In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
The day Carrie Fisher died, I went to the bookstore in search of something by her to read. I couldn’t find Postcards From The Edge, but I did end up grabbing a copy of her most recent work, The Princess Diarist. When it was released, the book immediately became tabloid fodder since it largely hinges on the revelation that when Fisher was a teen and filming the first Star Wars film she had an affair with the then-married Harrison Ford. I’ll admit I was worried that the revelation would feel opportunistic so many years later, but it doesn’t, and I should have never doubted. It’s not really about Ford anyway, who seems as much a grunting cipher as one would expect. Instead it’s an achingly personal dive into Fisher’s own past, in which she unleashes and examines her confused vulnerability.
The wry, 2016 Carrie Fisher voice we’ve come to know and love frames a chunk of text in the middle section ripped straight from her journals. Fisher always had a way with words, but the entries are unpolished and gushingly emotional. In other words, they are filled with the kind of writing most people do when they are young and infatuated. To be honest, it’s much more fun to read the older Fisher looking back, but the diary portion of The Princess Diarist is relatable, almost crushingly so. (I flashed back to my own lovelorn compositions. Yikes.)
It goes without saying that moments in the memoir hit particularly hard after Fisher’s untimely death. Nineteen-year-old Fisher writes, “If anyone reads this when I have passed to the big bad beyond I shall be posthumously embarrassed. I shall spend my entire afterlife blushing.” But I would like to think that’s obviously not the case. After all, in the The Princess Diarist Fisher owns her shit, and it’s downright inspiring.
I’ve lived in Chicago most of my life, and, as I get older, I’ve noticed a rise in the number of friends and acquaintances who are transplants. This appeals to my boosterism, so I’ve never really considered that my city might be less than welcoming to new arrivals. But that’s part of the truth I confronted when I began reading The Miles Between Me, the debut story collection from Toni Nealie. The Newcity literary editor is a Chicagoan by way of New Zealand, and with thematically linked essays and poetic flourishes, Nealie recalls the cities she’s called home and the lengths to which she’s gone to do so. Just like its author, The Miles Between Me is caught between worlds, living somewhere between prose and verse. As someone who’s never moved out of the state, the term “uprooting” has never seemed so foreboding as when she recounts the malaise and other illness she endured after moving here 16 years ago.
My wife and I have a thing for strange, trashy, dog-eared paperbacks. I like used bookstores and she likes out-of-the-way thrift stores, and some things are just too cheap to resist. We’re not collectors. Although we’ve built up a small library of psychic how-to manuals, most of the books end up being given away, usually as gag gifts to her family and friends. Anyway, on her most recent trip down to the southern edge of Missouri to visit her folks, she picked up the long-out-of-print The Pit: A Group Encounter Defiled. (You can roughly date it based on the non-sexual use of “group encounter,” and the presence of a cover quote from Melvin Belli, also known as the character played by Brian Cox in Zodiac.) It’s a brief, not especially well written but nonetheless fascinating account of a sadistic, degrading four-day training seminar held in the early 1970s for employees of the cosmetic-sales pyramid scheme Holiday Magic. Apparently, it was made into a movie in 1982, known by such titles as Brainwash, The Naked Weekend, and Circle Of Power.
Otherwise, my reading has been a bit more respectable, if still mostly focused on debauchery and degradation. I’ve finally gotten around to reading A Short Account Of The Destruction Of The Indies, an early exposé of the abuses and violence of colonization by the 16th century Dominican friar Bartolomé De Las Casas. One observation in Anthony Pagden’s introduction to my Penguin paperback—which, strangely enough, I found lying on a sidewalk about a decade ago—has stuck with me: “The Americas also attracted the kind of settlers who wished to set themselves up in imitation of a society to which they had no access in Europe… Men, they knew, were masters only when they had other men to command.” Above all, what interests me in De Las Casas’ text are the attitudes it records about the New World. When you live here, it’s easy to forget that this place was for so long a metaphor.
It’s been a long time since I actively read poetry, but I’m trying to get back into it. To start, I’m rereading some of the stuff that left a sharp impression on me when I was in my late teens. Right now, it’s those French symbolists; it is time to reacquaint myself with Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers Of Evil and with the poems of Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud stopped writing at 21 (he later became a coffee exporter and arms dealer in Ethiopia) and perhaps it helps if you’re caught up in the doomed romanticism of that particular age; re-reading his verse now, I find a lot of it repetitive. Still, I’m looking forward to re-reading A Season In Hell.