This installment: a bad girl confidant (nf); literary life in Quebec (nf); novelistic autumnal reflections (f); a magnificent heart-lifting book about dying (nf); and a graphic novel about working in an Oakland diner (f).
Bukowski in a Sundress by Kim Adonnizzio
Subtitled Confessions from a Writing Life. She has a lot to confess and does it with brio and regret, a delicious combination. Short pieces full of mood intensities, advice to young writers, and tales of her family. These especially grabbed me: her tennis star mother now afflicted with Parkinson’s, her total mess of a mentally ill brother. Then her florid sexual life, her lovers, and the beloved daughter she raised on her own. I love hanging out with Kim, my Bad Girl Confidant, and though she may sound feckless it’s obvious that great care went into crafting these essays.
As Always by Madeleine Gagnon
Subtitled Memoirs of a Life in Writing, and what a life! From Quebec, one of many children. Father worked at a lumber mill, mother dealt with the family, but they were very bright and cultured considering the provincial milieu. Gagnon had a strict Roman Catholic education, was a voracious reader and explorer of all things literary. In addition to writing, she was a teacher, a mother, a fierce feminist, and a voice in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. It makes me dizzy to think of all her accomplishments. Lots of pain of course: a marriage torn up, other relationships gone to ground She credits psychoanalysis as saving her. (She’s now with a woman but discreet about specifics.) Such intellectual prowess sometimes left me in the dust with references to Foucault etc. Many of the Quebec writers she lists I’d never heard of, and I found the political material confusing. But what carried me was her deep love for the people and places in her life and the depth of her sorrows. (Two older sisters did dreadful things to their aged parents, for example.) A fascinating window into a culture I know little about.
Autumn by Ali Smith
The tone at the start is almost hallucinatory. Then it comes into focus: the scene is in the head of Daniel, an old codger who lies in a coma. He was Elizabeth’s next door neighbor and she hung out with him when she was growing up, which distressed her single mother greatly, worried he might be a pervert. Now Elizabeth is taking care of this aged mother—no fun—as well as visiting Daniel in the care home. Elizabeth is an art historian who wrote her thesis on a fascinating, obscure, tragic artist named Pauline Boty. (Note: Boty has come up in a few books I’ve read recently, obviously a compelling figure.) Smith manages to weave all these strands into a meditation on the season of the title while telling a lively story—no mean feat.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
Subtitled A Memoir of Living and Dying. Nothing like the prospect of imminent death to bring life into intense focus, and Riggs does so exquisitely. A descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poet herself, a wife and mother, Riggs leads us into her experience of moving through the shadow with precision, verve, and yes, joy (mixed, of course, with mordant humor and regret). She’s absolutely clear-eyed, no “uplifting” sentimentality, and yet the subject which we associate with grimness became positively luminous. Lots of specifics, too—the stuff of ordinary life that grounds us and fascinates me. An amazing book!
The Customer is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond
In the ‘70s Pond worked at an Oakland diner and boy, does she mine that field for this gritty graphic novel. What a cast of characters: Lazlo the melancholy poet, Camille the beautiful druggie, her snake of a boyfriend Neville, Babette, the man in the dress who’s prettier than Madge, the protagonist. They lurch through overdoses, love troubles, economic crises, and wrangles with thugs from Colombia. Meanwhile Madge keeps trying to make art. Very —ahem—graphic, hilarious and tragic in turn.
Back next week.