Archive for the 'words' Category

white girls, by hilton als

as an unreconstructed seventies lesbian, the commercial world of magazines and praise was corrupt, why would I want any part of that, why care, I don’t care.

hashtag funemployed hashtag summer of love

In May, the tech industry and I parted ways under circumstances I am contractually obligated to describe as mutual. Ever since, I’ve been having the greatest summer of my life. The bestie and I drove out to the eastern Sierras to see the wild mustang herds that live up around the Montgomery Pass. The high desert was hock-deep in wildflowers, and we spent three hours one sunny afternoon sitting on a hillside watching the wild horses fight and fuck. Mono Lake looks like the surface of another, possibly better planet, and asks to be further explored.

Then I won a residency at a writer’s center down in Santa Cruz and spent a week alone in a cabin on the edge of the redwoods. There were hummingbirds and mule deer and quail. I’d wake at 6 or 7 as usual, then read for a couple of hours, then have coffee and maybe go for a hike. Then, with only short breaks for meals, I’d draft scenes or type them up until late in the evening. When I got stuck, I’d copy out poems by hand.

I realized that, for longer than I can remember, I have been in an antagonistic relationship with time: late for work, behind on deadlines, scrambling to make as many memories with my kids and parents as I possibly could. Suddenly the days roll out before me, not as ordeals to be endured, but as hours for creative work, hours to hang around with the girls and Jeremy (without whom none of this would be possible), hours to spend at the barn, hours to binge on books.

I always regretted not taking real bereavement leave after Mum and then Dad died. I guess I’m doing it now, just a couple of years late. A friend said: “Your voice sounds lighter.” Idleness becomes me.

the likeness, by tana french

I used to believe, bless my naive little heart, that I had something to offer the robbed dead. Not revenge—there’s no revenge in the world that could return the tiniest fraction of what they’ve lost—and not justice, whatever that means, but the one thing left to give them: the truth.

the yatima book awards of 2015

Best capstone to a trilogy that, unbelievably, saw my OT3 made canon: Ancillary Mercy

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series explores oppression both overt and covert, personhood and autonomy, cruelty and choice. It is also and very intimately about love and trauma and about the slow and painful process of recovering from having been used as a weapon. It is difficult and allusive and strange and I have seldom loved a story more.

Best memoir containing descriptions of the surface of living human brains: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

A few years ago Jeremy and I saw The English Surgeon, a beautiful documentary about Henry Marsh, and this book of his is an extraordinary complement, the effect of which is to make both texts deeper and richer. You walk away from the film thinking that Marsh is some kind of genius angel. The book is all about his fear, doubt and failures, failures that led to the deaths of patients he loved.

Best inspiration for a hit Broadway musical: Alexander Hamilton

Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father is fantastic in its own right, but looking at how Lin-Manuel Miranda manipulated the timeline and even the construction of some of the main characters is a master class in creative transformation.

Best book whose first chapter will make you ugly-cry into your latte at Cafe St Jorge, to the mild alarm of your fellow guests: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize this year but be warned: her stories about what actually happened in the aftermath of the explosion, and how social class dictated who suffered and who died, will fuck you right up.

Best and most moving farewell from a writer you have loved all your adult life: On the Move: A Life

What can I add to what has already been written about Oliver Sacks, his imaginative compassion, the generosity of spirit that grew so unexpectedly out of his privileged and circumscribed circumstances? Not much. (In close second place for this category: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia.)

Best gift for your girlfriends of the crazy cat persuasion: The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries

Disappointed in love, the brilliant Jessa Crispin packed up her apartment and couch-surfed her way across Europe, reading in search of reasons to go on living. A manifesto for all of us who are lost, lonely and ugly, outside and in.

Best book you bounced off hard as a stupid kid and now recognize for the straight-up masterpiece it is: Beloved

The insane, vindictive ghost baby? It’s us.

Best book-length elaboration on the theme that Black Lives Matter: Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ open letter to his son may also turn out to be an enduring masterpiece, but for me the most intimate pleasure of it was its celebration of Paris, a city that for all its fucked-up flaws is one of the finest things human hands have made.

Best book that killed off my favorite character from the previous book in its opening scene: The Philosopher Kings

Jesus, Jo! This series is obviously written for the pure motherfucking joy of it, for the wish-fulfillment of standing shoulder to shoulder with the writers you adored and building a city even more beautiful than Paris. (And then finding out that you had overlooked some very important questions about personhood, autonomy, cruelty and choice.)

Most heartbreaking memorial to our own lost generation: And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

An essential book and a companion to the equally essential The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Randy Shilts’ history of the plague documents the appalling cost of it and the sheer inadequacy of our human response.

Most beautiful portrayal of raw grief: Men We Reaped

Five young men close to Jesmyn Ward died in four years, and this devastating meditation on their deaths brings their loss into razor-sharp focus.

Most accurate portrayal of Australia as an airless mining asteroid that turns men’s hearts to stone: This House of Grief

Helen Garner is our Janet Malcolm and this book is our Iphigenia in Forest Hills.

By the numbers:

Books by women: 7. People of color: 3. Gay men: 2. Straight white men: 2. (Is this the most charming sentence in Wikipedia? “Marsh is married to the social anthropologist Kate Fox and spends his spare time making furniture and keeping bees.” Kate Fox wrote Watching the English! BEST DINNER PARTY GUESTS.) I used to joke that I didn’t read books by straight white men because their concerns were too narrow and parochial, but it’s not a joke any more.

Australian writers: 1. Russian: 1. English: 3ish, although Jo Walton is Welsh and lives in Canada and Oliver Sacks spent most of his life in New York. American: 7.

Total books read: about 120. Either I am slowing down or I lose 30 books’ worth of capacity in each year in which one of my parents dies. Guess we’ll find out!

adventure time: yolo

Yesterday I drove north, past a bonfire and through an almost Sydney-severe rainsquall, to where California State Route 16 West peels off from I-505 into Yolo County. There, the sun came out and shone on the dry Capay Hills, turning them lemon and gold in front of the smudged indigo mountains behind them.

I wanted so badly to go into those warm yellow hills! And then Highway 16 took me around a corner and into Rumsey Canyon, carved out of the stone by Cache Creek, all geology and cattle pasture and gnarled old oaks. I wanted so badly to get out and walk around! And then Google took me up a still narrower canyon through which Bear Creek was running and gently steaming, and I met Tina at Wilbur Hot Springs, a gorgeous place that smells in a very friendly way of eggy farts.

We soaked in the hot green sulfurous water, shared bread and cheese and salami and radishes and olives and champagne and a little chocolate, rode bikes through the nature preserve, past the geyser to the wind chime forest, and talked about books and politics and our children and our partners and the parties we used to throw in the 90s and her painting and my writing and her sister, my friend Jen. We were urged to leave our electronics behind, and I did, so I don’t have any pictures, sorry about that.

Tina and I don’t see each other often enough and this has to be changed. As I drove back, the near-full moon rose on my left through a pink band of sunset. It followed me home to the city.

Today I drove south to a stable in the redwoods, where Salome and I saddled up and rode two bright gold pony mares through the forest to a chain of meadows in the sun. We talked about work and education and our children and her painting and my writing and our plans for the future. I stuck my iPhone in my jacket pocket, so here are some pictures for you.

We saw five mule deer, the sun pink through their absurd ears. One gentle doe was napping under the trees, curled like a cat.

California is so impossibly motherfucking beautiful sometimes, it actually kind of hurts.

the dead ladies project, by jessa crispin

Let’s say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking they’ve chosen this city, they’ll never know that the city chose them.

It’s a favorite myth in our culture that hardship makes you a better person, that it is merely the grindstone on which your essence is refined and polished. But the truth is that scarcity, depression, thwarted ambition, and suffering most often leave the person a little twisted.

We all occupy space on top of one atrocity or another, blood has coated every square inch of this earth.

My childhood was one of deprivation. Not deprivation in a material sense but a deprivation of beauty. Which might not sound like much, unless you live on beauty, unless it is your air and water and religion.

The south of France of today is what happens to a place when all the artists, the queers, and the misfits have been driven out by rising prices and improving “quality of life.” The rich are attracted to the places built by the freaks, the heat and the noise of places like Berlin, New York, San Francisco, and then they strip the cities down to their stumps like an insect swarm, driving off any biodiversity until all that is left is people with money.

You are not standing in the London of today but in the London of forever, its pasts and its futures, real and imagined.

What saves you is a new story to tell yourself about how things could be.

five things because i’ll probably forget again on friday

1. There is a much longer story about the horse show that I will doubtless tell each of you over a bottle of wine some time, which begins with Nick-the-horse dumping me onto a fence at our Friday lesson, such that his bridle came off and I still have a spectacular bruise on my right butt cheek, moves through a 2-hour drive to get a delightful Dutch breeder named Constanza from the showgrounds to the airport (we are fast friends now and I am invited to her farm outside Utrecht), and ends with me enjoying myself in a show ring for the first time, riding the kind of blissed-out, fluid round we can do at home but never before in front of a judge. “Shit,” Casey reports the trainer standing next to her saying of our performance: “they are laying down some good trips.” We were.

2. Once again I have been puzzlingly overlooked for a Macarthur – perhaps something to do with the fact that I haven’t actually written anything – but I was completely goddamn delighted with two of this year’s picks: my longstanding beloved Ta-Nehisi Coates (have you read his new book yet, why haven’t you read his new book yet), and my new fling Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’ve listened to the cast soundtrack of Miranda’s musical Hamilton approximately one gajillion times since it was released last week. It’s a masterpiece. There’s fine-grained, scintillating brilliance in the detail work, a pattern not so much sequential as unfolding ever outwards, revisiting themes to add nuance and complexity and shadow. But there’s also the straight-up shot to the heart of a staggering story, fiercely told. God, just listen. Trust.

3. Three audiobooks by dudes, of varying quality but interconnecting themes: the Oliver Sacks memoir, and then Laszlo Bock’s book about people ops at Google, and then Vaillant’s account of the Harvard Grant Study. You always think you can’t love Oliver Sacks any more, and then you do. People are so real and present and urgent to him. I wanted to be scathing about Bock but his sincerity and curiosity were hard to resist. (Like Maciej Ceglowski and Sebastian Stan, he grew up a communist; maybe that’s why all three seem to have an inner core of diamond-hard idealism. Easy enough to sneer at freedom when you’ve never been unfree.) Bock’s description of evidence-based everything has the distinction of being the first thing I’ve ever read that gave me the slightest interest in working at Google. Still slight, though. Weirdly, Vaillant’s book has made me yell at the car stereo a lot more than Bock’s did. The Grant study is an extraordinary, 75-year-and-counting longitudinal study of a bunch of college men. With this astonishing wealth of material at his disposal, Vaillant’s mistakes are both egregious (autism, for example, is not a “genetic lack of empathy” and fuck you George for saying that it is) and pervasive. The case studies are quite glorious, almost worthy of Sacks, but the conclusions I draw from them are very different from Vaillant’s. A delicious takedown in the Atlantic paints him as a deeply flawed man.

4. Three books by ladies, of uniformly high excellence: Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up is just as life-changing as advertised. Sparking joy is good but the part that clicked for me is the act of thanking your no-longer-needed belongings for their service. My medicine cabinet has never looked so spare. I put off reading What Works for Women at Work for months, afraid that it would make me feel (more) guilty, but in fact it’s one of the most validating books I’ve read in ages. Jessa Crispin’s Dead Ladies Project documents a sojourn in Europe in search of reasons to live. I am devouring it.

5. How is it even possible that I haven’t blogged about Steven Universe yet? There’s probably a German word for the first time your kid recommends something to you and you pay attention to the thing and you realize, Holy shit, this thing is really good. My kid found a good thing. SU is, for me and Claire, that thing. It’s a love letter from maker Rebecca Sugar to her younger brother, and from both of them to the beach towns where they spent holidays growing up, and to the anime they adore, and it’s also a fully realized world with compassionately drawn, three-dimensional characters. It is beautiful and wise and sane and also hilarious and adorable. It’s a love letter to all of us, and so’s Ta-Nehisi’s book and Lin-Manuel’s show and Oliver’s memoir, and I needed all of them, I needed all the reasons I could possibly find to get out of bed, I literally needed reasons to get back on the horse, and they came when I needed them and I’m so grateful.

getting a friday five in early

1. A recycled Twitter joke: I posted this last Tuesday and my friend Matthew asked whether the Kaiju were under water, so I said that they were, and that this picture was taken from Jeremy’s and my Jaeger, the Frock Advisory. Seriously, though, look at my beautiful city.

2. My big brother Alain arrived on Thursday and is now an essential member of the household and may not leave. We went out for margaritas with a bunch of folks on Saturday and all got thoroughly roaring and ordered Pizzahacker on the way home. Danny converted Al to the cult of Ingress and now he is part of the Resistance, firing energy weapons into interdimensional portals as he walks around the Mission. (It cracks me up that every technolibertarian and privacy activist I know is in thrall to this sinister surveillance weapon of a game.)

3. Nick-the-horse and I had a lesson with Colin in the Grand Prix arena and, in between very embarrassing refusals, jumped up to a meter ten. It’s the very lowest level of jumping that anyone takes remotely seriously, it’s my goal height and it scared the living crap out of me. But we jumped it. It turns out that my snuggly goober Nicky Boo Bear is an imported Dutch Warmblood from a stallion line that has produced (notoriously badly-behaved) Grand Prix horses in both jumping and dressage. A frog prince.

4. Jeremy and I went to NASA Ames to wait for the New Horizons spacecraft to phone home. That’s us in front of the beautiful Hangar One.

I love NASA as I love national parks and missile silos converted into marine mammal rescue centers, which is to say, immoderately. They kept describing the spacecraft as the size of a grand piano, so now that is how I picture it, a golden Steinway hurtling through the dwarf planet system, exploring strange new worlds, boldly going. A scientific instrument.

5. Ta-Nehisi’s new book is amazing.

 

spirits abroad, by zen cho

Old people should be grateful for affection. The sudden disturbing thought occurred to Vivian that no one had liked Nai Nai very much because she’d never submitted to being looked after.

“Yi Yi,” said Vivian. “She didn’t talk to you because in Nai Nai’s eyes you are perfect already.” As she said this, she realized it was true. Wei Yi — awkward, furious and objectionable in every way — was Nai Nai’s ideal grandchild. There was no need to monitor or reprimand such a perfect heir.

She put her soft hand on Ah Lee’s arm and stroked it. Love came up the arm and melted Ah Lee’s thorny teenaged heart.

this house of grief, by helen garner

The water in the glass he sipped from trembled; but still he gave off that little buzz of glamour peculiar to the Australian tradie

Crop-haired and wiry in her dark blue uniform, a huge diver’s watch on her wrist, Senior Constable Rebecca Caskey of the Search and Rescue Squad stood in the witness stand with her hands clasped loosely behind her. Something in her easy posture reminded me of nurses I had seen at work: women of few words, unflappable, alert and calm.

His responses were so inadequate to the gravity of the situation that it hurt to look at him.

Oh, how bleak and windswept it seems to women, the landscape of what some men call friendship.

falling into the fire, by christine montross

“Sometimes holding all the blackness they feel is the only thing you can do. That’s not nothing. And sometimes it is enough.”

I question my intuition rigorously and routinely, but I rely upon it nonetheless.

Don’t just do something, stand there.

If I am to abide with these patients, then I must accompany them to that place among the rocks, to the sweating wall. I must face with them the uncertainty of what lies beyond. I must stand at the edge with them and peer over into the fathomless depths. If I tell my patients, as I do, that this life can be a tolerable one, that they can face their fears and their traumas, their visions and voices, their misery, then I must look at what I am asking them to endure and I must look at it full in the face.

How do we do it? How do we bear the unbearable realities of our human lives? Someday I will die and leave Deborah, and our son, and our daughter. Or someday each of them will die and leave me. How do we reckon with this inconceivable a loss?

the empathy exams, by leslie jamison

I needed something from the world I didn’t know how to ask for. I needed people—Dave, a doctor, anyone—to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible.

The insistence upon an external agent of damage implies an imagining of the self as a unified entity, a collection of physical, mental, spiritual components all serving the good of some Gestalt whole—the being itself. When really, the self—at least, as I’ve experienced mine—is much more discordant and self-sabotaging, neither fully integrated nor consistently serving its own good.

“That’s so generous,” she said to me when I gave it to her—and of course I’d been hoping she would say that. I wanted to do nice things for everyone out of a sense of preemptive guilt

The great shame of your privilege is a hot blush the whole time. The truth of this place is infinite and irreducible, and self-reflexive anguish might feel like the only thing you can offer in return. It might be hard to hear anything above the clattering machinery of your guilt. Try to listen anyway.

A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial—as if “attention” were inherently a selfish thing to want.

the forest of faces

Just south of the Lions Park out of Manilla, NSW, someone has painted a bearded face on a tree.

Beardie

It’s the first of eight such faces (that we know of), all taking advantage of the contours of the burls. The second one, named Toby by my nephew though it looks more like Gromit, is my favorite.

Toby

Before this trip to Barraba I tried to describe to myself the difference between my father’s town of a thousand souls and my own beloved city of San Francisco, population 800k but arguably way fewer souls. There are the giveaway jokes: Barraba used to have an asbestos mine, and just missed out on a new abattoir. In New York, everyone’s writing a novel; in LA, they’re working on a screenplay; in SF, they’re building an app.

That second joke gave me a clue. I love the density of narrative in cities, the plaques on London’s Georgian houses, the ghost of the railroad through the Mission, the undergrounded waterways. I thought for a while that Barraba is relatively empty of stories, until I remembered with a stab of sorrow that it used to be full of them, but that my ancestors tried to kill all the people that knew them.

Barraba is in Gamilaraay country. One story I do know is that of the Myall Creek Massacre.

Captain

I’ve spent enough time in Barraba to have made good friends and learned a little of their stories. Pam has a great one about her husband Ted riding across a flooded creek to be with her when she had a baby; she remembers the sight of him galloping up to the house, surrounded by a halo of flies. Jane’s family owns a property called Wiry, which I had assumed was an Aboriginal name. Turns out it was part of the land grants to returned soliders, and because it’s a relatively hilly and inaccessible property, the recipient grumbled “Wouldn’t it root ya.” More giveaway jokes.

Joker

Jane asked me flat out what all seven of you remaining blog readers have probably been wondering: “Are you neglecting the blog because the stuff you’re thinking about is too intense and sad?” Yup. But something really terrific has happened. A researcher has become interested in Dad’s blog, which was critical to his diagnosis of semantic dementia. We have 17 years’ worth of his written records as his condition developed – more than five times the length of the next longest case study. Joanna believes we can extract psycholinguistic markers of the changes to his vocabulary that may help scientists to develop more sensitive diagnostic tests.

As part of collating the material for Joanna, I read a few of Dad’s earliest blog entries. He had a decent line in giveaway jokes of his own:

Tue 10 Feb 1998

Got away late from Sydney. Lasted on the road until 6 o’clock at which time we found ourselves in Gunning, between Goulburn and Gundagai.

Gunning is a town of a thousand souls and very few outstanding features.

King

Death is the eater of meaning. It swallows up whole universes, erases stories from the landscape.

Panda

The work of grief is to make sense of loss. We have to make new narratives to mark the place of those that are gone.

Santa

We have to find the faces in the forest.

ancillary justice, by ann leckie

…luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience…

It seems very straightforward when I say “I.”

…when I look closer I seem to see cracks everywhere. Did the singing contribute, the thing that made One Esk different from all other units on the ship, indeed in the fleets? Perhaps. Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really a fiction?

I spent six months trying to understand how to do anything—not just how to get my message to the Lord of the Radch, but how to walk and breathe and sleep and eat as myself. As a myself that was only a fragment of what I had been, with no conceivable future beyond eternally wishing for what was gone.

It’s hard for me to know how much of myself I remember. How much I might have known, that I had hidden from myself all my life.

sorting through mum’s stuff

I find a note she wrote me:

“For Rachel
Gwen Harwood
Poet
Bone Scan”

She doesn’t even remember writing it.

I look it up and find:

In the twinkling of an eye,
in a moment, all is changed:
on a small radiant screen
(honeydew melon green)
are my scintillating bones.
Still in my flesh I see
the God who goes with me
glowing with radioactive
isotopes. This is what he
at last allows a mortal
eye to behold: the grand
supporting frame complete
(but for the wisdom teeth)
the friend who lives beneath
appearances, alive
with light. Each glittering bone
assures me: you are known.

impro, by keith johnstone

I kinda wanna copy out the whole first chapter, but will restrain myself somehow –

As I grew up, everything started getting grey and dull. I could still remember the amazing intensity of the world I’d lived in as a child, but I thought the dulling of perception was an inevitable consequence of age – just as the lens of the eye is bound gradually to dim. I didn’t understand that clarity is in the mind.

On Gifted And Talented Education (GATE) as the gateway drug to being a massive douche:

I tried to resist my schooling, but I accepted the idea that my intelligence was the most important part of me. I tried to be clever in everything I did.

On school as trauma:

My ‘failure’ was a survival tactic, and without it I would probably never have worked my way out of the trap that my education had set for me. I would have ended up with a lot more of my consciousness blocked off from me than now.

On the importance of writing about something other than what one has read – ironically, the exact opposite of what I am doing here:

I had expected that there’d be a very gentle gradation from awful to excellent, and that I’d be involved in a lot of heart-searching. Almost all were total failures – they couldn’t have been put on in the village hall for the author’s friends. It wasn’t a matter of lack of talent, but of miseducation. The authors of the pseudo-plays assumed that writing should be based on other writing, not on life.

On aging disgracefully:

I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children.

Reminds me of something – what was it – oh right –

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy…

books of the year: stories of friendship and hope

I didn’t have a fantastic year in reading, to be honest – I think the Kindle threw me off and that my patterns of acquisition and consumption have yet to rebalance. Here are some books I read that I liked very much:

Nonfiction

Fiction

I guess it wasn’t such a terrible year in reading at that. There are two books, though, that I want to push into your hands in an overbearing yet adorkable bookseller-or-librarian-ish way: Constellation Games and Fair Play. Please read these books. They are very great.

It feels like cheating to recommend Leonard’s book when I have known and loved Leonard for ten years, but I must have read Constellation Games four times this year and gotten something more out of it each time. It’s a first contact novel and an existential love story and it did more than any other single argument to make me believe games are an important art form, but it’s also incredibly funny and moving and Curic the two-souled purple otter is my new favourite fictional character. For its part, Fair Play is about two seventysomething women living at opposite ends of an attic having conversations about pictures and books. Yes, Tove Jansson is the Moomin person. This book is based in part on her life with her wife.

Why these two? Because I am 41 years old. Because I love animals and nature and am living through a mass extinction I helped cause. Because I am a pacifist living in America, and a progressive anarchist who spent my teens as an evangelical Christian assuming I would die in a nuclear holocaust. Because for my first quarter-century I was much troubled by despair. It’s only in the last decade or two that I have had the luxury of time to tinker with my diet and my neurochemistry and my cognitive behavior to try to make a habit of hope and not horror. Because it’s the Northern winter solstice and that means all the festivals of lights, all the songs and candles in the long darkness, and what all the festivals mean is that physics is real: this will be the longest night of the year, and that tomorrow at dawn one shaft of sun will light up the corbel-vaulted room inside Newgrange [or insert your neolithic solar calendar of choice]. And then everything will start to feel a little bit better. It doesn’t stay dark. As Bill Bryson says, life wants to be. Life doesn’t want to be much. From time to time, life goes extinct. Life goes on.

Constellation Games and Fair Play are quite literally stories of friendship and hope, not in the movie trailer way that makes you wince but in a clear-eyed, fearless way that is able to talk about betrayal and jealousy and irreconcilable differences and the cold empty vastness of space. They are both, in fact, books about how to be a friend, and how to be hopeful. We are chimpanzees with doomsday weapons, adrift on a rock in an immense dark void. We have to take care of each other and we have to believe that things can change for the better. So, you know. RTFM.

what the living do, by marie howe

I picked this up because one of the Rumpus bloggers read it in the Australian coffee shop in Brooklyn that Matt took me to – what? That’s cromulent! – but no one told me it was an AIDS memoir.

The Last Time

The last time we had dinner together in a restaurant
with white tablecloths, he leaned forward

and took my two hands in his hands and said,
I’m going to die soon. I want you to know that.

And I said, I think I do know.
And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t.

And I said, I do. And he said, What?
And I said, Know that you’re going to die.

And he said, No, I mean know that you are.

Oh, and also a love letter to her brother, two things which separately and together are bound to make me verklempt. I miss them, the AIDS dead. I imagine another mentor or two, acid-tongued, politically astute, fond of my children. The other books Paul Monette would have written, Kenny Everett’s late night talk show, Freddie Mercury’s kickass performance at the Olympic opening ceremony in London, the rest of Derek Jarman’s films. Fuck.

Nothing for it but my best Zen life hack: pretend you are travelling back from the future to see that person you loved one last time.

panic, by david marr

Marr is Australia’s best journalist right now, as far as I can gather. He is acute on both what makes us different…

David Malouf has a wonderful theory that it’s the English we carried in our baggage that makes America and Australia such different places. In the early seventeenth century, settlers took to America a language of abstractions: “Passionately evangelical and utopian, deeply imbued with the religious fanaticism and radical violence of the time, this was the language of … dissenters … who left England to found a new society that would be free, as they saw it, of authoritarian government by Church and Crown.” Malouf argues that by the time Australia was colonised, the language had changed. What the First Fleet brought here “was the language of the English and Scottish Enlightenment: sober, unemphatic, good-humoured; a very sociable and moderate language; modern in a way that even we would recognise, and supremely rational and down to earth”.

…and what makes us boringly the same as everyone else.

Wherever the Tampa tactics lead Australia in the years to come, those of us in the City Recital Hall yesterday will remember the sight and the sound of a white, prosperous audience baying for border protection. They know it’s the winning ticket and John Howard has found it for them. He is a genius of sorts: he looks this country in the face and sees us not as we wish we were, not as one day we might be, but exactly as we are. The political assessment is ruthlessly realistic. Only the language is coy. But who has ever admitted to playing the race card?

why be happy / are you my mother

Yes, they are both meditative middle-aged memoirs by great lesbian writers. Both dramatize the writer’s complicated relationship with her mother and both name-drop Woolf and Winnicott all over the damn place. And YES YOU HAVE TO READ THEM BOTH. I don’t care. Cancel your calls.

Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. These things made me angry.

I love them at least in part because the NY Times gave Bechdel a shitty review that boils down to “These women! How dare they think their inner lives are interesting?” Therefore reading these books is exactly the same as jabbing a burnt stick into the eyes of the Four Boresmen of the Aborecalypse (Mailer, Bellow, Roth and Updike. Could those guys HAVE more cockish names?) And if that doesn’t make you want to read them I don’t know what will.

I was very often full of rage and despair. I was always lonely. In spite of all that I was and am in love with life.

I remember curling up in Books Upstairs in Dublin, right outside the gates of Trinity College, and reading Dykes to Watch Out For like it was going to save my life. I can’t have been in Ireland for more than a week. And I never connected with Winterson in the same way; I’ve never even seen Oranges. But this book! This book. It took me apart.

I know these are ways of surviving, but maybe a refusal, any refusal, to be broken lets in enough light and air to keep believing in the world – a dream of escape.