The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Staff Picks: Border Towns, Brylcreem, Backstairs Intrigue

September 23, 2016 | by

Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 1978. © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos, via Aperture.

I’ve long felt that the best recommendations for photographic work come from other photographers. From Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan I learned about the work of Alex Webb, who, as luck would have it, has a show of photographs at Aperture right now. On view are Webb’s photographs from Mexico taken between 1975, when Webb was twenty-three, and 2007. He shot the images on the streets, in border towns, but it doesn’t feel right to call this street photography: there’s a theatricality to some of the photographs, but subdued, without the performative pomp of much American street work. One depicts a scene of mourning in which three anguished women are momentarily frozen in classical poses as they lament over a man’s body. Another shows a deserted boulevard of buildings under construction shot from an elevated perspective; the rocky terrain and buildings are mainly white, but in the foreground is a cardboard box from which an array of colorful women’s shoes bloom like a desert flower. There’s a sense of precariousness in many of these photographs, but it’s frequently offset by Webb’s brilliant use of color—acid green, sky blue, dusty rose—which light up each moment like a small celebration. —Nicole Rudick

I recently dove into C. K. Williams’s final collection of poetry, Falling Ill (which will publish posthumously early next year), and I’m in awe of it. As the title implies, it’s an unflinching chronicle of what it’s like to die, from terminal diagnosis—for Williams, the “alliterated appellation” multiple myeloma—to the difficulty of waking, to the things one says to oneself as the illness takes over, things like, Am I still hereCatch your breathAre you ready. Williams writes carefully, matter-of-factly, of death’s crippling seizure: the pops and farts and groans his body makes in defiance of him, the fear that has “outwitted me again / changed its costume sharpened its knives.” The book is slender, with fifty-two poems: one per page, each five stanzas of three lines apiece. Williams voids every poem of commas and periods as if to weave his unself-conscious urgency and unease into the very fibers of the collection. The last poem, “Farewell,” leaves us with these indelible, inconsolable words: “there must be // a way to cry goodbye aloud to leave you / these inadequate thanks without resorting / to rending farewell oh dear heart farewell” —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

Alan Watts, This Is It

August 24, 2016 | by

Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago.

Alan Watts.

Alan Watts.

In my high school creative-writing class, one day a week was set aside for reading, our choice of material. The hippieish teacher guided those choices, but almost anything worked. It was here, because of her, that I first encountered Alan Watts, specifically his essay collection This Is It. All I remember about the book itself is my teacher dreamily commenting on the title. I picked up a copy because it was short, and because the subtitle—and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience—spoke to me. The idea seemed “cool”—Watts was a forerunner of the counterculture movement—but I must have been too busy with the eternity of high school to focus my attention.

I was in college when I was in a car accident that tore a nerve in my shoulder. A botched surgery to repair it severed an artery and released a blood clot that, a week later, caused a massive stroke that left me locked inside my body. I couldn’t move or speak, and the doctors said I would be paralyzed from the eyes down for the rest of my life. Read More »

There’s the Great Man

August 2, 2016 | by

Befriending George Plimpton.


George Plimpton in his office.

George’s questions were like trampolines, a technology he admired. They bounced you higher—to the next question. This was particularly true when he was talking about writers and writing.

“Did you know that the great Camus played goal for the Oran Football Club?” he asked me when we were walking past an Algerian restaurant near his apartment on Seventy-Second Street. I was unaware but said that I did think Gabriel García Márquez had written a soccer column for a while in Bogota.

Alas,” George sighed, “Le colonisateur de bonne volonte was never moved to write about it. Imagine, the existential goalkeeper.”

Alas,” I said, and he gave me a look. Read More »

By the Seat of Your Pants, and Other News

August 1, 2016 | by

From an eighties ad for Hillbillies Jeans.

  • Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—a well-known American novelist sits down for an interview, and he says, “I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare [to write about race] … I feel it’s really dangerous, if you are a liberal white American, to presume that your good intentions are enough to embark on a work of imagination about black America. I am particularly vigilant there. I have thought about it—you know, race is big in America.”
  • When Lucia Berlin died in 2004, she left behind the makings of a memoir, including a long story about traveling through Mexico with Buddy Berlin, a saxophonist with a heroin problem: “First, Peggy sent a little box with a dozen vials of pure morphine. ‘A little something for Bud.’ Peggy lived alone in a fabulous house on top of the hill. She spent much of her day looking through a powerful telescope, checking the beach for arrivals of famous people to invite up to her house, checking out everything else going on. She must have seen the boys playing soccer with village boys, riding horseback on the beach, going upriver with Juanito to help his father pick coffee. She must have seen them racing canoes, heard their laughter echoing above the water. She must have seen us talking with friends in our beautiful garden, lying on the beach. She must have seen Buddy and me kiss, must have seen us happy. How could she send that box?”
  • Our puzzle correspondent, Dylan Hicks, has vouched early and often for the joys of hink pink, “a word game in which synonyms, circumlocution, and micronarratives provide clues for rhyming phrases.” His advocacy has led to a paradigm shift among puzzle enthusiasts who also read literary magazines: at The Cincinnati Review, Michael Griffith has written some hink pinks of his own. (Personal favorite: “Internet discussion board for boosters of an ex-Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate,” which can only be “Santorum forum.”)
  • In what many “content providers” probably regard as “the good old days,” fans were more or less powerless—if they didn’t like whatever schlock the major entertainment conglomerates were churning out, their only recourse was a letter-writing campaign. But things are different now, and this year the fans have demanded to be heard. As Elizabeth Minkel writes, “For the past few months, people have been debating whether fandom is ‘broken’ … Fans have always talked back, but prior to social media they weren’t even a fraction as visible as they are today. We’re witnessing the destruction of the fannish fourth wall in real-time: fans and creators are now seeing each other clearly on a massive scale, and creators are unsure how to—or if they even should—listen to fans.”

No Regrets

April 27, 2016 | by

Marietta Peabody Tree, from the cover of No Regrets.

My mother has been on somewhat of a socialite kick lately. For a while, when I talked to her, she was reading No Regrets: The Life of Marietta Tree. “Someone who ought to have had a lot of regrets,” was her acid review. From there, she moved on to a biography of the famous Cushing sisters. Read More »

Slayer Is Sad, and Other News

January 19, 2016 | by

From Slayer’s Reign in Blood, 1986.

  • Norman Rush on “the savage fictions” of Horacio Castellanos Moya and the archetype of the “superfluous man”: “The literary woods are of course as full of superfluous men as they are of unreliable narrators and, these days, really rebarbative antiheroes. Superfluous men make up an illustrious lineage: Goncharov’s Oblomov, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Melville’s Bartleby, Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, all the way down through Sartre’s Roquentin and the hero of Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Superfluous men respond with disaffection, dysfunction, or withdrawal when they are unhorsed or irritated by the changing fortunes that the social machine spits out. It can be anything—plunging status, national disgrace, political or religious disillusion, extreme boredom … It’s always interesting to pick at the question of why these guys are the way they are. Sometimes the answer is on the surface and sometimes it’s complex and not on the surface at all. First of all, it’s fun to read about superfluous men. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe they offer to overworked and overbooked readers a dream of letting go, enjoying regression. There is learning and pleasure to be got from reading about them.”
  • Remember the whole debacle over A Million Little Pieces? That was ten years ago now. On one hand, not much has changed since then: readers still thirst for true stories, outrageous revelation, harrowing redemption. On the other hand, the memoir form has never had more to compete with, William Giraldi writes: “In the decade since the James Frey fiasco, social media has turned untold people into hourly memoirists in miniature. We live now in a culture of incessant confession … The absurdly named ‘confessional poets’ of the mid-twentieth century—Lowell and Berryman, Sexton and Roethke—look a touch constipated compared to your average Facebooker. How eagerly lives become doggerelized. What does it mean for the memoir as a form now that everyone, at any time, can instantaneously advertise his life to everyone else? Mailer never dreamed of such advertisements for the self … In this new ethos of endless self-advertisement, the memoir assumes a renewed responsibility, one that exceeds confessionalism.”
  • As music-streaming services come to dictate our listening habits and, to an increasing degree, our taste, we risk losing sight of the enormous emotional variance across genres. What makes sad songs sad, for instance, and how do songwriters from very different molds—Adele, Slayer, Nick Drake, Mozart—inflect their songs with sadness? Ben Ratliff investigates: “What is sadness in sound per se? Nothing. It doesn’t exist. There is no note or kind of note that in and of itself is sad and only sad … The construct of sadness, and the attendant contract that it helps build between musician and listener, has to do with how we might recognize it person-to-person: through silence and dissonant long tones, or through agitation and mania; through closed systems of harmony or phrasing, or through unnervingly open and dark ones. We hear it through voices and through instruments. And as listeners agree to play by the official rules of sadness, so do most musicians, and so do most singers, imitating the sound of instruments … There is a culture around any music, and how you understand that culture influences how you hear. Listening is augmented hearing, hearing through certain layers.”
  • “I love you madly … There is never a moment in which I do not adore you.” “I live and exist only to love you—adoring you is my only consolation.” Are these the words of friends or lovers? Hard to say when their authors are from the eighteenth century. These quotations are drawn from letters between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, the Swedish Count with whom she’s suspected to have had an affair. But with emphasis on that “suspected”—historians have yet to find conclusive evidence of their tryst.
  • If you’re bored and looking for your next big project, maybe it’s time to rethink space. All of it, and your relation to it. As George Musser writes, “In the past twenty years, I’ve witnessed a remarkable evolution in attitudes among physicists toward locality … Over and over, I heard some variant of: ‘Well, it’s weird, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen if for myself, but it looks like the world has just got to be nonlocal’ … Instead of saying that space brings order to the world, you can say that the world is ordered and space is a convenient notion for describing that order. We perceive that things affect one another in a certain way and, from that, we assign them locations in space.”