is a bit too unwieldy to take on the subway.  At least my chronic book ADD hasn't taken me too far off course from my 30 Before 30 self-imposed challenge...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

How To Books I can't imagine anyone needs

Thursday, the Huffington Post posted a slide show of the most absurdly niche-specific how-to books I've seen yet.  I'm sure they've each sold tens of copies.  A few of my favorites:

Oddly enough, not the only book on this topic.  I have a vivid memory of my mother and I, when I was a teenager, coming across a book at the Baltimore County Public Library dedicated to collecting your pet's hair to make yarn and dying laughing at the premise/instructions.  

Oh yeah. Cheap plastic with DIY wiring in my lady region sounds like a GREAT idea. 
What could possibly go wrong?

Also by this author:  The Distracted Cowboy's Guide to Common Equestrian Injuries

Friday, April 6, 2012

A site that brings together the things I love...

I love tattoos.  I have 4 (so far).

I love books.  I have...well...several bookcases full.

I love literary tattoos.  Two of mine are inspired by quotes that mean a lot to me, and my next one is going to be literary as well. 

I love this site:  The Word Made Flesh

A few of my favorites:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Where Writers Slumber...

Courtesy of Apartment Therapy, peek inside the boudoirs of some famous writers:

Ernest Hemingway's bedroom in Key West
True story:  the small chair at the bottom left (our left) of the bed is a birthing stool!

Virginia Woolf

Truman Capote
LOVE the reds. Can absolutely see this as his space.

Victor Hugo
Red.  Brocade. Walls.

Marcel Proust
Since he spent a HUGE amount of time in bed, I expected a bit more...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Best April Fools Day Gags

I've seen two rather clever April Fool's Day gags I simply had to share:

Artisanal Pencil Sharpening on Etsy

**amendment:  I learned today (April 15th), that this is an actual book!

Organic Better Bruin Blend from Two Leaves and a Bud
Grown in the excrement of local black bears!

Seen anything that made you giggle today?