What I’m Reading: Artist Sue Coe

This week in the New Yorker (or on the website anyway – it may be in print as well), Evan Ross writes about “Making Art in a Time of Rage.” You’d be forgiven for immediately hesitating to accept the insights of such a staid publication on matters of rage.  “What is the point of making beautiful things,” Ross asks, “or of cherishing the beauty of the past, when ugliness runs rampant?” It’s a valid question, but it also proceeds from a limited view of art’s means and purposes. This is unfair to Ross, though, for the question is a mere jumping off point. Later he observes that, “not only are intensity, beauty, and devotion insufficient to halt violence, they can become its soundtrack,” and later, “Ultimately, artists of integrity will have no choice in how they respond to the Great Besmirchment. Those who thrive on politically charged material will continue in that vein.”

Sue Coe is one such artist of integrity. The world and its injustices are a constant forge for her work, and unfortunately we’ve beached ourselves in an era that’s providing her with more stimulus than usual. I say “unfortunately” and feel sure she’d agree; there’s never yet been a shortage of inequality or injustice for an artist who’s moved by these things to respond to, and I feel sure she’d readily forego the need to produce whatever art comes in response to this more extreme version of events.     

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Sue Coe
Going Down ”The Social” (Unemployment Office) 1993. Graphite, charcoal, ink and gouache on Strathmore Bristol board. Signed, lower right. Dated, lower right, and titled, lower center. Dated “Liverpool 93,” lower right. Red “M[urder]” stamp, lower left. 29.0″ x 23 1/8″ (73.7 x 58.8 cm). – Image via Galerie St. Etienne [http://www.gseart.com/gse-pages/Current_Exhibition.php]

The image above is part of Galerie. St. Etienne’s exhibition, “You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party.” Several of Coe’s pieces are there, including some recent prints made in response to the November Presidential election. You’ll find images of those below, and you can own copies of the prints at a reasonable price (an ongoing commitment of Coe’s – see the work for sale on her site if you doubt me). I asked her what she’s reading in these unusual times, and she told me I’d be sorry, because the list was so extensive. But no, in that, at least, she was wrong: 

After the Trump/Bannon coup, I resolved to read more physical books, not read books and articles online, as feel so mentally assaulted by the horror of America’s political situation.

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It Can Happen Here, 2016 Lithograph. Image courtesy of Sue Coe

It made concentrated reading online, fragmented and so full of anxiety, as one is interrupted constantly, by the latest Trump abominations and the reactions to them. My reaction to Trump is in making artwork. It’s labor intensive work, retweeting is not work, it takes time away from work. 

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So, I have limited my time on all digital devices down to reading two newspapers a day. It’s strange, as it requires carrying actual books around in a backpack, when go to demonstrations, and falling asleep with a book under the pillow. I should have done this long before Trump. My friends who are writers are returning to typewriters and longhand.

My reading at present, consists of four stacks of books.

First stack are my beloved friends, who have read and reread since childhood. These books provide comfort and are a source of happiness. I reach for them when am depressed and overwhelmed and need reach for the mute switch in my brain, rather than tossing and turning. There is always an Orwell in that group, either his essays, or Animal Farm. He is my favorite writer, if had to choose one, just as Soutine is my favorite painter.   Then there is Bertolt Brecht, my guide, the poems from 1913-1956, which are brilliant. He had two voices within him that struggle  for dominance, his obligation and responsibility as a political activist, not to be solely about ‘Truth’ but the truth of propaganda to change the world. As with all creative political people, those choices were taken out of his hands, in his statement to HUAC for example.   

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Bertolt Brecht, 1954. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0409-300 / Kolbe, Jörg / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The warring contradictions in his poems of ideology and the human condition are painful to witness and make him a great poet. Orwell had the same struggle, but he generally chose truth, despite the consequences, and when he did not, he made transparent, the messy process of living within contradictions he could never resolve. His essay about shooting the elephant, is one of the greatest pieces of writing ever penned, his murder of a beautiful animal, changed the trajectory of his life. As he says, people become the mask they are forced to wear.   Then the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, as there is nothing quite like traveling back to foggy gas lit Victorian London and looking at those Sydney Paget illustrations. Conan Doyle just wanted to kill off Holmes as he was so bored with him,  but was forced to resurrect him by public demand.   He was so bored with Holmes and Watson that he forgot his own narratives, to the glee of his millions of devotees who alight upon his mistakes like locusts. I just read last night a short story by Graham Greene, called “The Destructors,” written in the 1950’s.  It perfectly aligns with and illuminates the Trump/Bannon mentality. An old man gives a gang of boys some sweets as a kindness, which places him on their radar for destruction.

Second stack consists of books that require serious commitment. They cannot be skimmed, they cannot be speed read.  In that stack are the works of Adam Hochschild.  He is a historian and journalist, I must have a pencil and paper on hand, to take notes.  His level of research, is stunning, yet the books are elegant and readable, very human and compassionate, not didactic.  His book on WW1 To End All Wars, is a marvel, he manages to include the rise of the Suffragettes and the Labour Party, as an organic whole,  then King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains, reveal the staggering amount of research he did, and still he doesn’t bog down the reader, but keeps us hooked with the device of key characters. I just finished his Stalin book, to help me understand the present rise of thuggish strong men to power. Its one of his earlier works, so is more accessible for a faster read. It consists of interviews with Gulag survivors and the author’s travels to the locations of the work camps, which are not on any maps.  I will start his book on the Spanish Civil War next, Spain in Our Hearts.  In that stack is Scott Anderson’s Lawrence In Arabia. It’s waiting to be read, and will require the same commitment to understand the colonized western mind mapping of the middle east.  As an artist I can look at any art,  see how its done and learn from the technique, absorb it, but the skill of Hochschild as writer is so formidable it cannot be replicated, only admired. 

Third Stack consists of books, which originate from reading reviews in LRB, anything my friends deem of interest, we discuss and then mull over which one of us, is actually going to buy the book. I just ordered the history of Ravensbruck Womens’ concentration camp, by Sarah Helm. My interest doesn’t include Rushdie, which is one of my friend’s favorite authors, and she just can’t understand why I cannot appreciate his work.  Have tried, but no.  We all just read [The Pigeon Tunnel] the le Carré autobiography, which is a splendid read, its surprisingly up to date, no sentiment, no nostalgia,  a real insight into the psychology of government spy games.  His is a self depreciating and witty voice,  a very lean writer.  Unread so far, is a book I wouldn’t pick up, but as it came from a friend, I know I will like, Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie.

Fourth Stack is research.  As I make books myself, am obligated to read everything I can get my hands on about a subject and devour it. This is work reading. I read everything, memorize most of it, don’t discuss it, and then put it away, under a mental shroud, and  create my own version. It’s not what I read and remember, it’s what is left that I don’t know which am curious about, which will drive the next book. Writing is torture. When a new book of mine comes out, I look at it for a day, and then hide it, as it’s the memory of so much labor. It’s not something I want to remember,  see again, let alone talk about, which makes publicizing the darn book difficult. Books exist as their own persons. They will either find people who cherish them or not. Can’t remember how many books I have done. They are all art books, non fiction with text and images. The latest book, which came out last month, surprised me. It’s called The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto. 

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  • Cover of The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, courtesy of Sue Coe

I wanted to do a version of Orwell’s Animal Farm, but in my version, the farmed animals achieve victory, and it turned out to be an adorable little creature, a pocket book. 

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  • Plate from The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, Courtesy of Sue Coe

Its all images, woodcuts, with no words. 

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  • Plate from The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, Courtesy of Sue Coe

It doesn’t seem like anything I could ever have invented, as the second half is full of joy. It’s in my pocket and by my bed, in book stack number one, I keep looking at it, the novelty of new book has not worn off.   

Sam Sweet, All Night Menu Vol. 3 Excerpt

If you’re like me, you’ve been patiently awaiting Sam Sweet’s next volume in his All Night Menu series since, 2014 or 15 (the dates get fuzzy after awhile). The point is, it’s a continuation of an idiosyncratic but essential project: to map the Los Angeles area via one man’s connection to certain places, people, dates and events. He’s done so through a series of booklet-sized releases on brown paper with black ink and illustrations. They’re simple visually, but there’s something defiantly concrete about the presentation, a forthrightness that heads off any charge that the writer is making too much of minutiae, of events lacking in scale. Sweet writes that, “The city is vast and amorphous. This booklet is small and precise. It is not a walking tour, a visitor’s guidebook, or a street atlas. It is a periodic index of lost heroes and miniature histories. Its only objective is to make the invisible equal to the visible.”

You can find an excerpt from the new volume here. It’s a perfect illustration of Sweet’s point, and I dare say a pretty irresistible peek at the project. It portrays the dignity of the personal, struggling against the irresistible forces of policy and social change, as here in the excerpt from “501 N. Mednik:”

The Maravilla gangs multiplied in the 1980s and Mednik became a combat zone.  Stray rounds left scars on the rebote, but like a church, Michi’s remained unscathed. Never robbed, never tagged. Maras in L.A. County Jail would use their one payphone privilege to call the store, knowing Michi would always be there to accept the charges and relay a message to anyone in the varrio. Sometimes she’d be asked to hold a paper bag behind the counter. Her son implored her otherwise. “People think you’re involved,” he said. She shooed him off. The men outside had once peered wide-eyed into her candy counter. They were her customers. “Besides,” she said, “I never look inside.” 

The $1 sandwiches she started making for club members were so popular that every day someone would come in for a “Michi sandwich,” though they were never on a menu. In the face of rising costs and supermarket competition, she refused to raise prices. “The people can’t afford that,” she told her son, who later discovered she was supporting the store with her life savings. In a boom year, a Korean developer offered them a million for the lot. Thomas was incredulous when he found out they turned it down. Tommy shrugged. “I’m waiting for two million.” As Michi got older and smaller, the shelves seemed to grow taller around her. The wooden grabber from the ‘30s leaned against towers of cereal that nearly touched the ceiling. She developed painful sores from standing all day. Each day, an aging gangster from Lomita Mara would walk over from the projects to put healing lotion on her aching feet.

 

The good news? All three volumes are still available. The bad news? Volume 1 is all but gone – these are only editions of 500, after all, and they’re hand numbered and come with a note from the author. You can see how the process unfolds here. You can also find a little more from Sam Sweet in the New Yorker.

  • John McIntyre

John Berger dead at 90; Dore Ashton at 88

Some weeks ago, when John Berger died, I meant to offer a little tribute to him. He was a major figure as art writers go (Ways of Seeing, and so on), and a talented poet and novelist. Soon enough the window to do so seemed to have passed, or I was too busy and preoccupied to do so, and I let the idea go without marking his departure. Now the art critic Dore Ashton has passed, and I don’t mean to let that go by unmarked. She had a remarkable career, one filled with perceptive and connected work – connected in the sense that she was deeply familiar with key figures like Philip Guston, and in that numerous of her works were natural progressions that built on what she’d previously done. Now is every bit a proper time to read her remarkable book on Abstract Expressionism, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, for observations like this one: “The circles of artists in New York in the late twenties and early thirties were often generated, or at least stimulated, by the energetic foreign born.” Food for thought, that. Ms. Ashton was eighty-eight at the time of her death. Berger was ninety. What legacies they left us, what brilliant, extensive bodies of work. What better benediction than this poem of Berger’s?

When I open my wallet

to show my papers

pay money or check the time of a train

I look at your face.

The flower’s pollen

is older than the mountains

Aravis is young

as mountains go.

The flower’s ovules

will be seeding still

when Aravis then aged

is no more than a hill.

The flower in the heart’s

wallet, the force

of what lives us

outliving the mountain.

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.

Beginning 2017

Outside of a runaway To Read pile (piles, okay, there’s more than one pile), 2017 is off to a pretty equable start – no prolonged bouts of snow, and some pleasant reading surprises already. First on that list: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. It’s a sort of cousin to Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, in that it’s compulsively readable and delivers a sense of great well-being a lot of the time. If anything. Miss Buncle is even more reliable on that score. It’s brisk and charming, driven by a small controversy that disturbs an English village in the mid-1930s. I’d give an example of what Stevenson does so well, but someone else has the book just now, and she’s not likely to give it up. Just know that Miss Buncle carries the promise of a quick, pleasant read, and without giving the sense things have been dumbed down at any point. As with Someone at a Distance, it’s a novel that hits a vanishingly small mark, and also like the Whipple novel, there’s a Persephone edition (though I read the American release, from Sourcebooks).

I can’t and don’t exclusively read breezy, 1930s English confections, however. Here’s what’s on deck in the early months:

Christoper Kimball – Fannie’s Last Supper

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There’s a documentary by the same name available on Netflix, and if you happen to order the book online, I’d wholeheartedly recommend watching it in the meantime. The story, effectively, goes like this: Chris Kimball and his team (then at America’s Test Kitchen) set out to recreate a menu from Frannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. This involves acquiring and mastering an antique wood cookstove, dealing with the vagaries of acquiring a calf’s head, and other adventures. I’d say it’s more exciting than it sounds, but that all sounded plenty exciting to me. You get recipes and citations from the original cookbook in the book as well, and that seems to me a worthy supplement. Buy/read/watch. I’m set to read now.

A. Scott Berg, ed. – World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

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Library of America surprises me several times a year by slipping something onto their list that feels like a bit of a departure from what they’re known for, but which works as a perfect supplement to so much of what they’ve published. In this case, it’s a collection of everything from news stories to primary sources – letters, diaries, songs, Senate speeches (like George Norris from 1917, “Let Europe Solve Her Problems”) and much else. The result is an account with a different texture from the standard history of the period, and editor A. Scott Berg deserves significant credit for that. A wonderful addition to our record of the age.

Maurice Manning – One Man’s Dark

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A new book of poems by Maurice Manning is a thing of joy. You can disagree, but why forego joy? The Gone and the Going Away came out nearly four years ago, and it was one of the highlights of 2013 for me as a reader. He was also gracious enough to sit for an interview with The Poetry Foundation. Even if it’s another four years before his next book, you won’t want to wait to get started on this one.

Solomon Ibn Gabirol – Vulture in a Cage

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A random bookstore selection, this one, published by Archipelago Books. Solomon Ibn Gabirol was an 11th century Jewish poet. You wouldn’t know it from the beautiful translation. He might well be any ambitious young writer here:

Literary men, give me some time

to shake of immaturity,

And you will see a poem to amaze your minds –

Its verses set with pearls,

With gold, and beads of crystal,

splendid both in wording and in substance,

Verses that will make this generation

Think of me as cattle think of lions.

George Szirtes – Mapping the Delta

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He’s out there in the great, wide world, writing and traveling, traveling and writing and translating (Sándor Márai! László Krasznahorkai! Magda Szabó!), and I like to think that in some small way, that keeps the world in balance. He’s got a new book of poems out, called Mapping the Delta, and these lines from “The Books” seem a perfect place to leave off:

The books are restless.

They are in a wintry mood,

Their voices urgent.

What the books whisper

Is what we would not mention

In conversation.

– John McIntyre

5 Literary Loves from 2016

Helen Garner – Everywhere I Look

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There’s no going wrong with anything Helen Garner’s written, from the fiction (The Children’s Bach, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Spare Room are favorites of mine, but that’s not to sell Monkey Grip and other things short) to the journalism and nonfiction. Everywhere I Look compiles Garner’s writing for a variety of publications, and the selections are impeccable. If “Dreams of Her Real Self” doesn’t at least put a lump in your throat, you’re probably dead inside, and “The Insults of Age” is a frank and funny depiction of not the clinical hardships of getting older but the cultural ones. Everything here is smart and mordant and undeniably alive. Put it at the top of your 2017 list if you didn’t get to it this year.

Dorothy Whipple – Someone at a Distance

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So few books hit the sweet spot Dorothy Whipple found in Someone at a Distance. It first appeared in 1953, and Persephone Books in the UK reissued it as a classic in 2008. It was originally considered popular fiction, but the characterization is complex, and the tone is never less than perfectly appropriate as Whipple takes us through a range of emotional registers. The plot is deceptively dramatic after what feels like a low key start. Probably the most purely pleasurable bit of reading I did all year, like an even more absorbing version of Elizabeth Jenkins’s novel The Tortoise and the Hare.

Berlin Metropolis 1918-1933

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Neue Galerie in New York is one of the greatest places on earth (as is Galerie St. Etienne). This volume accompanied an exhibition there that closed in January, but it seems to me an exceptional example of a book that goes beyond just the work on offer to take the measure of the art and culture that marked a time and place. It covers everything from fine art to architecture to fashion to film, and the essays are absolutely worthy of the visuals they accompany. My initial interest was the visual art (“Art and Anti-Art in Berlin Around 1920″ doesn’t disappoint), but Dorothy Price’s, “The New Woman in 1920s Berlin,” and Sharon Jordan’s “The Rhythm of Our Time is Jazz: Popular Entertainment during the Weimar Republic” are remarkable as well. Jürgen Müller reinterprets Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s just a glorious book.

James Beard – Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles: Letters to Helen Evans Brown

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James Beard’s actual personality feels a bit lost now, culturally. He’s more a name – namesake of the James Beard Foundation, Awards, etc – than a distinct individual. These letters were all written to Helen Evans Brown between 1952 and 1964. Brown was a formidable figure on West Coast cuisine in the 1950s and 60s. They feel a little bit in the MFK Fisher vein, with Beard doing a lot to establish a broader, more adventurous food culture in the US, but he’s funnier than Fisher, and ultimately the mix of humor, self-deprecation and genuine confidence on display make him irresistible. Take this for example, on a piece he’d contributed to for Life magazine in 1955:

The Life steak article is awful. They took a bit from everyone, put it all together and called it steak. The picture of Mr. Quincey Jones broiling steaks over hot flames is enough to make you woops.

I’m not part of the “2016 was the worst year ever” brigade, if only for the fact that prior to November, a lot of memorable, good things happened. For that matter, a handful have since. Still, in grim, uncertain moments, a book like this one is a welcome relief.

Matthew Desmond – Evicted

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Desmond manages the remarkable balancing act of applying both empathy and realism in looking at the lives of several Milwaukee residents whose housing situations range from fluid to frighteningly tenuous. He doesn’t tack on a neat and tidy ending, and this isn’t the kind of work that provides easily digestible lessons or policy proposals, though it might prompt a few of the latter, with any luck. If the James Beard book was a trip into a beautiful segment of the past, Evicted, I’m afraid, is a gimlet eyed look ahead to the coming years for a lot of Americans.

  • John McIntyre

What I’m Reading: Artist and Writer Marion Coutts

It’s a little startling to realize that The Iceberg was Marion Coutts’s first book. She’d already built a years-long reputation as a visual artist prior to taking it on. A look at her work makes it apparent why. It’s precise and allusive, as distinct as a firm voice speaking above the din and saying just what must be said, without over-explaining. This is an intelligent artist who assumes a knowing audience. The results are a pleasure to behold, they’re meditative without being too detached. Not surprisingly, she often hits these same marks in her writing.   

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Marion Coutts, Twenty Six Things, 2008, Super 16 film still

But Coutts’s first book wasn’t, say, an insider’s memoir of the art world or a thinly fictionalized account of those circles. Instead, she took a life-altering event, her husband Tom Lubbock’s brain tumor diagnosis, and wrote through the experience in meticulous, forthright detail. The Iceberg and Lubbock’s own account of events, Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, make a remarkable pair, a testament to their deeply shared experience, not merely through Lubbock’s illness but over the course of their relationship and marriage. Fittingly, Prophet, a piece Coutts finished in 2001, serves as the cover image for Lubbock’s book.

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Marion Coutts, Prophet, 2001

“In a marriage of near ten years and a friendship of longer,” Coutts writes, “all visual experience is for two…Soon, sometime soon I will have no one to tell this to. What will experience be then?” Indeed, Lubbock was an artist in his own right and art critic for the Independent. They can’t have always arrived at the exact same conclusions about what they’d seen, but what a touchstone to lose, a second set of eyes so discerning, and so close as to probably feel like an extension of the self. I didn’t ask her what the answer to that question is now, in part because she’s no doubt still resolving it for herself at times. What she has done, however, is continue writing – “I am working on new writing. I have quite a lot of words though I don’t know what they pertain to and look forward to clarification, from where I know not,” she tells me, and preparing an exhibition of her work, her first since 2008. It’s composed of installation, photographs and drawings. Look for it at Tintype in London, early March 2017.

The questions I did ask Marion Coutts? What she’s reading and why she’s reading it. And though she claims she doesn’t actually read much, if this list is any indication, she has well-defined tastes but stays open to the serendipity of being  unexpectedly handed a great book:

I did my first ever writing residency this summer at Cove Park in Scotland. Two weeks around solstice. I highly recommend the experience. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the book I read on my first day there and I read it in one sitting – another first. I would never have time to do that at home. It left me very energized. I thought it a brilliant, unusual work and why it is feels so unusual is interesting as it speaks to and about happiness, family and the many inventive ways that belonging can manifest and these are all things that humans have a ravenous interest in. The Argonauts also brings up all sorts of ethical questions around writing about those near you – which I have done – nearness and its opposite being one of the motors of The Iceberg. And because I am very curious about form – I haven’t yet found my way to future content – I am looking to ways that writers – and artists – choose to structure the things in their head. I loved the tempo and sound of The Argonauts, the individual paragraphs, big and small, making the running, the way the parts connect to the whole and what is the whole allowed to be anyway? Interleaving and splicing, the book compresses, digresses, expands and explodes yet holds the reader very, very close all the while.

I am a visual artist. I have written one book which must serve for the time being as my single model so I feel the lack of habits as a writer. This may be a problem or may not be, but I’d quite like to acquire some habits because they can sometimes get you started. (I know they can do the opposite thing also.) Instead of books I want to read there is a whole stack of shows I want to see at the moment. James Ensor at The Royal Academy, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s at The Photographers Gallery, Rauschenberg at Tate. Unlike books, exhibitions come to the end of their run and then you’ve missed them. This happens all too often. What it means to write visually is something that occupies me.

I don’t actually read very much. And the books I read come to me by diverse routes. Through a friend, I was introduced to Sven Lindqvist’s Desert Divers. I found him a terrific voice and guide. (The book is translated by Joan Tate.) He talks about the European explorers and romantic visionaries who projected themselves onto the Sahara and wrote it up for folk back home. Lindqvist went there too, and wrote what he found in bare prose: dreams, dust and the deep residual violence of the colonial project.

Through another friend, I read Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding which describes a weekend in the life of a girl on the cusp of change. I wish I had come across it long ago. It is a book a younger me would have loved. And recently I read Tolstoy’s Happy Ever After which compresses a life into eighty-four pages. In his story of Masha and her marriage, he gets into a teenage girl’s head and is also outside it, looking from afar as she ages, like through a lens. Terrifyingly elegant. And elegantly terrifying.

After The Iceberg came out, publishers started sending me books on dying and grieving. I had one more come through my door this week. I was surprised at first but it seemed to go with the territory. I have to say I don’t read them. I did make an exception for Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers which wasn’t posted through my door, I bought it in a shop – again slightly unusual for me. It is very compact. Porter thinks around loss through three tight-knit views; a bereaved husband, his sons and a volatile fiction called Crow, who inserts himself into the aftermath like an unwanted houseguest. His writing inside the heads of the young boys is great.

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Boy Looks at Rock on Top of Another Rock (2016) digital print on Canson

And a big find of the last months, apart from The Argonauts, is the poet Denise Riley’s Say Something Back which uses words to say difficult and surprising things in a way that I can’t get enough of.

Marion Coutts

What I’m Reading: Writer Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is one of our most deeply human writers. His work on poverty in America, on crime, punishment and incarceration, and most recently on the vast and damning implications of Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election, reminds us that the personal is political, and vice versa. The House of Twenty-Thousand Books is perhaps his own most deeply personal work. It’s a gorgeous weave of memoir, family history, intellectual history and throughout, a tribute to the resilience and intellect of his grandfather, Chimen Abramsky. “Over the decades,” Abramsky writes, “Chimen had become so addicted to the printed page, to the texture of his books, to the feel of old manuscripts, and to the material contained within his written correspondence, that he ended up surrounding himself with a wall of words.”

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At the time of his death, Chimen Abramsky owned remarkable holdings in both socialist writing and Judaica. Of the books of Judaica, “Chimen’s colleague Mark Geller, in internal correspondence with the university’s provost, wrote that they made up “probably the best Jewish History library in Europe.” This was on the occasion of University College London purchasing 7,000 items from him in the 1980s.

The book deals with the many consolations and implications of living with that wall of words. We see titanic figures like Isaiah Berlin and Eric Hobshawn visiting, but there’s a well-calibrated balance here between the names and impact of the greats on Chimen’s life and the lasting impact of events like his break with his father, a deeply respected rabbi who did time in a Siberian labor camp for religious proselytizing. Also critical was his embrace and then rejection of communist politics, among other personal and intellectual course changes. “For Chimen, Maimonides was the lodestar, one of the great philosophers out of whose ideas modernity could emerge,” Abramsky writes in one of numerous passages tracing his grandfather’s intellectual development. It’s a single brushstroke in a remarkable portrait, one that reminds us that even formidable minds require wellsprings to which they return in difficult times. And for all the admiration Abramsky feels for his grandfather, it’s a loving book but not hagiographic; for instance, we learn that “Chimen himself was not a particularly good storyteller – he frequently gave away the punch line of humorous anecdotes too early or, with more serious stories, got bogged down in too many details.” The organization of his great library is haphazard at best (see the wonderful anecdote from one of Sasha Abramsky’s cousins’ youth about their grandfather tunneling through the seemingly uncharted mass of stuff to a destination the rest of them never saw).

It was during the week before the election that Sasha Abramsky answered my two questions. I read a cautious optimism in his responses, but there was also the sense of a serious reckoning with the possible dark days to come if the election played out differently than expected. His grandfather’s books “provided protection from the madness of the world outside – or, at the very least, a road map for navigating the chaos.” I’d suggest that’s what the younger Abramsky is working at now, for himself and the rest of us – the creation of a road map for navigating the chaos to come. He can’t author a truly comprehensive map all by his lonesome, but his work describes certain precincts, diagnoses their ills and predicts their fates with real insight and empathy. I haven’t spoken with him since November 8, but I’ll be keeping tabs on his work. We need it now more than ever.

Here’s what he was reading as of late October. I can only imagine recent events have added to the list:

Regarding my reading habits, I tend to read fairly voraciously across a range of genres — and I generally have several books going simultaneously.

I’m in the process of writing a book about what we fear and why, and how it impacts our political choices, as well as many other aspects of our daily lives. To that end, I have been reading many books by anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and psychologists about how individuals and cultures choose what sorts of things to really fear, and to what purpose. I have also been reading many books and academic papers by neuroscientists about different parts of the brain, and different chemical and nervous system responses to threats and to fear.

As for more general-interest reading, I spent much of the past week reading Eduardo Galleano’s collection of essays “We Say No,” about the moral imperatives of understanding social and historical inequities and injustices, and about the ways individuals can resist unjust systems.

As a completely random book, I picked up on a dollar stall a collection of essays, titled “Letters to the Valley,” about farming and connection to the land, by a writer and California farmer named David Mas Masumoto. It is delightfully diverting, and is helping me to take my mind off of the extraordinarily nerve-wracking election — as you may have seen, I have spent much of the last year writing for the Nation (in the US), Haaretz (in Israel) and the New Statesman (in the UK) about the perils of Trump-ism and what I see as the emergence of a form of politics with distinct strains of fascism. As I’m writing and thinking so much about that, it’s nice every so often to step away from the fray and read about something totally different.

My daughter has been reading many of the novels (sci-fi and other) by Octavia Butler. She asked me if I would read some, so I am now dipping into some Butler novels.

Other books that I have read in the last few months include the Karl Ove Knausgaard series “My Struggle,” the Julian Barnes book, about Shostakovich, titled “The Noise of Time;” and several Bohumil Hrabal novels, including “Too Loud a Solitude.” I also read Adam Hoshchild’s book  on the Spanish Civil War, “Spain in Our Hearts,” a book on the Mitford sisters, “The Six,” by Laura Thompson, and Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history book “Chernobyl.”

On my list of books to soon read: volumes 4-6 of Churchill’s history of World War Two; Luc Sante’s The Other Paris; Andrew Cooper’s book “The Fall of Heaven” on the last days of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran; and Edward Rutherford’s “New York: The Novel.”

I hope this answers both what I’m reading and why: As you can see, I tend to read eclectically, seeking to fulfill whatever intellectual or cultural itch has my attention at any given moment. I read to learn, but also to relax; to explore new worlds, and to introduce myself to places and people who, for various reasons, intrigue me…

As for what I’m currently working on: many articles on politics and on social justice themes, for the Nation and other magazines; and, as I mentioned earlier, a book, to be published in the fall of 2017 by Nation Books, on how our understanding of fear shapes so many of the fundamental decisions we make in life.

What I’m Reading: Writer Paul Russell

Recently I mentioned Paul Russell’s novel Immaculate Blue as a book a lot of readers might have overlooked. That wasn’t a judgment I reached on the basis of sales figures, for instance – I’m not privy to that information – but the fact that the book didn’t show up in reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post and so forth, the remaining big  (if somewhat diminished) outlets for book coverage.

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  • Photo of Paul Russell by Tuan Ching, via paulrussellwriter.com

The Salt Point made it into those Reviews, and I’d have imagined some value to continuity in revisiting the original review and the two books in tandem. Then again, I don’t get paid to run the book section of a major publication, to commission reviews, and so forth. All I know is that picking up with the four friends from The Salt Point strikes me as worthwhile in the same way it’s worthwhile to follow the results of Jay McInerney’s recently completed trilogy (or maybe there’s more to come – I’ve got no advance intel on that question). And understand, I liked the McInerney novels, flaws and all. I just don’t think Russell’s work catching up with past characters has to get the short shrift. It suggests to me something like Mark Merlis’s aside that his work has been studied in “the ghetto of the gay literature survey.”

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One outcome of that marginalization is that we get a writer like Russell, who’s been productive for years now, and who has received broader-based attention at times (see The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov), observing that, when reading neglected novels by gay writers from the 40s and 50s, he “feel[s] a kinship with these forgotten writers.” I don’t want to make too much of what was maybe an offhand comment, but it’s easy to see why Russell might feel like his work is less remarked upon than it deserves to be.

All that said, a look at what Paul Russell has been reading lately is a look at the intellectual life of a working writer. He teaches full-time at Vassar, and that places certain demands on his reading time. As you’ll see, though, he turns that to his advantage, uses it to feed his interests, and with any luck, finds a spark within his reading life to keep alive the writing he has to put aside during the semester. And while he suggested I might want to cut, rearrange, or otherwise shape his responses, they’re really worth reading in their entirety. Take it away, Paul Russell:

I can’t really answer the first question without also answering the second.  I’m midway through a semester of teaching, so much of what I’m reading these days is dictated by what I’m doing in the classroom.  I’m one of those highly inefficient teachers who insists on rereading everything before teaching it.  Thus, for this week I’ve reread Patricia Highsmith’s smart and lively 1952 lesbian novel The Price of Salt; three glittering, funny, heartbreaking stories by Katherine Mansfield—”Prelude,” “The Garden Party,” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”—and, for my James Joyce seminar, the gorgeous “Nausicaa” chapter from Ulysses.  Fortunately, I only teach books I like, so rereading them is almost  always a pleasure. 

 

I’m also doing an independent reading project this semester with a student on “Sex, Identity, and the Literature of AIDS.” We’re sort of inventing the reading list as we go along, and for some reason it’s turned into a mini-seminar on Derek Jarman:  his extraordinary final film Blue, made after he was stricken with AIDS-related blindness, a volume of his writing about the stark, magical garden he built by the sea at Dungeness, in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, and one of his several volumes of memoir, At Your Own Risk.  We admitted to each other in out meeting yesterday that we both have a kind of crush on Jarman.  His prose is so luminous, compassionate, transgressive, human… 

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In addition to regular schoolwork I’m pursuing two other reading projects:  one involves neglected gay novels from the 1940s and 50s (in part as preparation for a course I’m teaching in the spring).  I know there’s lots of contemporary work I should be reading, but I feel a kinship with these forgotten writers.  My latest foray has been Scotland’s Burning (1953), Nathaniel Burt‘s wistful, homoerotic, beautifully written tale set in a boys’ school in the American south—a little reminiscent of A Separate Peace or The Folded Leaf in its not-quite-closeted longings. Not a great novel, but an elegant, oddly satisfying piece of work.  Some of my great discoveries among these writers have been Fritz Peters (Finistere, Boyhood with Gurdjieff), Lonnie Coleman (Sam; The Southern Lady; The Golden Vanity, Mark), Harlan Cozad McIntosh (This Finer Shadow) and Charles Jackson (The Fall of Valor). 

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 – Photo via Valancourt Books

Finally, for the last several months a colleague and I have been exploring New Testament canon formation, reading through all the many gospels and epistles and revelations and other documents that never made it into the  New Testament proper (though some, like The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas were included in certain early codices).  We’ve also made our way through the gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi library (standouts include The Secret Book of John and Thunder, The Perfect Wisdom), as well as Tertullian’s hilarious takedown of the gnostics in his Against the Valentinians.  My friend and I arrive at a local diner every Sunday morning loaded down with Bibles and other pedantic paraphernalia, and sit for three hours poring over arcana, no doubt making a spectacle of ourselves to the curious, but supernaturally well-tended to by our waitress who, it turns out in a weird bit of serendipity, is the niece of Maurice Sendak!  Why are we doing this? It all started when we realized neither of us knew anything about the ancient monophysite churches.  Well now we know, and so much more!

 

And all this while my new novel, The Two Angels Came to Sodom, which I’m 300 pages into, is on hold as I carefully try to keep that fragile egg warm and incubating, hoping against hope that when I finish teaching and return to the hatchery in June I won’t find it has expired in the meantime (something that has happened before!).  

What I’m Reading This Fall

Here’s what I’m either already reading or looking forward to, square in the midst of fall.

Alexander Maksik, Shelter in Place

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Maksik’s third novel turns back toward what’s at least peripherally more personal ground. His debut, You Deserve Nothing, dealt with a situation not unlike one he’d experienced while teaching in France. His sophomore effort, A Marker to Measure Drift, looked further afield, following the hardships of a young female refugee in the Greek isles. Shelter in Place finds a young man in the Pacific Northwest, just getting his start in the world. Any plans he had are derailed by an unexpected act of violence. Knowing Maksik, there’s little chance this takes a sensational turn, and much greater likelihood we get a sophisticated character study.

Loren Eiseley, Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos

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Loren Eiseley’s published work only spans a little over two decades, from 1957’s The Immense Journey to 1979’s Darwin and The Mysterious Mister X. His work was often philosophical in nature, and he devoted considerable attention to the natural world and matters of cosmology. Loren Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos is a two-volume box set from Library of America, an acknowledgement of the sophistication and significance of Eiseley’s ideas at a time when we’re grappling with the seriousness of our environmental degradation.

Albert Murray, Collected Essays and Memoirs

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Maybe the most gratifying news of the season is Library of America’s decision to publish an omnibus edition of Albert Murray’s nonfiction under the title Collected Essays and Memoirs. Murray focused much of his attention as a memoirist and novelist on the blues, an ur-American form and one few writers can begin to address with Murray’s depth and profundity. Murray was a friend and confidant of the great Ralph Ellison, and this collection provides ample evidence why.

Nir Baram, Good People and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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Baram’s novel is a moody, stylish thriller set on the eve of World War II in Berlin and Leningrad. It’s the first of Israeli writer Baram’s books to appear in English, though A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank is due next April. Might just pair nicely with Amor Towles’s second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. Towles gives us Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest in a grand hotel across from the Kremlin in 1922. You may recall Towles as the author of the stylish Rules of Civility. And if the hotel setting of Towles’s novel gets you, look into Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel and Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel.

Mena Calthorpe, The Dyehouse and Living by Henry Green

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The Dyehouse is one of Calthorpe’s three books, the other two of which (The Defectors and Plain of Ala) are out of print. It’s set in postwar Australia, and that means the setting – a textile factory floor – is at a threshold moment, when technology threatens unprecedented change for the people who depend on manufacturing for a livelihood. Class and gender issues are at issue here, but that puts a stiff gloss on a radically human piece of work. Read it with Henry Green’s Living for a double dose (due March 2017 from NYRB Classics). Also worth noting: The Dyehouse is the 100th entry in the Text Classics series.

  • John McIntyre