Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category
The best books elicit emotions from its readers. Truly great books give rise to conflicted feelings. My Friend Dahmer, the graphic novel by Derf Backderf, falls firmly within that second category.
Backderf grew up in Richfield, Ohio, attending Eastview Junior High and Revere High School in the 70s, which would all seem innocuous enough had it not been for a certain classmate, convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Dahmer went largely unnoticed — even when he was drinking heavily throughout the school, reeking of alcohol — but Backderf and his group befriended the odd character, laughing at his impressions of a physically challenged interior decorator and egging him on for public disturbances. Throughout this time, Backderf drew sketches of Dahmer, recording his antics, both humorous and disturbing — all of which aided his memory when recalling details for the book.
From time to time the group was privy to the darker side of Dahmer’s antisocial behavior — his taxidermy experiments with roadkill (he liked to dissolve already dead animals in acid) and his aforementioned drinking problem (pounding a six pack in the back of a car in under 10 minutes). Once, while picking him up at home, they met his mentally ill mother (who ultimately left Dahmer alone in his childhood home when his life was in the most danger of going off the rails).
Most people will remember, if not the details, the horror they felt when they learned of Dahmer’s arrest — a young serial killer who not only murdered his victims but ate them as well. It was the first time I’d heard of an actual cannibal living among us — not just some desperate exploratory group in a history book.
The copy of My Friend Dahmer that we see on shelves today grew out of Backderf’s self-published comic, first drawn and written after Dahmer’s death in 1994. With his R. Crumb-like stylings, detailed and at times grotesque, Backderf went back and fleshed out his story using not only his memory and interviews with former classmates, but also interviews Dahmer conducted after his arrest, legal documents, news accounts, and Dahmer’s father’s memoir; all of which is well documented in the back of the book.
Backderf makes it very clear that he loses all sympathy for Dahmer as soon as he kills his first human but, at the same time, he does a great job of showing what a tragedy this was, not just for Dahmer’s victims but for Dahmer as well. At times in the book it seems as if Dahmer knew he was deeply troubled and had few resources to cope with his urges. The reader, now having seen the teenage life of a future serial killer, is left wondering, like Backderf, if all of this could have turned out differently. Had the school acknowledged his alcoholism, had his parents not been dysfunctional, had his taxidermy experiments been brought to light, would Dahmer’s murderous tendencies have manifested or could they have been controlled? This is where the inner conflict kicks into overdrive.
My Friend Dahmer is an engrossing read, one that lingers in your bones, and will make you think twice about talking to strangers.
In the current issue of Tin House, I have an essay on Finnish author Tove Jansson. Jansson, probably best known for her children’s book characters The Moomins, also wrote books for adults. I had finally come across them early last year.
After reading Jansson’s novels, I was struck by her strong tone: a dark humor that appears to, at once, both celebrate and mock humanity. As I looked closer, I found that weather played a major role in the stories, determining where the characters lived, how they got on with their day-to-day, and even the personalities they developed.
Below is a short excerpt from the essay in the Winter Reading issue. Also in the issue is fiction from Fiona Maazel and Shirley Jackson; poetry from Meghan O’Rourke, Josh Bell, and Mark Z. Danielewski; an interview with author Robert Stone; and other reviews from Dani Shapiro and Tobias Carroll. Head out to your local bookstore today or order online at Tin House.
I came to Tove Jansson’s work late in life and in a backward fashion. Most people familiar with the Finnish author and illustrator know her as the creator of the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures first introduced in a children’s book series in 1945 and then adapted into a comic strip. The tales of the Moomins and their fantastical journeys through Moominvalley are something of a cult classic and I’m sad to have missed them in my youth.
Lesser championed are her novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical creatures but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting Jansson’s 1972 novel, The Summer Book, on display at a local bookstore–a slim book with a muted, pastel cover, and silhouette of an island in the center–I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot. It was only later, through a Google search, that I learned of her earlier work.
The opening chapters have a flash fiction feel–they are short, choppy, and do not appear to be linear. But as you continue to read, you realize they’re linked vignettes of life on an isolated island, the story of a cheeky grandmother and her precocious granddaughter, Sophia. (The young girl’s mother dead and the father, inexplicably, relegated to the background). The two, each the other’s primary companion, while away the hours amid the fauna and marshes of their seasonal home, moving between simple conversation and that which delves deeper:
The sun had climbed higher. The whole island, and the sea were glistening. The air seemed very
“I can dive,” Sophia said. “Do you know what it feels like when you dive?”
“Of course I do,” her grandmother said. “You let go of everything and get ready to just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown, and the water’s clear, lighter toward the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”
If you’re anything like me and you ask someone to describe you, “idle” would not show up on their list. I’m the type of person who will walk 20 blocks instead of connecting to another subway; it’s rare that I see a movie in the theater because the thought of sitting still for two hours makes my skin crawl; hang out with me for more than 45 minutes and I’ll suggest we get up from wherever we are and wander the streets; and if I’m not out of bed by 7am on the weekends I’ve wasted my day.
I read Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and other “lifehack” type publications that promise lessons on super-human productivity. I aspire to “robot brain,” my shorthand for ultimate organizational skills. “Idle” is not in my vocabulary. So, it was an interesting choice in books when I decided, last minute, to buy How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson, co-founder and editor of The Idler magazine.
While at the bookstore register, attempting to finish off a gift card, the bright orange cover propped up on the counter caught my eye. “Indispensable,” the bookseller said when I picked it up. I was sold. Maybe, I thought, just as I hone my productivity skills, I need to learn to relax. After all, recharging is an important part of the equation as well — or so all those seasoned lifehackers tell me.
In blending social history, humor, and profiles of famous idlers from science, the arts, and politics, Hodgkinson makes a convincing case for slowing down. At times, nearly sounding like a conspiracy theorist, he points out how we became workaholics. He quotes radical philosopher Terence McKenna, “… institutions fear idle populations because an Idler is a thinker and thinkers are not a welcome addition to most social situations.” He continues with his own thoughts:
It is precisely to prevent us from thinking too much that society pressurizes us all to get out of bed. … Introspection could lead to that terrible thing: a vision of the truth, a clear image of the horror of our fractured, dissonant world.
At one point in the book, the extremity of our situation — our collective discouragement towards idling — is made clear. We’ve gotten to the point as a society that many of us take vacation seriously: what should be a time of leisure has become “over-organized.” Not only are we under pressure to fit in all there is to see and do at our destination of choice but we’re expected to be cheerful about it.
From the first chapter, Hodgkinson flips your brain, putting you in a space to trust whatever comes next.
Sleep is a powerful seducer, hence the terrifying machinery we have developed to fight it. I mean, the alarm clock. Heavens! What evil genius brought together those two enemies of the idle–clocks and alarms–into one unit? … Is it not absurd to spend our hard-earned cash on a device to make every day of our lives start as unpleasantly as possible, and which really just serves the employer to whom we sell our time?
The chapters in How to Be Idle are broken down into hours of the day. 8 a.m., entitled “Waking Up is Hard to Do,” offers the advice of laying in bed longer and enjoying the half-awake time. 9 a.m., “Toil and Trouble,” suggests working fewer days a week. “Sleeping In,” which is 10 a.m., explains how idling is actually productive, using Walter Benjamin, Sherlock Holmes, and Rene Descartes as examples.
Defining idler as a “student of the art of living,” Hodgkinson finds valuable lessons in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, pointing out that in playing hooky there is potential for a journey of self-exploration.
How to Be Idle asks us to be our better selves — noble flaneurs in today’s fast-paced climate — and urges us to step outside the daily pressures:
As with all aspects of idleness, we should resist the pressure to reject the elements of our lives which do not fit into the productive, rational, busy paradigm that society and our own selves impose upon us.
To make time for conversation:
Sharing is at the heart of conversation: sharing ideas, entertainment and stories. … As well as giving rise to ideas, conversation gives a way of expressing them.
And to look up from time to time:
Gazing at the stars opens our minds to another reality, a mysterious eternal world, beyond material struggle.
How to Be Idle — as compelling as it is humorous — is a celebration of idleness, a lesson in the importance of stepping back, slowing down, and taking a deep breath. By the end it becomes clear, Hodgkinson’s book should be kept on everyone’s nightstand and reread at least once a year.
When Brian K. Vaughan’s comic book series Saga came out last year you couldn’t turn your head without reading a rave review. Lesser known and just as worthy of the same praise is his award-winning Runaways series created with artist Adrian Alphona.
First created in 2003, Runaways is the story of six kids brought together annually while their well-to-do parents discuss fundraising efforts. This year, bored with being confined to the game room, the group sets out to spy on the meeting—even if it is just talk about tax deductibles.
However, all is not as it seems behind closed doors. After sneaking through the house’s secret wall spaces, the kids learn the shocking truth about the grown ups. Now faced with an impossible question—family or justice?—the group, in shock from what they’ve just witnessed, must decide.
Drawn in the style of teen comic dramas (see: Archie, Blue Monday, Deadenders), Runaways offers an uneasy—yet wholly enjoyable—juxtaposition between youthful innocence and a brutal Shakespearean plot.
Find Runaways at your local bookstore
There’s a lot of talk about “brand” lately and, while I can’t claim this to be a new phenomenon, with the rise of social media the notion has extended beyond the walls of advertising and marketing meetings. Now that nearly everyone is on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and a host of other online forums, the term has come into public consciousness. People are asking how they want to present themselves to the world: what do I stand for? What should be public and what should remain private? What will build a reputation and what might destroy it? In essence, what is their “brand”?
There are many skeptics when it comes to branding. Those who view it negatively see it as insincere, disingenuous, and manipulative. But it doesn’t need to be this way. There’s a case for genuine marketing, a way of creating a strong, decided presence in order to connect with an eager audience.
I work in book publishing and constantly have to remind myself that not everyone knows what an imprint is: a subdivision of a larger publishing house. For example, Vintage is an imprint of Random House; Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster; Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin; and St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan.
For some who live within this bubble of publishing it can come as a surprise that not everyone looks at the spine of a book (where the name and logo of the imprint is located) when they walk into a bookstore; to us insiders it’s practically second nature. However, knowing what an imprint is and becoming familiar with what they publish can be incredibly useful to the general public.
Oftentimes you can tell the tone and quality of a book based on which imprint publishes it. If you’re looking for a business book, Crown and Portfolio are good bets; if you’re looking for something more literary Farrar, Straus and Giroux or Knopf might be the way you want to go; or if you are looking for something quirky in paperback, Harper Perennial, Three Rivers Press, and Plume will probably do the trick.
For those steeped in book culture these imprints are shorthand or, for those who like an air of exclusivity, secret code. It is this subsection of the book buying community that publishers—through social media and traditional advertising—can use branding to connect with and expand their audience.
What marketing naysayers might not know is that there are a number of professionals who are passionate about their branding projects, think deeply about their craft, and who don’t approach awareness-raising with cynicism.
In Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, Debbie Millman, partner and president of the design division at Sterling Brands, President Emeritus of AIGA, and chair of the School of Visual Arts’ master’s program in Branding, sits down with leading thinkers and designers in the field to get their thoughts on advertising. Throughout her interviews, Millman asks poignant and tailored questions. These unique conversations allow for a diverse range of definitions, anecdotes, and views of the industry.
In her introduction, Millman explains that “branding is a history in flux, and [her] hope is that this collection of conversations can provide a time capsule of the second decade of the 21st century.” Throughout Brand Thinking, humanity and storytelling are common themes; nearly everyone who creates campaigns has a desire to explore what brands are and what brand awareness means.
One of the participants is Dori Turnstall, an Associate Professor of Design Anthropology, an area of study she explains has two components: the practical dimension, how to design products based on our understanding of people, and the theoretical, understanding how “the process and artifacts of design help define what it means to be human.”
From cultural critics Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell to designer Karim Rashid to entrepreneur Seth Godin to a number of industry executives, Millman asks her subjects to explore the notion of “brand.” Each come to varying conclusions while sharing years of experience and knowledge.
Here are just a few excerpts from a book full of fascinating answers.
As mentioned, marketing expert Seth Godin was interviewed for the book. Here he defines brand:
I believe that ‘brand’ is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day.
Wally Olins, Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants of London, Madrid, Mumbai and New York, and author of a number of books on branding, has this to say about different mediums throughout the years (something to keep in mind as we’re flooding with information about the Internet and mobile devices):
Television didn’t kill radio; film didn’t kill theater. There will certainly be huge changes. But one medium doesn’t kill another. Each new medium actually makes the previous one better. Radio no longer resembles what it was before television. Television no longer resembles what it was before the Internet. All these things will change, but they give us a multiplicity of choice.
Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken, formerly a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and consultant for Coca-Cola, Chrysler, and Kraft, says this about understanding culture:
Designers—or indeed anybody who’s interested in business change or social change—need to make a knowledge of the culture and the social world in which they work the first condition of their provocation.
Regarding storytelling, former Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather Brian Collins, who now runs his own communication and branding firm and whose clientele history includes Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft, says:
I think the secret to working with existing brands is to help them find their intrinsic story. And then amplify the stories for new generations to share. Brands have become the best device for perpetuating mythic archetypes. …
We say we want information, but we don’t experience the world through information—we experience the world through story. … Stories are how we give meaning to what happens to us. When we call upon them, they activate archetypes—”archetypes” as defined by Carl Jung. They remind us of eternal truths, and they help us navigate through our lives.
Stanley Hainsworth former VP of Global Creative at Starbucks and Former Creative Director of Nike says:
For me, it’s all about having a story to tell. This is what will enable you to create an experience around the brand. … You go back to the essence of the brand. Why was it made? What need did it fill? Go back to the origins of a brand and identify how it connected to consumers and how it became a relevant, “loved by families” product. What were the origins of this story?
And Cheryl Swanson, founder of brand consultancy Toniq says:
A brand is a product with a compelling story. … The brands are totems. They tell us stories about our place in culture—about where we are and where we’ve been. They also help us figure out where we’re going.
President of Innovation at Sterling Brands, DeeDee Gordon, discusses the need for the audience to feel like they’re a part of brand:
It’s not enough to produce great creative work. Consumers won’t automatically like an idea just because a brand says so. They need to be part of the creative process—a process that is fluid, organic, and on their own terms. A process like this produces the most useful insights and allows designers to think about products in a whole new way—oftentimes, they’re introduced to entirely new ideas. Consumers can be designer’s biggest advocates, but only if designers will let the conversation happen and give consumers the respect they deserve by allowing them to have a say.”
Whether you’re in an industry that sells books, food, clothing, or some other object with numerous competitors, Brand Thinking will start you on a path to exploring a way to differentiate yourself from the pack, one that’s light on cynicism and heavy on passionate belief.
When you’re finished reading, Debbie Millman hosts a podcast on Design Observer called “Design Matters” where she speaks with innovators and creatives in the design field in the same manner featured in Brand Thinking. These thoughtful and stimulating conversations are an excellent compliment to her books and will keep you tide over until the next one.
Published in 1971, A Meaningful Life by Brooklyn writer L.J. Davis is a dark comedy and cautionary tale.
Lowell Lake, thirty years old, wakes up one morning to find himself in personal crisis, disinterested in his job and living in Manhattan, a city where he never intended to be. Suddenly, he’s aware of his surroundings and questions the direction his life has taken, retracing his steps to figure out how he came to be where he is.
Sophomore year at Stanford, while earning a degree in English (“It had always been his best subject and it didn’t commit him to do anything specific later in life”), he met Betty, a Jewish girl from Flatbush, Brooklyn. They liked each other well enough and although he began to have doubts as the day got closer they were married two days after graduation. The plan was to move to Berkeley where Lowell was to attend a university on scholarship but after he plays a joke on his wife everything goes terribly wrong.
”I thought we were going to Berkeley,” his wife had said nine years ago, her voice coming to him down the corridor of years as clearly as if she had spoken to him only a moment before. It was the instant his life had suddenly poised itself on an idle remark, and the hinge of fate had opened—a small moment, an utterly insignificant fragment of time that could have passed as swiftly as turning a page in a book, but instead it had changed his life forever. “Didn’t you say we were going to Berkeley?” she asked anxiously. …
He could still hear the voice, he could still see the room, he could still smell the old green overstuffed chair he’d been sitting in. “Maybe not,” he said. He was only teasing. Berkeley was definitely the place they were going, and the idea of going to New York instead had just sort of wandered into his mind a moment ago like a stray insect. No doubt it would have perished there at once if he hadn’t spoken it aloud. Now it was out in the open, and God help them all.
And so, they sealed their future plans on his poor judgment and her spite. “You’re going to hate it there,” his wife warned. After goodbyes to their classmates the two drove cross-country to begin their new life, settling into a small apartment on the Upper West Side. Lowell, after a failed attempt at writing a novel, decided to take a position as Managing Eaditor at a “second-rate plumbing-trade weekly.”
Now thirty, feeling as if his life were meaningless, Lowell recalls reading about young creative types buying and fixing up houses in Brooklyn slums, areas that were once home to wealthy government officials but are now in the midst of decay.
With urban renewal in mind and their entire savings on the table, Lowell sets out to buy a house in the outer borough. What he finds, and ultimately winds up with, is a comically dilapidated townhouse. The current residents are questionable, no doubt a few squatters in the bunch. As Lowell tours the building, the descriptions are so vivid that any reader with the slightest knowledge of city life will be able to conjure the smells.
A door was thrown open at the foot of the stairs, a dim rectangle of light in the impenetrable tissue of the darkness, and although Lowell was still unable to see where to put his feet, he could now see where he was going. The knowledge made him feel better, but not for long. A great warm wave of new horrible odors, both different in degree and intensity from the old horrible odors that he’d almost gotten used to, rolled up over him and nearly knocked him flat. It was like the first whiff of the atmosphere of some alien planet: heavy, warm, barely breathable, seemingly compounded of urine and stale oatmeal in equal measure.
After throwing himself into renovating the newly purchased and swiftly vacated house, deciding to do a bulk of the work himself, Lowell experiences a sense of renewal as well.
He was suddenly famous. In a building where he had labored five days a week for nine years without a single person asking him what he did, he suddenly found himself cloaked in a highly conspicuous new identity: he became known as the Guy Who Moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant.
He hadn’t moved yet and it wasn’t Bedford-Stuyvesant but that didn’t matter. He was finally doing something with his life, he was industrious.
While A Meaningful Life raises interesting and important questions about city life—gentrification, poverty, and the rise of Brooklyn’s prominence and formidability over the years—Lowell’s story offers a reminder to live deliberately and make good decisions, a powerful message that often bears repeating.
Buy A Meaningful Life from your local bookstore
Working in an office is a learned skill, even for those who are good with people—and even for those who work in a room full of friends. While general etiquette and being pleasant go a long way, it’s always worth seeing what can be fine tuned. However, doing so requires self-awareness and a willingness to change.
One classic in the self-help business genre—and an excellent place to start—is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The cover of the “special anniversary edition” boasts that it’s the best book of its kind—and I’m not so sure they’re wrong.
How to Win Friends and Influence People is broken down into four parts: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People; Six Ways to Make People Like You; How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking; and Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment
Within each of these larger sections are smaller, more targeted chapters, each featuring anecdotes and quotes from important leaders’ lives as well as from Carnegie’s own personal experience—first as a salesman, then as a public speaker.
In the first chapter, “If You Want to Gather Honey, Don’t Kick Over the Beehive,” Carnegie sets the tone for the remaining 230 pages:
Do you know someone who you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others—yes, and a lot less dangerous. ‘Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s roof, ‘ said Confucius, ‘when your own doorstep is unclean.’
Carnegie is not stingy; forehead-slapping comments such as these are found on nearly every page. It’s these simple statements, these basic ways of being with others that we all learned in grammar school but forgot, that make How to Win Friends invaluable.
Quoting Henry Ford, Carnegie shares another important principle: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” And from Alfred Adler, a Viennese psychologist: “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others.” And, of course, what advice book would be complete without Benjamin Franklin?: “If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.”
Each chapter ends with a distilled principle, reinforcing the lessons one should have learned from the previous pages: Give honest and sincere appreciation; Be a good listener; If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically; Let the other person do a great deal of the talking; and, for those in a leadership position, make the fault seem easy to correct.
How to Win Friends and Influence People will make you think about your behavior, both within the office and without. Soon, you’ll find that those rough edges smoothed.
In his instructive book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate, essayist and Nonfiction Director at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, explores the form through a series of essays. In his introduction, Lopate poses a number of questions: where is the line between fiction and nonfiction? What are the ethics of writing about others? What are the techniques in essay writing? And, as the title alludes to, when, if ever, is it okay to tell?
Throughout the book, Lopate emphasizes the need for essayists to “think critically—to think against themselves,” to contradict themselves if need be. This is the message at the core of To Show and To Tell—that an essay is an attempt to come to an answer, not an opportunity to prove a rigidly held belief. By “thinking against oneself,” by being contrary, the essayist creates tension and suspense.
“All good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation,” Lopate writes. “In the best nonfiction, it seems to me, you’re always made aware that you are engaged with a supple mind at work.”
In addition to exploring philosophical questions about the craft, To Show and To Tell offers practical advice, such as how to turn oneself into a character (“you cannot amuse the reader unless you are already self-amused”), why one should research (“Research inspires curiosity, helps you break out of claustrophobic self-absorption”), and what’s gained by keeping a journal (“No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly”).
Lopate gives permission to do away with convention. For those who have trouble with endings, Lopate writes:
A common mistake students make is to assume they need to tie up with a big bow the preceding matter via a grand statement of what it all means, or what the life lesson to be drawn from it is … Readers should be left with some things to work out on their own.
The final section is a study of key essayists; Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and James Baldwin are just a few writers Lopate highlights. Lamb “had the quintessential personal essayist’s ability to see his own personality as problematic, and to dramatize the resulting tensions.” According to Lopate, he saw people as actors and the streets of London as a stage. Hazlitt showed that essays can change direction and Baldwin’s “Notes on a Native Son” is “A twenty-page miracle, a masterpiece of compression.”
To Show and To Tell is an inspiring book on the art of the essay. The reader will come away with a richer understanding of the form and motivated to put theory into practice.
Buy To Show and To Tell from your local bookstore
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Harper’s Magazine
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate on Beyond the Margins
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Poets & Writers
Listen to an interview with Phillip Lopate on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show
On his way to his niece’s wedding in Arizona, Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, picked up a young female hitchhiker, took her as far as the California side of the border, and continued on his way. The next day she’s found dead in a canal near his family’s home in Phoenix. She’d had an illegal abortion, which was botched, but the cause of death was a blow to the head.
Not until a few dozen pages into the story do we learn that Densmore is black. The girl, being white, and it being that time and place, he becomes the prime suspect. At first he tries to prove his innocence on his own but, after getting nowhere, a friend convinces him to accept the help of Skye Houston, one of the country’s top lawyers—and a white man.
Published in 1963, The Expendable Man, a crime novel written from the point of view of the accused, echos the race relations of its day.
Any rational reader will get chills not from the description of the murder, or the menacing, suspense-filled cloud that hangs over Densmore’s head, but from the state of the justice system in which this case operates. Christine Smallwood, writing in The New Yorker, says of the book’s author, Dorothy B. Hughes, “It is not whodunit, but who-ness itself, that she’s after.”
To Hughes it’s not the criminal procedure that’s interesting, it’s the relationships that guide the procedure. The Expendable Man is not so much hardboiled fiction as it is an exploration of social issues.
He had wound through the small canyon outside of town, and was moving on to the long desert plain, when he noted ahead an extra shadow in the tree shadow marking a culvert. It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.
It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. But he reduced speed when he approached the shadow, the automatic anxiety reaction that a person might step in front of the oncoming car. He passed the hitchhiker before he was actually aware of the shape and form; only after he had passed did he realize that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.
“Loneliness is solitude with a problem”—Maggie Nelson
Although written in numbered propositions, seemingly disconnected, Bluets is not the type of book you can open to any page and begin reading. I know this because it’s what I’d done a number of times in a number of bookstores only to leave empty handed despite trusted friends insisting on its brilliance.
Finally, I sat down to read Maggie Nelson’s book properly and discovered its flow, its rhythm, and was caught up in the attempt to understand the placement of these ruminations on—as one might infer from the title—the color blue.
“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke,” she begins. “And so, I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.”
Intense focus, or perhaps obsession, is what drives Bluets. At one point Nelson considers traveling the world in search of blue objects: “ancient indigo and woad production sites, the Chartres Cathedral, the Isle of Skye, the lapis mines of Afghanistan, the Scrovegni Chapel, Morocco, Crete.”
But Nelson does not need to travel to faraway places; she sees blue wherever she goes, and notices its absence when she doesn’t. Interspersed in Bluets are delightful facts about color: the presence of blue in nature (male satin bowerbirds build adorn their bowers with blue objects to lure females); religion (blue became a “holy” color after it was mistaken that ultramarine contained gold and was therefore valuable; and world cultures (the Tuareg, a “tribe of blue people” in the deserts of North Africa who take on the color of their deeply saturated dyed robes).
An ex-lover is remembered by the blue button-down shirt he wore on their final day together; the feet of a friend, now paraplegic, are mentioned because they’ve become “the blue of skim milk” from disuse. Quotes from Mallarmé, Goethe, and da Vinci woven into the fabric of Nelson’s thoughts fill the pages with a weight not conveyed by the book’s slim appearance.
Bluets will deceive aspiring writers. They will see short paragraphs made up of spare sentences and believe they can do it too. But the careful reader will feel the deliberation, they will know the state of the author’s cutting room floor.
In Bluets, Nelson has taken an exercise in single-minded attention and created a meditative masterpiece.
What does it mean not to finish a book? To lose interest, steam, momentum? When distraction leads to forgotten plots, characters, and themes who suffers, the reader or the book left unread?
My apartment is teeming with unfinished books. They cover my desk, coffee table, and nightstand. They sit two rows deep on my bookshelves. There they remain, neglected, misunderstood, unappreciated, still with the last read page firmly marked with a piece of paper, a subscription card, or a proper bookmark: a reminder of my stagnation, my failure to engage.
With some I’d read only a few pages, others a few chapters, while others I’d nearly finished but inexplicably abandoned at the last moment. Not all books I set aside are bad; life gets in the way, my mind shifts, I am no longer the same person I was on the first page.
What if I had begun a few days earlier, a few days later? Would we have ridden it out until the bitter end?
is often much hand-wringing over the question of when to put a book down, of when to give up and walk away. For some people this is an agonizing decision. For me, I’ve never given it much thought. In my younger years I’ve either slogged through a story, not knowing I had an option, or, as in the case with assigned reading for school, never cared enough to feel obligated. Now that I’m older and at any given moment surrounded by more books than I’ll ever have time to read in a lifetime (or two or three), there’s no room for second-guessing or regrets.
My first impulse when I began this post was to anthropomorphize, to wonder what happened to the characters when tossed aside. Do they remain suspended—in a kitchen, at a wedding, in the throes of heartbreak—or do they continue on alone to an autonomous finish? That might be a silly thing to think about, like a 10-year-old with a developing consciousness or one who’s seen too many Disney films. But it puts things in perspective.
Books do not need you. They repeat their stories every night.
Here are a few books that have carried on without me, none of which were bad at all.
Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas
Dublinesque is something of a tragicomedy. At the age of 60, Samuel Riba is forced into retirement after his literary publishing house fails. He’d like to blame the reading public but, really, it was his poor financial management skills that brought about his demise.
Now he spends his time on Google, searching for his name and publishing house, looking to see who still mentions him and reviews his list; the answer to both is not many.
After a dream, Riba plans a trip to Dublin and brings with him three authors he’s published. They are to stage a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age” in the same cemetery that appears in Joyce’s Ulysses.
The publisher, New Directions, calls Dublinesque “A fictional journey through the modern history of literary publishing,” an apt description if any. If you’re really into books and the publishing industry, this book is an entertaining read.
Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino
What a strange book Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things turned out to be. When I first saw it in the Dalkey Archive Press email newsletter I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wouldn’t have guessed this.
Originally published in 1971, Imaginative Qualities is a satirical look at the New York art and literary scene of the 1950s and ‘60s. Told through an omniscient narrator (although he’ll tell you his characters are doing things when he’s not looking), the interweaving cast of failed artists and poets lead adulterous, destructive lives. The women are bored, the men are hopeless, and the narrator, who is actually the book’s author, openly refuses to implement certain literary devices.
The outcome is a story with an intentionally unruly feel, which, if truth be told, is part of its charm. At one point, as if the narrator is guarding against such an accusation, he interjects, “You’ll notice how carefully the threads are pulled together in this book. I don’t want to hear one more word about formlessness.”
Other amusing asides includes talk of killing off characters.
I’ve got a few more comments to make about Lou, a few more things to say about him before I get rid of him. Prose is endless. It strikes me that I could go on and on, into a thousand pages, about this poor man. (How poor, compared to the rest of us?) For a moment, I thought of having him step off the curb in front of a truck, or drown in the bathtub, something simple and accidental. Just write him off so that the long future of academe would not be his and Sheila would be free to be unhappy with somebody else. End him with a brief paragraph E.M. Forster-style. Would that be too literary? No such thing. People who make such remarks admire the prose of Jimmy Breslin.
The beauty of this multi-layered novel is that the meaning is left to interpretation. The reader takes away from it what they wish, which, in this case, suits the essence of the story nicely.
A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector
For a while I joked that Clarice Lispector’s novels were the new “Go Ask Alice” for my age group. When New Directions first reissued four of her books it seemed like every 30-something I knew was reading one and recommending it to anyone within a 10-foot radius. There was an aura of mysticism around the whole thing. It was the way people spoke about her and her writing, as if one glimpse of her writing would change your life.
Clarice Lispector, in her posthumous work, A Breath of Life, asks readers to examine both sides of the author-character relationship. The male writer explains that his creation, Angela, is “not a ‘character.’ She’s the evolution of a feeling. She’s an idea incarnated in the being.” Shortly after he enters a conversation with her where, at one point, she asks, “Am I pure?” The author answers, vaguely, philosophically, “Purity would be as violent as the color white. Angela is the color of hazelnut.”
Throughout the book there are scores of aphorism that make you pause: “Writing is difficult because it touches the boundaries of the impossible,” “[I’m] an open parenthesis. Please close me,” “Solitude is a luxury,” and “When I write, I mix one color with another, and a new color is born.”
What’s striking about A Breath of Life is that it leaves you wondering if you’re in the presence of brilliance or insanity—although one could argue the fine line between the two. As with much of Lispector’s writing, I imagine, A Breath of Life cannot be understood in one reading. Her books strike me as those that are meant to be read, wrestled with, digested, and then read again in order to find hidden layers and new meaning.
The Wizard of Oz is a classic. Full stop. Whether it’s known through L. Frank Baum’s original book for children or through the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, it lingers in the minds of many. Until recently, I had only been familiar with the film—and, to be honest, the first and last time I watched it was to see what may or may not have been a Munchkin hanging himself from a tree as the gang of four skipped down the Yellow Brick Road*.
Now, The Wizard of Oz has found its way back into the cultural conversation with a newly released prequel starring James Franco. Although the film isn’t getting the best reviews, there’s been an outpouring of interest in the book again and a number of thoughtful pieces have surfaced on the Internet.
At Litreactor, Kimberly Turner delves into the history of the Oz series. Included are a number of details about L. Frank Baum’s life, the book’s sales history, and the differences between the popular film adaptation and the original text:
As is typical with movie adaptations, the 1939 film differs from its source material in more ways than I can list here—at least without losing your attention. A few of the notable differences, besides the ruby slippers: In the book, Oz is a real place, not a dream world; thus the existence of forty-one sequels. The Wicked Witch Of The West is a blip on the radar rather than the primary obstacle. Dorothy is a stronger, more feminist protagonist and considerably less weepy. There are quite a few more subplots, including a visit to a city made of China and an encounter with an odd race of armless guards called Hammerhead, and much, much more beheading.
At The New Yorker, Erin Overbey, Deputy head of the magazine’s archive, dug through past issues and found a negative review of the film. Their critic at the time, Russell Maloney, said it had “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Meanwhile an essay written by Salman Rushdie in 1992 links the story to a “longing for liberation from mundane routine.” In a Critic at Large piece by John Updike where he critiques The Annotated Wizard of Oz we learn some interesting background on Baum: he wrote The Wizard of Oz at age forty-four in 1900 and was married to a politically progressive woman, a suffragette who co-authored a book with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Dorothy’s strength, as noted above in the Litreactor piece, may have been her doing as she had a great influence on her husband. He’d even written a few subsequent books under female pseudonyms.
As part of my experiment in reading children’s books as an adult, many of which I missed in my younger years, I’d decided to read The Wizard of Oz late last year. It was an iconic book that I had a cursory knowledge of and felt I was missing out on a piece of American cultural history.
In his introduction to The Wizard of Oz, Baum said he’d written the book “solely to please the children of today.” He hoped to do away with the “heartaches and nightmares” of previous fairy tales and legends. “Modern education includes morality … the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents,” he said. This last part leaves one to wonder how he explained the Winged Monkeys but point taken.
With Baum’s intention in mind I embarked on my reading. Instead of looking for social and political undertones, which many have read into the silver shoes and Yellow Brick Road, I enjoyed it as a simple story about a girl suddenly finding herself in a strange land and longing to return home. Mostly, I was surprised by and taken with the vivid descriptions undoubtedly lost in summary.
By now everyone knows that Dorothy lived on a farm in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. One day a cyclone hits, the house is lifted into the air, and she is flown to a faraway land. What those who haven’t read the book don’t know is the sad state her relatives were in prior to the storm. The opening scene is nearly comic in its darkness:
Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.
When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. …
Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.
Much is made of the use of technicolor of the 1939 film and after reading Baum’s book one has to wonder if it could have been made otherwise. After Dorothy wakes to find herself “in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty,” color is prevalent in his descriptions
Shortly after being set down, Dorothy meets a lion who has no courage, a tin woodman who has no heart, and a scarecrow who has no brains. Together, the four of them set off—often through hostile territory—in search of what they each desire.
They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.
There’s lots of “brilliance” and “dazzle” in this book and after they’re instructed to visit the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz they encounter both again at the gates of his Emerald City.
The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, they started on their way, and soon saw a beautiful green glow in the sky just before them. … As they walked on, the green glow became brighter, and it seemed that at last they were nearing the end of their travels. … In front of them, and at the end of the road of yellow brick, was a big gate, all studded with emeralds that glittered so in the sun that even the painted eyes of the Scarecrow were dazzled by their brilliancy.
Although Baum said he wasn’t in the business of dispensing morals, there are plenty to be found in this story. When asked by the Scarecrow for brains, Oz replies, “You don’t need them. You learn something new every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”
When the Lion asks for courage Oz says, “You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger.” The Tin Woodman, when he asks for a heart, is told he is wrong to want a heart, that hearts “make most people unhappy.”
In the end The Wizard of Oz does offer lessons; it wouldn’t have lasted this long in our collective psyche otherwise.
*While writing this piece I did some research (a.k.a a quick Google search) and learned that the Munchkin thing is a myth and that it was really a bird. Here’s a list of 7 others from BuzzFeed.
Derek Raymond’s Factory Series is a special blend of noir. As James Sallis in his introduction to the first book, He Died with His Eyes Open, says, the five novels are “In between books—not quite what you’d call literary perhaps, but then, not quite crime novels either.” Or, as author A.L. Kennedy puts in a recent review for NPR, “Raymond’s narratives press against somewhere unusual in your brain; they penetrate and interfere, putting you in touch with levels of intensity and disintegration that seem to combine literary achievement with medical intervention.”
He Died with His Eyes Open is noir for today’s reader: void of over-the-top female sensuality and duplicity and the brassy language that begs mockery. Instead, Raymond’s prose is dark, elegant, and suited to the sensibilities of the times in which he wrote, the 1980s. If he had followed his predecessors and adopted the 1950s model it would have felt like a caricature of a genre already prone to exaggeration. Instead, Raymond creates something subtle, unique—something that still feels fresh in 2013.
He Died with His Eyes Open begins—as do most noir novels—with a gruesome murder. A man is found dead in a shrub outside of the Word of God House. When it becomes clear that the victim is just one of the many dregs of society currently polluting the city, the detective from the Serious Crime Unit is quick to call it an open-and-shut case. Who cares about the downtrodden, especially in Thatcherite England? However, our protagonist, Detective Sergeant from the Department of Unexplained Deaths, “by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service,” is not as quick to dismiss the crime.
This is what makes the unnamed detective of Raymond’s books different from other noir detectives. While a familiar characteristic of his sleuthing counterparts is cool detachment, this detective cares about those whom others would throw into a 6-foot hole without a second thought. He’s a champion of the poor, of Democracy, of a better society. He takes on “obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did” and comes out more sympathetic for it.
To find out who might have murdered the man, Charles Staniland, a fifty-one year-old alcoholic, the detective spends hours listening to tapes the victim left behind and investigates the grimiest of dive bars 80s London has to offer—always a cut above the patrons but never out of place. It’s not long before he learns of an ex-wife, a junkie son, and a tough girlfriend named Babsie—all whom need to be handled with care. Soon one starts to wonder if the detective has gotten too close to the case; lines and judgment blur—but what noir novel would be complete without moral ambiguity?
To get to the end of this review without mentioning the brilliant designs for all five of Derek Raymond’s novels would be a gross oversight. The bright orange covers with a single image—an everyday object made suggestively gruesome—make the US editions from Melville House dare you to ignore them. Even if the novels weren’t so damn good, you’d want them around as art pieces. Luckily, they’re quality from cover to cover. If you’ve never read a crime novel in your life, The Factory Series is the place to start.
He was found in the shrubbery in front of of the Word of God House in Albatross Road, West Five. It was the thirtieth of March, during the evening rush-hour. It was bloody cold; and an office worker had tripped over the body when he was caught short going home. I don’t know if you know Albatross Road where it runs into Hanger Lane, but if you do you’ll appreciate what a ghastly lonely area it is, with the surface-level tube-station on one side of the street, and dank, blind buildings, weeping with damp, on the other. That evening there was yet another go-slow on, and when I arrived at seven there were people still massing to get down the tube stairs to the trains, which were running very rare.
It was pelting with rain on an east wind when I got there. I found Bowman from Serious Crimes standing over the corpse with a torch, talking to the two coppers off the beat who had been called by the man who had stumbled on him. Water ran off the brim of Bowman’s trilby and dribbled down the helmets of the wooden-tops to end up in their collars.
Bowman handed me the torch without a word and I bent over the dead man. His eyes were open—one only just—the surfaces peppered with the grit that an east wind hurls at you off London streets. He was wearing a cheap grey suit with cigarette burns down the front and a tatty raincoat. He was medium height, with thin hair turning grey and a boozer’s nose, aged between fifty and sixty. Both his arms were broken, and one leg; the bone poked out blue through the trouser cloth. His head had been battered in below the hairline and brains had slopped down his left cheek into the mud. I got the impression, though, despite his injuries he hadn’t died at once. In the dull eyes there was still a flicker of some memory that he meant to take with him wherever he was going.
The other day I sat in a room full of colleagues and said something along the lines of “I don’t read self-help books.” Note, I did not say this disparagingly; it was simply just a matter of fact, or so I thought. No more than an hour or two later I realized I was wrong. Leaving aside that one summer between my junior and senior year of college when a bad breakup brought me to If the Buddha Dated, I found I could come up with a number of recent examples: Dale Carnegie, John C. Maxwell, and David Allen, to name a few authors. The thing was, I hadn’t associated them with the self-help genre.
While Carnegie is shelved in self-help, often taking up full rows, I was surprised that he had not been placed in business instead. As with Maxwell and Allen’s wildly popular books, I saw Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, as a treatise on work relationships rather than something for one’s personal life—although it helps with that as well. I had thought of all three, along with Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki, as part of the life hack family.
Life hack is a relatively new phenomenon—at least in name. According to Wikipedia, “life hack refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency … [it’s] anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way.” The origin of the term is credited to computer programmers in the 1980s who devised “tricks to cut through information overload and organize their data.” Today, it’s associated with almost anything that increases personal productivity and helps navigate workplace situations, as illustrated by the popular website Lifehacker where you can learn about the best apps to help you through your workday as well as interpersonal skills that will help advance your career—even in the trickiest of situations.
So, as it turns out, I do read self-help, sometimes voraciously.
Recently, I learned of the book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well after coming across an excerpt of Mark Frauenfelder’s tips for creating a successful blog. As the founder and coeditor of Boing Boing, a popular website for techy-types and genre fans, Frauenfelder exudes authority on the subject; it would be wise to listen to what he has to say.
What might come as a surprise to some, given the computer-geek culture associated with the site, Frauenfelder’s last piece of advice is to “keep it real,” that “the best material for the blog is usually found in the real world from real-life experiences.”
The Art of Doing is full of these surprising anecdotes and aphorisms, often from unlikely sources. How the editors came to collect them is seemingly simple, they asked “successful people how they do what they do.” They asked for “work habits, turning points, experiences, insights and goals” and wound up with a handy reference book that can be opened to any page and read in any order to obtain words of wisdom—and inspiration—for life in all its many forms.
While gathering stories and expert practices from contributors, the editors, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, “began to see patterns” and noticed that “people shared core principles and practices.” Among them were dedication, intelligent persistence, community building, listening, testing, managing emotions, evolving, and cultivating patience and happiness.
For 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock, “It’s important to create the environment where everyone wants to contribute so that moment of inspiration can happen, because sometimes, you’re just one step away.” The band OK Go urges readers to ignore the false line between promotion and art, believing that the elevation of “one type of creativity over another is crazy,” saying that “You can call making videos, posters and other visuals crass commercial promotion, but all of our creative ideas are connected and promote each other.” They “see no line between the music and the work that supports it.”
The advice is as varied as the participants: from neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak on optimizing your brain; to Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large for Barneys New York, on being “the most fabulous you;” to Philippe Petit, high-wire artist, on letting life be your teacher.
Whether you call it life hacking or plain old self-help, the goal is the same: to become the best at what you do. In this day and age—as we move further away from the Industrial Revolution and deeper into the Digital and Social Age—that often means becoming the most creative, innovative person you can be, to think far outside the box and to help those around you do the same. The Art of Doing is an excellent look inside the minds and practices of people who have strived and succeeded, and who continue, every day, to be better. Pick it up, read it, hack life.
Buy The Art of Doing at your local bookstore
Read Mark Frauenfelder’s excerpt at Fast Company
Find useful articles at 99u
Listen to Seth Godin’s interview with Krista Tippett
One of my favorite genres is the comic book memoir—or graphic memoir as they are often called; Alison Bechdel’s work, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, being the most recognizable of the group. As goes with my text-based memoir preference, the edgier the better. I want personal struggle, rock bottoms, and, although not always necessary, redemption.
A few months ago one book kept jumping out at me. Whenever I’d walk into a store I’d see its bright, sky blue cover: a woman’s face from the eyes up peaking out from the bottom edge; overhead there was a design scheme of color and grayscale-ringed circles cropped by the margins. Its odd shape—a little bit taller and a little bit wider than the average book—called for my hands every time. I’d flip through and wonder what kind of story this quirky book held.
As I turned the pages, I noticed the art varied from simple charactertures—thick outlines without much detail—to more sophisticated sketches, notably a series of self-portraits. Some pages featured imitations of notebook scraps while others were intricate diagrams, like the nine panels of prescription drugs: Klonopin, Lithium, Celexa, and so on. Each pill was recorded, along with the many side effects they had on this particular artist. That’s because Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, & Me is cartoonist Ellen Forney’s story of being bipolar: learning of it, learning about it, and learning how to live with it.
The book starts off with Ellen on a high. We see her in manic mode as she walks home in the snow having just gotten a full back tattoo; euphoria coursing through her veins: “My back felt warm, like I had a mild sunburn, and the warmth created a yin yang balance in the air. It was perfect. Exponentially perfect. Everything was magical and intense, and bursting with universal truth.”
Just a few pages later, a social worker Ellen has been seeing grows concerned about the sudden spike in cheer and refers her to a psychiatrist. Almost 30-years-old, Ellen receives the diagnosis: Bipolar I Disorder, her own “brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
What follows is Ellen’s adventure into a world of prescription pills and psychiatric help, the doses and frequencies of each fluctuating over the years. While attempting to move forward, Ellen looks to the past with new insight and examines the present for clues to her progress.
One of the first thoughts that pops into Ellen’s mind as she sits in the doctor’s office is that she is “officially a crazy artist” and therefore outfitted with some credibility. She researches historical figures who suffered from the same affliction. First we meet some of the more obvious cases: Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, but then we learn of Edvard Munch and Mark Rothko.
Shortly after, another thought follows: “Along with my romantic preconceptions about what being a crazy artist meant, were my terrified preconceptions about what being a medicated artist meant.” In the accompanying panel, the “crazy artist” is represented by a balloon, full of air, exploding out of a cloud-like mass, while the “medicated artist” is shown as a deflated balloon, seemingly a few days old and barely afloat.
Of Van Gogh Forney asks, “What would his art have been like if he hadn’t been ‘cracked’? Was it his demons that gave his art life? Or did he work in spite of them? What if he’d been stabilized on meds? Who knows?” Where inspiration and talent come from is of perennial interest to—as well as a great source of anxiety for—creative types. Both wonder and fear permeate the pages as Ellen explores these questions.
Before reading Marbles, I had viewed bipolar with skepticism. Sure, I believed it existed but I thought it was overdiagnosed and often overblown. For those outside of the disorder, for those whom it is an abstraction, the importance—and power—of Marbles lies in Ellen’s ability to make bipolar real, to strip away the doubt of even the hardest naysayer.
“Bipolar Disorder is difficult to treat. Finding the right medications can take a long time, so bipolars may list our med histories proudly, like merit badges,” she says. The lifelong commitment to mental health and its maintenance—ongoing therapy, expensive drugs, lifestyle change—eloquently documented in Ellen’s book shows that the process is not something someone would go through if they didn’t have to.
Meanwhile, for those in the thick of bipolar, themselves having been diagnosed, Marbles offers valuable lessons: How much should one tell their therapist? What are some useful exercises for self-exploration? How does one chart progress and setbacks?
This advice is so subtle, so woven into the story, that I often wondered if it was intentional or simply a byproduct of Ellen’s focused approach.
There are many questions packed into Marbles: What is bipolar? Where is the intersection between mental illness and creativity? Does managing the former lead to a loss of the latter? Taking Forney’s book as evidence, one can answer that last question with a resounding “no.” Marbles is an important book, easily digestible, highly entertaining, and instinctively informative.