Today on the blog, Laura Waddell writes the latest article in our Spine series, a new regular book club feature for TYCI.
It’s SPINE time once again.
The last month or so has been a good one for reading. Between best books of 2015 lists all over the place (I can almost hear the few coins I have left leaving my purse) and books received as Christmas gifts (top tip: updating my wish list a few weeks before Christmas paid off) I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s nothing quite like festive reading on lazy end of December days or cold January weekends. Pyjamas and paper and pairing cheese with every book, oh my.
Here’s what I’ve been reading recently.
American Housewife by Helen Ellis
American Housewife is a collection of bitingly funny short stories centered around what I suspect is a rather semi-autobiographical housewife, Southern but living in New York. It’s filled with pithy one liners and injects subversive humour and wickedness into a distant world of ettiquette and wealth.
Highlights are stories of finding dignity on a dumpster diving reality tv show, and a fight between members of a cutthroat NYC apartment co-op board told through increasingly escalating email exchanges. Seeing housewife in the title, I anticipated domesticity, and wasn’t sure it would grab me – but taking the occasional statement I balked at with a pinch of salt, the sharp edges and witty writing was a treat.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
I LOVE DICK screams the unashamed, provocative cover in pink and green. A large part of my motivation in buying it was a secret glee at the prospect of reading it on public transport, compounded in contrariness when a man on twitter grumbled he found the big bold title “unnecessary and annoying,” but deeper investigation revealed it to be an unknown-to-me feminist classic, one that has been slowly gathering an array of fans (among them Sheila Heti, bell hooks and Tavi Gevinson) since it was first published in the early 90s.
The premise is this: an artist named Chris engages her husband Sylvere in compulsively writing letters to an academic named Dick whose platonic hospitality they had enjoyed one snowy California evening. Convinced she’s in love with him, the letters become a collaborative performative art project come marital therapy for the couple as they obsessively document Chris’ feelings and thoughts. In reading I Love Dick, I constantly veer between thinking of it as cathartic and justified emotional expression rich in textual and theoretical reference from a highly creative mind, and embarrassment at the extremity of making a love totem from one meeting – especially as by many Google-able reports, it’s based on barely anonymised real 1990s art scene figures. I feel for the character Chris, and despite the creative output that flows from the unrequited obsession, wish she would disengage and reinvest in herself instead, worrying about questions of self esteem and harassment. Occasionally, there is a level of lack of self awareness in describing the surrounding lifestyle that feels worn to a modern eye more used to ironic detachment and social consciousness.
Chris Kraus herself coined the term “Lonely Girl Phrenomenology,” to describe her work. The brilliant afterword by Joan Hawkins illuminates my understanding and appreciation of the book, leading me to think of it as a subversive play with textual forms and art theory in linked cultural essays, placing the artist right at the heart of a practise which has, at times, excluded her. It’s difficult to pin it down or sum it up in so small a space, but reading it years after publication in a era of compulsive self profiling on social media, I was still gripped by being privy to such developed intimacy.
How To Be Both by Ali Smith
Ali Smith’s How To Be Both has won a raft of awards and accolades – I could use up my word count listing them. I’m late to the party on this one, but I have to admit too much hype makes me dig my heels in. Regardless, whilst this book wasn’t among my favourites of the year, I was moved by the empathy and observations of humanity within.
For those who don’t know, the book contains two distinct stories with overlapping themes (one set in current day Cambridge, and the other in Renaissance Italy) and is printed in two versions, with the order of the stories distributed randomly. Although the two stories are very different in setting, they have in common themes of gay love and friendship. I’m curious about the impact the reading order has. Is the reader likely to connect more strongly with the first story they encounter, or find the second one richer for the parallels in theme between the two? I found myself emotionally keyed in by the time I reached the second story, but have a softer spot for Francesco’s story, which in my copy came first. Where the book falls down for me is the unconventional language structure, a broken down stream that’s similar to, but not as convincing as, the interior monologue of Eimear McBride’s utterly incredible A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Observing the characters in both stories grow through life experiences, whether as artist seeking work centuries ago in Italy or modern teenager in Cambridge, brings me close to them. They both make emotional journeys of self identification, facing gender fluidity, grief, or coming to terms with sexuality. What struck me most was the backdrop of truly sweet patience and love from others in each story, allowing space for necessary self development to come prior to exploring relationships. In the arc of their lives, there’s a sense that some encounters with others happen not before it’s the right time. It’s in such detail that Ali Smith excels, capturing the significance of moments with all the fullness and meaning of the individual life lived before them.
The Secret of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
I’ve mentioned Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series in previous SPINE columns, and this is the final book in the series. I’m still grieving it being over. Lina and Lenu, the two characters whose lives the series follows, have utterly worked their way under my skin and were the mental backdrop to my 2015. As a depiction of what it is to be a working class woman, and as an exploration of systems of power through following the domestic, romantic, platonic and professional lives of these characters, I’ve never read anything quite comparable to Elena Ferrante, who joins the ranks of truly great novelists. I could type my fingers bloody recommending this series – instead I’ll simply say, start with My Brilliant Friend.
Coming up next time in SPINE, I’ll highlight some recent favourite short story collections from indie publishers (which are having a bit of a moment), and some non-fiction. As always, you’re very welcome to come and chat to me on twitter about books at @lauraewaddell.
Read more in the Spine series HERE.