Staff Picks: I Am Not Ashamed

Julie recommends I Am Not Ashamed by Barbara Payton:

This month I found myself in a real reading funk. I’d been bashing my head with books I should have read in college but didn’t and trying to play catch-up with all of the “notables” of 2016. Nothing was provoking much delight. I needed a delicious cheeseburger of a book and found satiation in Barbara Payton’s memoir I Am Not Ashamed.

Payton’s voice rose off the page like a gale, blowing my hair straight back. The book begins with a casual forthrightness that makes it impossible to stop reading:

Today, right now I live in a rat-roach (they’re friends) infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rosé wine. I don’t like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men.

A famous 1950’s Hollywood actress, Payton’s name was once mentioned in the same breath as Debbie Reynolds, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. “I know it sounds unbelievable,” she writes, “but it’s true that Gregory Peck, Guy Madison, Howard Hughes and other big names were dating me.” She went from making ten grand a week, wearing furs and “dripping ice (diamonds)” to selling her body for just enough money to buy booze. 

Payton calls her life story a rollercoaster ride—this is true, perhaps even an understatement; she also deems the book “a kind of detective story,” one that attempts to piece together the reason(s) for her fall from marquee glory. How could a woman with beauty, power, money, and talent end up disgraced at thirty-five, and dead at thirty-eight? The answer’s heartbreaking to peer into.  Payton knows this; she writes:

I had a body when I was a young kid that raised temperatures wherever I went. Today I have three long knife wounds on my solid frame.

Memoir today is often telescoped on one experience, divorce, addiction, grief. Payton stirs the pot, bringing in all the ingredients of her remarkable life as an actress, poet, mother, and an expat in Mexico, where she spent two years. There’s no overthinking things, the scenes arise naturally as if she were talking to you at a bar, a dressing room, or her squalid apartment.  Her story is so urgent and her voice is so strong that it just pours out with ease and originality, creating a natural balance between vignettes and introspection. Before the term “radical self-acceptance” existed, Payton was living by its premier code.

I just want to be myself. If I’m a disreputable harridan, then tough, that’s what I am. I don’t want to be characters on film. I just want to be me. I think I found out who I am and that’s the way it’s going to be.

After finishing the book, I hungrily googled images of Payton, both when she was in her prime, on the top of the world, and after her life hit the skids and she’d had four failed marriages under her belt and had been busted for writing a bad check to buy wine. Something she wrote about how women are known and understood by men seemed to sting with truth:

A woman is like an iceberg. Only a facade shows. The rest is hidden and it takes months, even years, to find out the mysteries of what’s underneath. 

Payton does not emerge on the other side cleansed or purified or transformed. Nor does she ascend the ladder of success again. That’s how this book makes its mark, it foregrounds the uncrushable human spirit. At its heart, I Am Not Ashamed is a good story—told by a woman who led a full life, multiple lives, really, in one, and despite ending up destitute, Payton’s message is still a hopeful one—live, and do so without regret, without shame.    

Staff Picks: To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is: An Etel Adnan Reader

Stephanie recommends To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is: An Etel Adnan Reader by Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan’s work showed up in my life one morning a couple of years ago and I’ve been a superfan ever since. The idea of writing any sort of review of her work is terrifying to me; I’d so much rather talk your ear off in-person at Malvern about all the gifts this creator brings into the world. But this is a website, so here we go.

Adnan, who has spent her life in Lebanon, France, and California, is a force to be reckoned with both as a poet and as a visual artist (she’s a prose writer, too, though I’ve delved less into this area of her work). To Look at the Sea collects a half-century of Adnan’s writing, republishing several of her books in full, and the two-volume title is one of my personal I-Can’t-Live-Without-You books.

Adnan was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1925 to a Muslim Syrian father and a Greek Christian mother. Raised in Beirut and educated in French schools, she moved to the United States in 1955, not yet an English-speaker, to continue her studies in philosophy, pursuing post-graduate work at UC Berkeley and Harvard. She taught college philosophy in California for 15 years and published her first book of poems, Moonshot, in 1966.

According to Adnan’s website: “Based on her feelings of connection to, and solidarity with the Algerian war of independence, she began to resist the political implications of writing in French and shifted the focus of her creative expression to visual art. She became a painter. But it was with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam that she began to write poems and became, in her words, ‘an American poet.’”

Adnan’s vast oeuvre brilliantly crosses languages, countries, genres, mediums—perhaps not surprising given the role exile plays in her life: as a child raised in a country foreign to her parents, educated and culturally groomed in a foreign language; as a young adult scholar in another foreign country; as a graduate student and later professor in yet another foreign country; as a person of color; as a woman; as a lesbian.

She writes primarily in a language not her first. She paints her beloved Mount Tamalpais in California with a poet’s obsession. She writes poems with a painter’s sense of composition. She has been called arguably the most accomplished living Arab American author and has also had visual art exhibited around the world, including in the Whitney Biennial. She is multilingual, multitalented, and of many homes.

For my money, Adnan’s best poetic work is her lineated verse, which To Look at the Sea offers up in healthy quantity. Her latest collections, featuring prose poems—Night (Nightboat, 2015) and Sea and Fog (Nightboat, 2012)—read as mislabeled nonfiction, offering readers perhaps more Professor-of-Philosophy Adnan and less of the magic that comes from Poet-and-Painter Adnan’s skill with compression. There’s incredible value in both, but it’s the lineated, musical, fragmented, image-busting Adnan I’d run into the street joyfully screaming about, whether of the center-aligned, short-lined long poems running throughout her life’s work like “Five Senses for One Death” and “The Spring Flowers Own” or of the left-aligned, long-lined “The Arab Apocalypse” with its lines interrupted by / repeatedly generating glyph-like ink strokes.

In her work and life Adnan inhabits so many spaces, none of which belong to her and all of which are home, that there truly is an Artist Adnan for everyone: the poet, the painter, the novelist, the philosopher, the essayist, the bookmaker, the journalist. And To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is does the English-reading world an immense service by collecting over 700 pages of these Adnans and their many landscapes and languages. 

Images: (1) Book cover; (2) Installation view of paintings by Etel Adnan featured in the international exhibition dOCUMENTA in 2012 (image credit: Andreas Meichsner for the New York Times); (3) Excerpted from “The Spring Flowers”; (4) Excerpted from “Five Senses for One Death”; (5) Excerpted from “The Arab Apocalypse”

Staff Picks: The Story of My Teeth

Taylor recommends The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli:

If you’re someone who likes to have fun reading a book you gotta check this one out. It’s (as the title “implies”) the story of a man’s teeth. His name is Highway and he’s the greatest auctioneer in the world. He was born an ugly baby. He is humble and discreet and sanguine and an amazing performer.

One of the things that makes Highway the best auctioneer in the world is his storytelling abilities and in a few sections we get to see him in action—that is to say: contained in this novel are some delightful and bizarre microfictions that are like a little secret bonus treasure from Valeria Luiselli.

Filled with fortune cookie fortunes, esoteric quotes from famous philosophers, and a wild array of literary allusions, this charming book is sort of an adventure tale and sort of a summer reading list (I highly recommend checking out at least one story from every author Luiselli name drops) and it all comes together to make one hell of a character piece. The narration is killer. The format is divisive and functional. It was written in collaboration with the workers of a Jumex factory and it reflects the relationships/separations between art and commodity, value and desire, family and self.

I wouldn’t say this book is dark, but it gives me all the good feelings of a dark book. Nothing terribly strange or traumatic happens (yo, real talk, this is not a story about tooth pain or any sort of physical pain so if that’s something that makes you shudder there’s nothing to worry about), but it is the story of a rather eccentric person living a less than typical life, so… don’t wait around. Valeria Luiselli is one of the best writers out there today and The Story of My Teeth is ready for you to read it.

Staff Picks: The Musical Brain

Fernando recommends The Musical Brain and Other Stories by César Aira:

This is the first collection of short stories by the Argentine writer César Aira available in English. To say that nobody writes a story like Aira is an understatement—in a publishing world with a dearth of prolific writers of anarchic, surrealist, fearless fiction, his work comes as a relief for readers thirsty for the healthy unknown.

These stories actually feel more like surrealist paintings at times, or like complex art installations taking up an entire room. Even when a story starts off as an innocent childhood memory, however pastoral, it quickly unravels itself into a complex landscape. For instance, in one of these stories titled “The Infinite,” Aira recalls a game he had as a boy with a friend where one would say a number, then the other would say a higher number, and so on until they reached the highest number they possibly could until infinity. Or infinity times two. Or infinity times infinity. Or infinity times infinity times two.

In another story, the Mona Lisa melts into a thousand drops to finally leave the gallery and experience a sense of adventure. One of the drops starts a factory in Japan, while another starts an ad agency. Another has an intense sexual identity crisis, and eventually comes to own its individuality, while the other drops have their own unique experiences.

The best writers are the ones who puncture the yolk of what you thought storytelling could be. Aira’s work definitely does that, and it joins ranks with other great Argentine writers like Silvina Ocampo, Bioy Casares, and, yes, Borges. Every story in this collection is like a simple equation that ends up taking the entire chalkboard before you get to the end.

Staff Picks: Potted Meat

Kelsey recommends the novel Potted Meat by Steven Dunn:

Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2017) will make you take a beat. You will use this beat to think about everything and then nothing at all. His words will conjure up from the pit of your stomach things you try to ignore. Meaty bits, fuzzy beats. Hurtful things. It is an extraordinary book.

Potted Meat is a novel separated into three acts—Lift Tab, Peel Back, Enjoy Contents. Each act contains a series of vignettes that chronicle the life of a boy living in a small, southern town in West Virginia. These vignettes showcase a wide range of humanness—everywhere and in between from experiencing emotional and physical abuse by the hand of your family, to the flutter of being young and seen. There are silences in these traumas, and Dunn plays widely in this space.

Some of the most poignant examples of these silences in the novel occur after conversations between the narrator and his sister.

She says, If you actually found love what would you do with it.
That’s a stupid question.
No it aint, she says. Just answer it. What would you do with love.

The body and survival are important characters in Potted Meat, but love finds its way in and creates the silences in the novel that ring most crucial. Love is heavily juxtaposed in this novel with pain—sometimes these two things become inextricable. Familial boundaries, racial boundaries, physical boundaries are all pushed and pulled. Dunn flexes his talent for this movement using a voice sensitive to the visual.

On the narrator’s “Usual Route,”

Draped across the tops of three trash cans are large bouquets of funeral flowers, wilted off-white and droopy pink roses buried in full deep green leaves. The sun peeks over the mountains, rays poking through fog, tinting everything soft yellow.

A stunning experiment of the economy of words and space, coupled as a masterful example of visceral imagery, Steven Dunn presents us a contemporary bildungsroman that we should read, re-read, and cherish. Potted Meat is a novel of great power and importance.

Staff Picks: Hackers

Swedish poetry aficionado Taylor Jacob Pate recommends Aase Berg’s seventh collection, Hackers:

THERE IS A THREAT
THERE IS A FEMALE FREEDOM
THERE IS A WAR & THERE ARE WAR MACHINES
THERE IS A HYBRIDITY
        RABBIT
        HORSE
        MUD
        BLOOD
        BIRD
THERE IS A WAY IN
THERE IS A TRAP

Just lean back / and come along for the ride
The alternative ending / slits its own throat

A puzzling thrashing dance
Playful, perhaps, at moments
Not tangle, a direct spiral, like sutures
If: you have to ask/Then: who is the parasite

to hack: to chop: to cut: to hollow: to hew: to cleave: to cleft: to groove: to gap: to slice: to split: to sever: to bore: to notch: to gash: to crash: to assail: to breach: to invade: to incise: to infest: to impale: to crack: to drill: to puncture: to pierce: to ax: to jag: to open

to open
to open
    open

this book is piercing/quiet    this book is angry/music    this book is hyper/active    ANONYMITY IS NOT THE SAME AS NAMELESSNESS    this book is a survival/code now is the war of the worlds    now everything is electronic    this book is not/propaganda    this book is a mirror: you are an animal body      too              ARE YOU HOLLOW    this book is a dark/lamp    this book is biological/theater: the players are the bodies with & without names: the bodies are no longer empty: full of  full of    full    this book is a flood/body/belly/before before    this book is a ghost/algorithm     there are three ways of handling danger        Fight: playing dead is not the same thing as being dead