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Favorite books I read in 2017

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I read a lot of books. Pretty much all the time. This past year I read plenty of them, and the ones that I found to be especially interesting and memorable are these:

Reader’s Block, by David Markson
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America, by David Hajdu
Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, by Laurie Penney
Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, by Russell Shorto
Divinity School, by Alicia Jo Rabins
The Whiskey of Our Discontent: Gwendolyn Brooks as Conscience and Change Agent, edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Georgia A. Popoff
Land of Love and Ruins, by Oddný Eir
Transformations, by Anne Sexton
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Angela Carter
The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
My Avante-Garde Education, by Bernard Cooper
The Counterfeiters, by Andre Gide
Blue Front, by Martha Collins
Lit, by Mary Karr
Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Art Sex Music, by Cosey Fanni Tutti
Life Supports, by William Bronk
Worlds From the Word’s End, by Joanna Walsh
Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, by David Yaffe
The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam, by Paisley Rekdal
The Misfit’s Manifesto, by Lidia Yuknavitch
Water Puppets, by Quan Barry
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
After Kathy Acker: A Biography, by Chris Kraus
Devotion, by Patti Smith
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, by Mike Davis
The Light the Dead See, by Frank Stanford
Abandon Me, by Melissa Febos
Positively 4th Street, by David Hajdu
Sad Math, by Sarah Freligh
The One Inside, by Sam Shepard
Hunt, by Jessica Cuello
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón
The Ambassadors, by Henry James
Slow Days Fast Company, by Eve Babitz
Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, by Blair Tindall
I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus
Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness, by Chris Kraus
Am I Alone Here?, by Peter Orner

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Formalities

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[1986]: After I moved out of the house I had shared with Diana and her kids it took me a while to calm down enough and collect enough presence of mind to start thinking about practical legal matters, i.e. divorce. A couple of times Diana called me and begged me to come back to her, but I knew for certain I could not. She was mentally ill and she was destroying my life. I still cared a lot about her and hoped she would somehow find a way to overcome her mental problems but it was impossible for me to go on with her.

My friend Leah, my fellow volunteer from the crisis line, recommended a lawyer and I went to see him. He was very smart and very kind. In our first discussion in his office all of his questions seemed routine and easily dealt with. Except for one, which is when he said, “When we go to see the judge he’s going to ask you why you are suing for divorce. What are you going to tell him?” Of course I should have anticipated this question but I was caught off guard and didn’t quite know how to respond at first. I stammered out something about Diana and I having fundamental personality differences that made us incompatible. He didn’t look like he was convinced by my answer but he just nodded and went on. I felt too inhibited to tell him the truth, which was that my wife had very serious mental problems and living with her was so stressful for me that I was afraid I might actually kill myself. It was the truth, but it was a truth I couldn’t bring myself to articulate. There was something much too awful and shameful about it. There was an unspeakable darkness at the center of my relationship with Diana. I couldn’t face it, at least not completely.

A few days later I walked with my lawyer over to the courthouse and met with the judge in his office. For a judge he struck me as being a little brash and rude and not terribly dignified. He wore a ridiculously artificial-looking toupee and had on a garish plaid sport jacket. He didn’t look at me as he asked his questions. It was as if I weren’t even in the room and he were addressing the wall. When he got to the question about why I was seeking to divorce my wife, something changed in me this time, a sudden lack of inhibition, and I started to talk about how Diana had unpredictable and extremely intense outbursts of rage and paranoia that would last for days, and that she wouldn’t admit that she had a problem or get help for herself, and so on. My lawyer looked like he might have been a little alarmed but he didn’t say anything. The judge actually looked at me this time, and cut me off, apparently having heard enough to satisfy him. He went on to the next question and it was all very routine from then on.
Diana was served with the divorce paperwork and she didn’t contest it. I heard that she graduated with high honors from the University of West Florida with a degree in psychology, then went on to enter their master’s degree program. A few years later I heard that she had entered a Ph.D. program in psychology at Auburn University but I don’t know what happened to her after that. My stepson Arnie went on to have a successful career as an actor and comic. My stepdaughter Deedee, who had an amazing singing voice, went to Florida State University to study music but I don’t know what she did after that. I don’t know what my stepson Toby is doing. It’s a much different world now and we are all different people than we were. I send them all my love, Diana too.

Exit

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[1985]: It was difficult. Diana and I, at her suggestion, started going to see a marriage counselor, Dr. Saywell. These marriage counseling sessions were strange and frustrating. Diana and I talked about our problems and Dr. Saywell rarely offered any significant commentary on our problems, but listened carefully to everything we said, absorbing it all. He seemed to have an unlimited capacity for absorbing other people’s anguish. Diana mainly expressed her paranoia about me and her kids, how we were all bent on destroying her life, etc., and I talked about my frustration in not being able to get through the barrier of her paranoia and communicate with her. Nothing ever came of these counseling sessions. It was all just empty talk.

I stayed with Diana as long as I could, which was probably about a year and a half. I clung to the remnants of our marriage with an instinctive desperation, like a shipwrecked man clinging to a piece of wreckage to try to keep himself from drowning. I stayed through her fits of crying and screaming that typically went on for hours (sometimes days) and that often included throwing herself against the walls and against the floor, and her paranoid rages against me and her own children, and her threats of suicide. When I finally called it quits it was because I felt I was close to my breaking point. I was so severely stressed that I was afraid that in some blind paroxysm of intense despair, brought on by another of Diana’s psychotic rages, I might actually kill myself or even kill someone else. I moved out of the house I had been renting with her and into my mother’s house. It was a strange feeling, like suddenly moving to a foreign country. Being freed up from the immediate emotional stress of having to deal with Diana, I felt as if I didn’t recognize myself. I was disconnected from the world and emotionally numb. Everything around me looked different than it had before, strangely devoid of substance. I walked around staring at ordinary things, trees, buildings, cars, people walking, as if I were seeing them for the first time. I had a feeling that a big heavy line had been drawn through my life dividing the before from the after, and that I was a different person after than I had been before, and that from then on I would always be conscious of my life consisting of these two separate parts, and of myself as consisting of these two different identities. I didn’t know yet that eventually there would be many more such cruel, heavy lines drawn through my life at various points in time, and many more different selves that I would become along the way as a result.

More on the Lake Mývatn writing retreat

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I spent the first week of October at a writing retreat hosted by Maine Media Workshops at the southern end of Lake Mývatn in Iceland, which turned out to be a wonderful and inspiring experience. During this week I got to make some significant progress on revising and (hopefully) improving my book manuscript but we also (I and the other retreat participants) got a chance to go out on several fun and interesting outings: hikes in the wilderness areas, visiting a nearby geothermal area, relaxing at the Mývatn Nature Baths (my first experience of the public thermal baths that Iceland is famous for), and I finally got to see the amazingly beautiful aurora borealis for the first time. Our group leader Meg did an impeccable job of organizing the whole thing and she really went all out to make it a great experience for all of the participants. Thanks, Meg.


Prose poems

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A prose-poem of mine was recently published on the online journal Trampset, and can be found here, for anyone who might be curious about it: https://trampset.org/when-i-lived-in-florida-sometimes-536aee6cdd2c Trampset is a new online journal that has a unique and lively personality. I hope it will continue to be successful.

This prose-poem is one of many I’ve been working on for the past few months, part of a book manuscript tentatively titled Conversations With the Horizon. They are prose-poems that draw on my own experiences but which deal mainly with themes of consciousness and the elusive nature of identity.

Traveling to a writing retreat in northeastern Iceland

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October 1st through the 7th I was in northeastern Iceland for a writing retreat on the southern shore of Lake Mývatn, in the tiny hamlet of Skútustaðir. It was organized by Maine Media Workshops. I was excited about the prospect of getting back to Iceland again, a country I’ve had an enthusiastic interest in since I first went there with my wife in the summer of 2015. I had however some anxiety about the travel (which I often do), being concerned about the possibility of something going wrong along the way, possible missed connections etc. The trip itinerary took me from Syracuse NY through Toronto and then to the Iceland international airport in Keflavík. There I had to take a bus to the domestic airport in Reykjavík where I met up with the other retreat participants and the group leader Meg, and we all caught a short domestic flight to Akureyri in the north. There Meg rented a car and drove us south and east to our final destination which was the Hotel Sél at Skútustaðir. Despite my travel anxiety everything went well and there were no problems throughout my entire trip. Choice of reading material for a trip is very important for me. I brought the collected prose of Robert Creeley, and Glare by A. R. Ammons, a wild and rambling booklength poem, a freewheeling lyric meditation on time, nature, and mortality that has been an inspiration to me in my own current writing project. I hoped that the spirit of Ammons would be there with me as I worked on my book manuscript at the retreat. Later on in the retreat I came to regret the choice of the Creeley though. His stories seemed suffused with a mood of existential despair, which was not what I really needed on this trip. My plan for the retreat was to work on revising the manuscript of my prose-poem collection which I’ve been working on since February.

Skútustaðir consists of two hotels (with a lot of tourists), a farm with a lot of sheep, a church, and not much else. Everything else is wild and beautiful country all around, the lake and the vast volcanic wilderness surrounding, as far as one can see. To spend any time there is to be in a constant state of awe. There is no place else on earth where I have been so keenly aware not only the profundity of nature, but of the fact that nature has no need for us. Which is a strangely inspiring thought to me, somehow.


Dreams

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When I was young, say up into my early 30s, I used to have dreams that I could remember when I awoke, though later in life I never had dreams, or at least never had dreams that I was capable of remembering on waking. I noticed a strange and interesting pattern in most of those dreams of mine. Usually in the dream I would find myself in some vast structure made up of many separate rooms. The structure would be enormous, seeming to go on forever. It would usually be some kind of huge building of an exotic architecture, with many floors, or a network of caves of apparently unlimited extent, or something similar. In the dream not much would happen. There was not a story or plot to it, but I would spend my time in the dream just wandering from one room to another or from one cave to another. Sometimes I would be in rooms filled with books. Rarely would I see any other people. Such a dream on its face might seem like a kind of metaphor for existential dread, but the feeling that I had within the dream was a kind of peaceful awe. I was content to be an explorer, just going on and on from one room to another.

As I say, later in life I stopped having these dreams, though I’ve read that supposedly all people dream while sleeping anyway, even if they can’t remember their dreams on waking. So maybe I’m still having those same dreams even now but I just don’t know it. I’d like to think that maybe late at night I’m still exploring, still wandering through those dream worlds, on and on indefinitely. There’s no reason why it should ever have to come to an end.

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