At least half – if not two-thirds – of the essays in Drinking Diaries (a newly published book spawned by the blog of the same name) are downers. That stands to reason: alcohol is a depressant, and as I've written before in this series, historically women have borne its consequences more severely than men.
If the book sometimes feels like a long self-help meeting—with one story after another about hitting bottom, living with the consequences of a parent's or friend's drinking or simply realizing it's time to slow down—there are also moments of complexity and nuance. Rita Williams's lyric essay, "The Root Cellar," is hardly about drinking at all: it's actually about class and racial identity, and how her failure to deliver a bottle of homemade dandelion wine on time bore disastrous consequences for a coworker. Jane Friedman's “Drinking as a Genuine Vocation” made me want to be her friend for life, and Samantha Dunn's “Slake,” about her mother's death due to alcoholism (that is, but due to an untreated infection from falling on broken glass) resists easy answers about the causes of her mother's thirst for booze.
I like to yank hermits into the spotlight. I’m a sucker for women whose work is sometimes considered "secondary," who kept a low profile and got a lot done. Their lives are usually stranger and their work is often quite unique. So today I’d like us all to focus our attention for a moment on someone who made odd and wonderful fiction, who was constantly seeking out freedom, and who was, to her great dismay, isolated for a large chunk of her short life.
Katherine Mansfield was spirited and strong-willed; diagnosed with tuberculosis at 29, she died five years later after running up a flight of stairs to prove how well she was. She was one of the best writers of the 20th century, though she never wrote a novel, preferring to write in what she called "glimpses." Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal that Mansfield was the only writer she’d ever been jealous of.
CALYX Journal begins its 36th year of publishing fine art and literature by women with its winter 2012 issue (vol. 27, no. 3). This self-described feminist literary journal allows women’s voices to be front and center, which is why its four female founders created it in 1976. Referencing a recent survey conducted by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts the introduction in the summer 2011 issue of CALYX points out that women’s voices are still highly marginalized in the literary journals and magazines, making their mission as relevant as ever.
Jeanette Winterson is probably the most quotable author I have ever read, especially for those of us who live passionately, love obsessively, and believe that art can (and will) change the world. If you ever want a cool literary tattoo just read one of her books—you are sure to find some kind of quote that resonates. With the release of her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? in October (in the U.K—official U.S release date is March 2012), the harsh reality of Winterson’s upbringing stand out even more starkly against the layers of her non-linear, heavily metaphorical, fictional work.
Fly Away, opens on Jeanne, a single mother, as she is awoken by her teenage daughter’s cries. "Bad girl! I hate myself!" It might not be a surprising sentiment for a teenager in the throes of an angst-ridden moment, but Mandy is severe on the spectrum of autism, and the middle of the night is one of the times she communicates the clearest. Written and directed by Janet Grillo, Fly Away is a slice of life portrait of a small family at a crossroads and it focuses very much on the everyday details.
Alison Bagnall’s The Dish and the Spoon opens with Rose (Greta Gerwig) despondently crying as she drives to the beach—clad in pajama bottoms, a boxy coat, and knit cap—after discovering her husband’s infidelity. Taking refuge from the winter air in a WWII watchtower, she discovers a young British drifter (Olly Alexander) shivering inside.
Djuna Barnes was a poet, novelist, journalist, and artist whose work was known for its unique prose rhythms, its sexual openness, and its fascination with the bawdy and grotesque. She lived in Greenwich Village in the bohemian 1910s, frequented the artists' salons in 1920s Paris, and late in life became a cult icon and famous recluse.
As a big fan of the strange short work by writers like Gary Lutz and Lydia Davis, I was drawn to Lindsay Hunter’s new book, Daddy's, nestled next to an anticipated Lutz rerelease in the small press section of Powell’s Books. Many of the writers in this section are faithful upholders of the short story, a form that can be hard to market and is often thought of by more commercial writers and publishers as practice on the way to a novel. But the writers I love, the ones who choose the short story as their primary form, use carefully chosen words to place their characters in unexpected, sometimes disturbing situations. Then they leave you to make your own conclusions about what you’ve encountered. I hoped that this was the kind of thing I’d find in Hunter’s Daddy’s, and the jacket blurbs bolstered my hope. Kyle Minor wrote, "Lindsay Hunter won’t be caught lie-telling in the name of nice. The miniature stories in Daddy’s are fierce and unapologetic." I’m happy to report that Hunter’s book did not disappoint.