Discover more from Dollface
Polina Barskova, Vizsla puppies, Big Swiss, and more
It’s a short one this month, as the demands of daily life have been particularly intense.
I’m on something akin to a social media elimination diet. Not prescribed by anyone, I just find myself bored and depressed by it more and more so I've been largely off Twitter and ninety-seven percent off Instagram. This makes the occasional visit, the other three percent, especially potent, like a tequila shot after a dry January. When I do scroll, especially on Instagram, I can actually feel the increase in my heart rate, my eyeballs like pinwheels as I experience a sudden attack of insecurity (everyone else is publishing books!) and covetousness (I need a $47 sugar bowl / litter of kittens / pair of platforms / ski trip / cottage in the English countryside / strapless gown / art retrospective / new baby).
As if I would ever ski. I also feel sadness, the kind we’ve described so much that it’s no longer even a form of malaise, just a boring endemic condition (that I shall stop describing now).
This is not good for us! Or — I won’t presume. This is not good for me. And I think I’ll try to whittle my usage down even further. You know what helps in the pursuit? Books! Although more and more, the books I pick up are themselves about scrolling on Instagram. So I’m trying to go older: older writers, older books.
I'm listening to Wuthering Heights. Maybe you guys have heard of it? It's pretty good 🙃 It was important to me when I was young, but I haven’t read it in a long time. The novel had been collapsed in my memory (everyone’s memory) into inclement weather and moody Heathcliff, the archetypal brooder (I looked up Laurence Olivier in the film version; “Heathcliff is not a man but something dark and horrible to live with!”), so I forgot how many characters there are, all those Earnshaws and Lintons, and how much attention is required to keep them straight. (I find myself thinking: this was once simply the level of attention required to ingest literature. Lol, how different things are now. I think I could write a term paper while listening to a Colleen Hoover novel.) The woman reading Brontë in this library audiobook sounds a bit like Daphne from Frasier and I'm finding that very comforting and the prose very stirring. Plus, it’s nice to take a break from narrators whose voices so closely resemble the one in my head.
This month, two books I read on paper (“in real life,” I’m inclined to say, though audiobooks are plenty real) were major standouts:
Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
This one is getting a lot of well deserved attention and we can expect HBO’s adaptation starring Jodie Comer before too long. I’m happy with the book version and don’t need a show but will probably watch one anyway.
What to even say? This is a full throttle, laugh-out-loud funny novel about a woman working as a transcriptionist for a sex therapist who falls for one of the clients. It’s a loving skewering of the bourgeois tastes and appetites of the residents of New York’s Hudson Valley that occasionally reminded me of Portlandia. Falling-down farmhouses, see-and-be-seen cafes, a tragically familiar scene comprised of strutting middle aged beekeepers, bodyworkers, etc. You get the gist. It has a lot of sex, some intrigue, and manages to balance gravity and levity so deftly it’s worth studying. All my friends are reading it at the same time and sending each other lines.
The book’s kin are other out-there, shameless, weird-ass novels that are still plot-driven, like Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed and Claire Vaye Watkins’s I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness. In fact, I think often about a line in Watkins’s book about former junkies getting jobs in the vitamin aisle of Whole Foods and if that resonates as a familiar phenomenon to you, if you know what I’m talking about when I say that, you will most likely scarf down Big Swiss like an overpriced sandwich.
Thanks for reading Dollface! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Living Pictures by Polina Barskova
This feels like a safe space where I can share the unpopular opinion that poets don't often make spectacular prose writers. There are, of course, many exceptions, but when I see that a poet I like has authored a novel, for example, I don't usually expect that it will be great. But Living Pictures by Russian-born poet and scholar Polina Barskova is stunning.
Barskova, a scholar of the siege of Leningrad, writes from a place of intellectual and personal obsession with the devastating, nearly 900-day military blockade during WWII that for decades loomed large in the Russian imagination. This book is a novel, or a series of stories, or a memoir, or a work of criticism with forays into historical fiction — it’s all of these things — and it’s about the afterlife of individual and collective trauma: sites of private and public memory, as well as the innumerable acts of manipulation, repression, and forgetting carried out by the state or our own internal shaming mechanisms, that make fraught histories of bad things somewhat hidden. (To even say that acts of forgetting are "carried out" is in many instances an overstatement. It's more like new versions of history, driven by new exigencies, have replaced them. Barskova offers examples from her own life, and the siege of Leningrad is another example: it has been both memorialized and sanitized. Papered over.)
This is not a facile book about an authoritative Russian government acting upon individuals — the kind Western audiences typically eat up. It’s a rich, provocative, sprawling, difficult, kind of kooky, deeply sad work of art that makes partial attempts to answer a question that might be something like “where does past suffering live?”
You have to be up for this one, but if you are, it will reward you. The prose is incredibly beautiful. And as a longtime student of Russian, I am in awe of this translation, by Catherine Ciepiela. I would like to get my hands on the original and at least try to understand how Ciepiela did it — it lands like an act of sorcery.
Others I enjoyed this month:
Trust by Domenico Starnone — a fun Italian novel about a former couple each holding a dark secret about the other and the way the threat of one secret’s revelation shapes their lives. (I wish the reader got to learn the secrets, though.)
And a Dog Called Fig: Solitude, Connection, the Writing Life by Helen Humphreys — the only Humphreys I’ve read, a nice book all about the pleasures of having a dog when you’re a writer. Humphreys, a Canadian novelist and poet, has most often owned Vizslas and this book is about raising one of them on the heels of the death of another. Reading this had me googling Vizsla puppies (hi) and thrusting my phone in people’s faces like a teenager to make them see what I was seeing. A page featuring one of these images will remain open on my desktop for all time, or until I cave and get one of the dogs myself.
A Horse at Night: On Writing by Amina Cain — a quick but deeply satisfying read for anyone who writes or wants to write more. This is a meandering book that is as much about reading as writing, which is how you know Cain is the real deal. I find her writing intimate and quietly profound and I plan to read more of her now.
Okay, it wasn’t that short. I like to talk about books. I’m into some really good ones this month, which I’ll share about soon. Happy reading!