Sunday, January 31, 2016

Notes on The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I thought I might try a new thing here: blogging. Possibly even about the books I read!

As of this moment, I've finished reading two books so far this year, both of which had figured to be the final book(s) of 2015, but were not, and only one of which will I write about here. (I saw a year-end post which said that any book worth reading is worth devoting 100 words to. Fair point. One hundred words isn't many; maybe I'll give it a try. Not that I expect to keep to it.) (Is this one hundred words yet?)

Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. In short, I loved reading this book. But what is it? A very slim volume (which helps, no doubt). Inside flap says it's "Memoir/Criticism". Sales categories bug me, but Nelson does do those things here. She writes about her own life - her attempts to get pregnant, her pregnancy, her relationship with her partner Harry Dodge, to whom the book is frequently addressed and who is "fluidly gendered" (that phrasing is taken from the intro to this interview with Nelson; I use it rather than "trans" if only because she writes about that term some in the book) - she writes about her roles as mother and step-mother - the messiness and physicality of all of these things. She writes about feminism and queer theory and poetry and writing: and about the former being just as worthy of critical attention as the latter.

I'll just offer one example from the book. Nelson tells the story of a seminar she attended as a grad student, in 1998, in which Jane Gallop was to present new material, and Rosalind Krauss was to respond to it. (Neither name was familiar to me. Nelson describes Gallop's work as having "evidenced a deep investment in Lacanian thought without seeming to have drunk the Kool-Aid", as seeming "to be learning everything there was to know about the [philosophical] boiler room so that she could blow it up". Krauss's work she knew less well but "gathered that everyone was invested in her theories about the modernist grid".) Gallop's presentation was a slideshow of resolutely personal photographs, about her husband and son and their lives, and commentary about the subjective experience of being photographed, combined with her experience as a mother. Nelson: "I liked that Gallop was onto something and letting us in on it before she fully understood it. She was hanging her shit out to dry: a start." But Krauss goes on the attack, accusing Gallop of a disturbing "soft-mindedness", in sharp contrast to her important previous work. Nelson: "The room thickened with the sound of one keenly intelligent woman taking another down. ... the tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop's maternity had rotted her mind—besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think than an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting."

Nelson was at that time neither a mother nor had any expectations of becoming one, but her sympathies were with Gallop: "I was enough of a feminist to refuse any knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity." In saying so, of course, Nelson is reminding us that such refusals have been a basic component of feminism, i.e., nothing new. However, the need to refuse such quarantining (and of not just "the feminine or the maternal", but also "the physical", "the medical", and any number of other "personal" categories people are encouraged to keep hidden, or told is outside the realm of thinking), and to assert its opposite, is perpetual. Maggie Nelson not only calls bullshit on such mindsets, but beautifully demonstrates throughout that it is bullshit.

I think The Argonauts is both important and beautiful. It is that elusive species, writing.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Books Read - 2015

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2015, in chronological order of completion. As usual, links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts. This year merely continued the recent trend of fewer and fewer new posts—there were only 9 new entries this year, down from 13 last year (and 25 the year before). Granted, there was an excellent reason for that: our son Malcolm was born smack in the middle of the year. Only two posts date since his birth, and the first of those was already in the works beforehand.

In any case, following the list are comments and observations.

1. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (John E. Woods, trans.)
2. Capitalism & Slavery, Eric Williams  
3. Sidewalks, Valeria Luiselli (Christina MacSweeney, trans.)
4. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson  
5. Wittgenstein Jr, Lars Iyer
6. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Manuel De Landa
7. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary
8. The Portable Malcolm X Reader, Manning Marable & Garrett Felber, eds. (also, also)
9. Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, Joe Wood, ed.
10. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
11. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Stephanie M. H. Camp
12. Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
13. Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan, Ian Bell
14. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (re-read)
15. Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine
16. Liberalism: A Counter-History, Domenico Losurdo (Gregory Elliott, trans.)
17. Extinction, Thomas Bernhard (David McLintock, trans.)
18. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Gerald Horne
19. Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All, David Roediger
20. The Death of the Novel and Other Stories, Ronald Sukenick
21. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptist
22. Molloy, Samuel Beckett (re-read)
23. The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO, Eddie Conway
24. Benito Cereno, Herman Melville
25. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965, , Samuel R. Delaney
26. Patternmaster, Octavia Butler
27. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, Marilynne Robinson (re-read)
28. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
29. Bog-Trotter, Dory Previn
30. Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed
31. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, volume one, Marguerite Young
32. The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli (Christina MacSweeney, trans.)
33. Hotel Andromeda, Gabriel Josipovici (re-read)

In the past, I've included in this space an increasingly detailed statistical breakdown of my year in books. This year, I find I just can't be bothered. I found those breakdowns alternately amusing, useful, and tedious—and this year, the prospect of assembling the data just filled me with dread, so fuck it.

That said, it remains important for me to keep in mind who writes the books I'm reading, and why. So the lack of stats this year should in no way be interpreted as my no longer caring about (some of) such statistical matters. Besides, not only were there fewer posts than ever, I read fewer books than at any time since I began reading in earnest (just over twenty years ago). This was also in part because the arrival of our son, an ankle injury I sustained three weeks after his birth, and an extended period of atypically extreme busy-ness at work all combined to mean I worked from home more often than not in the second half of 2015. That is to say, I no longer had my regular commute, also known as regular dedicated reading-time.

But still! I read some excellent books!

As the year began, I was wrapping up The Magic Mountain, and honestly it doesn't really fit here, the reading experience belongs more with 2014, but rules are rules. From there I moved right into Eric Williams classic study, the excellent Capitalism & Slavery, continuing my recent focus on American slavery and its aftermath. (Interestingly, it was only a little before reading his book that I learned that Williams had been a person of color. Which only goes to show you how difficult it can be to keep track of such matters.) Three more books explicitly about slavery were to come, ranging from a focus on day-to-day resistance (Stephanie Camp's Closer to Freedom), to a detailed history of what slavery was like and how it helped build American power and capital (Edward Baptist's deservedly widely read The Half Has Never Been Told), to a fascinating if knotty study about what the founders of the United States had really been concerned with in doing so (namely, preserving slavery) (Gerald Horne's The Counter-revolution of 1776; I'd begun reading this in 2014). I also read Seizing Freedom, David Roediger's provocative account, following on from Du Bois's insistence in Black Reconstruction that the enslaved freed themselves, of former slaves' ideas of jubilee in the wake of emancipation, what it meant for them, its influence on other movements (e.g., feminism) (which movements tended to abandon its wider implications), and how it was ultimately betrayed. In addition, Domenico Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History, while not explicitly about slavery, by tracing what liberal ideas actually entailed ends up being very much about slavery indeed.

I also continued my reading in more modern and/or recent African American history and black political writing - which, of course, is also part of 'slavery's aftermath', broadly speaking. This included George Jackson's prison letters, which, while frequently fascinating, were in total disappointing. I wish I owned copies of Assata and Angela Davis' autobiography and read the library copy of Jackson's, rather than the other way around, but so it goes. (Though I certainly will be buying those two, to have more readily to hand.) Manning Marable's Malcolm X Reader and an essay collection about Malcolm X, edited by the late Joe Wood, from 20 years ago, were read in the wake of remembrances of his assassination. They are both worthy volumes. I'd half-expected to soon read Marable's biography, but it didn't come to pass, not yet. Eddie Conway's short volume about COINTELPRO and the Black Panther Party - published while he was still in prison - is a pretty good intro to the topics (we'd had the book for a while, but I only got to it this year, somehow; Conway is now out of prison, and semi-regularly attends our Quaker Meeting here in Baltimore). And then later in the year, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' much-discussed, Between the World and Me. I realize lots of liberal white guy reviewers said it was really good and really important. So forgive me for thinking it excellent.

I read just three 'new' novels this year: Lars Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr (which maybe I didn't like as much as the Spurious threesome, but it's still plenty good enough), Marilynne Robinson's Lila (third book in the sort of trilogy that began with Gilead; I liked it very much, probably more than I did Home, the second book), and Valeria Luiselli's odd and entertaining, The Story of My Teeth.

The rest of the year's fiction reading, not counting three re-reads (Molloy - still great; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - still, uh, meh; and Hotel Andromeda - even better this time round!), and the library copy of Butler's Patternmaster (which I liked well enough, but was not overly thrilled by; this was the only science fiction of the year), was confined to the exciting category of Books I've Had On My Shelves For Years. This was partly because of available finances, and partly because - I mean, I've had these books for years, right? presumably some of them are worth reading? Actually, scanning the list, this didn't amount to too many different books. But, in this vein, I did finally read Bernhard's marvelous final novel, Extinction (leaving me with just one major prose work left, I think - The Lime Works? I'll have to check his bibliography), Ishmael Reed's fascinating and bizarre and confounding Mumbo Jumbo, and Melville's strange Benito Cereno (which dovetailed with the slavery theme). What started this practice off was finding Ronald Sukenik's overtly experimental story collection, The Death of the Novel, in a box in my basement. Totally meant to blog about it too. In any case, as often happens with such collections, it's interesting, entertaining, at times boring. Some of its incidental political content stuck out for me, as, if nothing else, just as suggestive of the creeping literary conservatism of the last 40+ years as the experimental nature of the stories themselves might.

In this last category, but really of necessity standing by itself, is volume one of Marguerite Young's huge novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, the reading of which fairly dominated the second half of my year. It really is an amazing surfeit of words - a strange, frequently beautiful, often exasperating 600+ (so far) pages. I hope to have something more substantive to say about it in a separate post later on, but suffice it to say... haha, as if Young herself would ever have used the expression "suffice it to say".... never mind, then, for now.

That leaves miscellaneous not-fiction - essays (Luiselli's nice little Sidewalks - I mean no condescension at all, and a re-read of Robinson's Absence of Mind - I'd meant a post or two dealing with it and her and possibly some Josipovici compare/contrast, but though something like that may still come, I have to admit her much-shared NYRB conversation with Obama kind of left a bad taste in my mouth, so we'll see) and theory/philosophy (Crary's 24/7 and De Landa's Thousand Years of Nonlinear History - both fantastic books, honestly; the former author of no relation to myself, which makes the fact that he wrote a book I could absolutely see myself writing, were I the kind of person who wrote theory, or books, or ever, rather interesting indeed) (and it's been way too many months since I read the De Landa, but I frankly loved reading that book - it's such a wide-ranging, almost freewheeling, recontexualization of just tons of all kinds of familiar and unfamiliar historical material) and memoir (Delany's and Dory Previn's - both intriguing and excellent reading experiences, in entirely different ways) and biography (the late Ian Bell's completion of his two-volume bio of Dylan, not as good as the first but not bad), and Claudia Rankine's two superb books of... what? essay-poems? prose-poems? I don't know. Citizen is the big one from this year, and it's deserves to be read, but if anything, I think I liked the earlier Don't Let Me Be Lonely even more.

And there it is. Thank you for reading.