The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman. This was our inaugural selection for a group that a friend and I started over on Good Reads, “Nonfiction For The Senses“– a “virtual book club to indulge in non-fiction books about all things relating to the senses, mostly focusing on the history, lore and science around them, as well as books celebrating obsessions with anything like perfumes, potions, intriguing sounds, textiles and textures, and delicious foods. ” And what a marvelous book to kick things off with! The Royal Art of Poison was absolutely fantastic and rife with fascinating facts and revolting revelations. In this book we examine the deaths of royal personages throughout history and examine the question–was it poison? Or was it just their excessive use of arsenic-based cosmetics, maybe a latent case of tuberculosis, or ghosts in their blood or something? Revealed with a tone of wry wit and gossipy relish, Herman shares with us how folks lived in ye olden days, including the usage of garbagey nonsense medicines, the general lack of knowledge regarding sickness and disease, and the appallingly unhygienic living conditions –“unsanitary” is really an understatement in the extreme. Take a look, for example, at the chapter regarding the palace of Versailles and be glad that all your lazy partner does is miss the toilet a little when he pees. At least he uses a toilet. Hell, at least he pees in the bathroom! Another thing I found kind of hilarious was the lengths to which the monarchy and persons of prominent social standing would go to in order to avoid being poisoned (which is really eye-opening to how shitty a king they must have known they were and how much they deserved poisoning!) But even if their poison sniffing courtiers or the waving of their magical unicorn horns saved them, chances were they’d die from poorly cooked food, diseases and filthy living conditions, medications and cosmetics containing poisons, or doctors using excessive bleeding, purging, and other treatments, anyway. What a time to be alive!
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery. I thought this was a remarkably special book for its enthusiasm on the subject of these beautiful, curious, and yes, oftentimes dangerous creatures, as well as the bounty of information it provided–so I was quite honestly surprised to see that a lot of reviewers thought that it wasn’t “sciency” enough, or that the facts seemed a little thin. (Granted, I read this book not knowing much about octopuses except that have eight arms… so any information at all was news to me.) This is a highly personal account wherein Montgomery shares her journey of studying octopuses, and the sense of wonder and delight she derives from interacting with, and “getting to know” these strange, sentient cephalopods. I suspect there’s probably a great deal of conjecture on the part of the author, though, when it comes to attributing characteristics such as “joy” or “affection” to what might amount to captive beasts of no small amount of intelligence merely responding to a bit of stimulation in an otherwise boring environment. We do, however, see octopuses push people away, pull them closer, tease people, lash out, weaken, die, expand and thrive. Octopuses change shape, change color, express pleasure and loneliness and longing. Do octopuses have a soul? In this regard, it’s an inconclusive read. Who can say? At the very least, as far as I am concerned, they’re off the menu on my future sushi dates.
Philosophy, Pussycats, and Porn by Stoya. I have some thoughts about this series of essays and blog posts from writer, actor, and pornographer Stoya– a personality, and human, whom I deeply admire (at least when it comes to her work and writings. I have never met her, and do not know her personally.) However, I’m not sure I can convey my thoughts articulately and in a way that I feel that this book deserves. On one hand, it’s an intensely intimate look at someone’s reflections and ruminations, musings and meditations… and not in any sort of cleaned-up-and-sanitized-for-public-consumption kind of way, either. Several of these essays are close to what I consider stream of consciousness writing, in the sense that someone who is trying to work something out for themselves, internally, might scribble down nebulous notions and obscure observations, so that when they see these ideas begin to coalesce in black and white, in front of their eyes, they can say, “aha! That’s what it all means!” Stoya writes on issues regarding pornography, sex work, and sex education as they relate to privacy, censorship, and the media etc., and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a thought process from someone who is deeply involved in these issues and really knows what she’s talking about. On the other hand, some of these writings are almost too intimate, too personal–almost as if they were plucked from a diary and a larger narrative, to now stand alone on a page; secret slices of life, raw, rough, unfinished, and very much out of context for a reader who is on the outside, with a very limited view for which to look in. These are the stories wherein perhaps a first name is mentioned…maybe a friend, a lover, a coworker… and we see a small interaction between Stoya and this individual–a coffee and a smoke, a heady fling, a reconciliation–and I wonder…am I supposed to know who these people are? Does it matter? Why was this specific moment in time, with this specific person, given mention? In her other essays, in which we are allowed to see the inner workings of Stoya debating with herself and sussing out answers on the aforementioned various issues, these shared writings feel like a privilege, almost a peek behind the veil. However, the more personal anecdotes and reminiscences make me feel like a peeping tom, and not in a titillating way, but it’s a rather uncomfortable, left-out feeling, like, “why am I being allowed to witness this?”
House of Women by Sophie Goldstein is a starkly beautiful graphic novel, and a loose adaptation of the 1947 film Black Narcissus, a psychological drama about the emotional tensions of jealousy and lust within a convent of nuns in an isolated valley in the Himalayas. Except that House of Women takes place in the much more foreign environs of what is ostensibly another planet (?) and the “nuns” are attempting to convert the local alien populace. As with most of these stories, it goes about as well as one might expect.
Circe by Madeline Miller. As someone who spent ages 8-10 obsessed with Greek mythology and constantly daydreamed about what life was like amongst the Olympians both major and minor, as well as the thrilling exploits, intrigues, and adventures of their progeny, I was super excited about Circe when I first heard of the book’s publication… and it took until I was two chapters in to realize that I was not, in fact, reading a story about Cassandra. Not sure how I got them mixed up. Whoops! At any rate, it was a happy mistake, as I would much rather have read an imaginative retelling about the solitary island-dwelling sorceress who turned pervy, plundering sailors into pigs than the seeress cursed to utter prophecies which were true but which no one believed, (and which I’d already read in a book titled Firebrand, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Also, I don’t know about you, but even years later, I am still reeling with regard to hearing the brutal, vicious accounts of abuse that MZB’s daughter suffered at her hands. It’s heartbreaking. It’s always devastating to learn that your hero is, in fact, a monster, isn’t it? Ugh.) At any rate…Circe. Born of the Titan Helios and Oceanid, Perse, Circe is a lonely, willful nymph whose reinterpreted story in the hands of Madeline Miller is a breathtaking, compelling tale, and one of the loveliest things I have read in a very long time.
North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud. I am making a concerted effort to pay more attention to the books languishing on my shelves which I’d bought for the purpose of “summer reading” several summers ago (and subsequent summers, since). So far I am working on purchases from 2015. Shameful! But better late than never! North American Lake Monsters is a collection of short stories the likes of which I am not quite sure I’ve encountered before. There are monsters in some these stories; sometimes the monsters are monsters and sometimes they are just flawed and horrible people. Sometimes, even if there is a monster, it’s just a weird, rotting carcass that has washed up from the lake, but you’re an ex-con whose family is falling apart and you just don’t have time to deal with that kind of thing. Sometimes you’re a kid who has a vampire living under your house who has promised to turn you into an undead bloodsucker, if you keep your promise to invite him into your home. Maybe you’re a drunk and destitute, with no home at all, haunted by the ghost of your hurricane ravaged city. Or perhaps you’re just an ignorant kid, with a strangely terrible home life, and running with the wrong crowd. These stories are bleak, full of more ruin than redemption, and oftentimes ending before you’ve gotten the sense that they’d even begun. I found this an oddly hypnotic read, which I hesitate to call “enjoyable”, due, I suppose to just the very nature of the stories, but that I found pleasure in reading, nonetheless.
We’ll Be The Last Ones to Let You Down
Via the BloodMilk Book Club
I enjoyed this without feeling strongly about it. Saying that feels like a copout for a review, but can’t a book exist to read quickly over your morning coffee? It was a perfect companion for that, a story I went through quickly and enjoyably.
WTF is Tarot? …& How Do I Do It
This guide was such a refreshing surprise. I fully admit that when I first heard about it, I rolled my eyes and muttered “fucking millennials”. It proved me the F wrong. Each card has an insightful interpretation with a personal anecdote, making it an approachable and comprehensive guide that I wholly recommend for both new and experienced Tarot readers.
I really, truly, honestly hated this book. The author whines on for 276 pages about her obsession with Brittney Spears and Tiger Beat pop stars and her consistently shitty housing situation in Los Angeles. The last essay is spent trashing Joan Didion for romanticizing LA and giving the author an unfair expectation of life there as a writer. I’m annoyed at myself for actually finishing this.
South and West Joan Didion:
In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is psychically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an x-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above the ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.
The first time I read this, I was sitting on my porch at an old house from the mid 1800s that I was renting in the city, and I’ve revisited this introduction countless times since. You can see why I take great offense to anyone talking shit on her.
Just Kids & M Train: Patti Smith
If you haven’t read these, just go do it now. Start with Just Kids, and let the romantic idealism of NYC in the late 60s and early 70s inspire you. The perfect setting within the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, with Dali and Hendrix and Joplin wandering in and Patti’s poetic voice leading you through her muses and loves and her longing for freedom in art.
M Train is less inspirational, but nonetheless a fantastic memoir, and absolutely worth your time and attention. I only say less inspiration because it is not as relatable as Just Kids – she is now an iconic rockstar with endless financial means to allow her the luxury of travel on a whim. She maintains her original purpose, though – an ever ending endeavor for art, traveling the world to document it on her Polaroid Land Camera 270 (find a copy of Camera Solo for her images). M Train is a love letter to art and artists’ objects, coffee, and crime drama TV shows, which Patti Smith somehow transforms from the mundane to the inspirational.
I had a beautiful moment last month with these: I brought both with me to Mexico City, wanting to revisit the passage in M Train where Patti visits Casa Azul and photographs Frida’s death mask on her bed, and decided that they should be a pair always. Just Kids was in my bag while we took an hour long bus ride to the ancient pyramids, and opening it, I discovered my copy was signed, a forgotten gift from an old friend. The following day, I stood over Frida’s bed and thought of Patti doing the same thing, and how there’s a universal thread of inspiration that we all share.
I read these two (again) back to back, and then listened to the audio book versions, which are narrated by Patti Smith herself. You feel as if you’re sitting in her favorite cafe with her being personally told her history, and it’s perfect.
Twice I have read this, and twice I have set it down in the second half. I am more interested in the artist here than I am the art.
A reading list based off of Patti Smith’s memoirs, many of which I have read and some of which I have not:
Max’s Kansas City
Murakami The Wind Up Bird Chronicles
Jean Genet The Thief’s Journal
William Blake Songs of Innocence
Eugene Atgèt: Paris
Jim Carroll Forced Entries (which I actually favor over The Basketball Diaries)
Meaty: Essays by Samantha Irby. Why yes, I am a great big fibber. Last month, when I reviewed Samantha Irby’s most recent book, We are Never Meeting in Real Life.: Essays, I stated that, even though I enjoyed it tremendously, I was going to hold off on purchasing her first book, Meaty, until I’d made some progress on my stacks. LIES. I’m pretty sure I went ahead and procured a copy Meaty that same day. I REGRET NOTHING. As for my review of Meaty, I’ll simply refer you to my previous review of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life and add that this book is every bit as hilarious and heartbreaking as its follow-up. So, if you’re interested in reading Samantha Irby’s work, just buy it all now. Buy it all, get some snacks, find your favorite cozy reading spot, and just have at it. Also, make sure you’ve got some sort of internet-connected device to hand so that, once you’re done with the books, you can start binging on the archives of Irby’s blog, Bitches Gotta Eat. Then you can join me in eagerly awaiting her third book, which she’s writing presently.
The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories by Joan Aiken. When our own lovely S.Elizabeth pulls you aside and says, “You must read this book!” you get at least as excited as when she recommends a specific fragrance for you. Few people have such an uncanny knack for taking in what they know of a person and their tastes and perfectly pairing them with all sorts of wondrous things. Sarah also beautifully reviewed this very same book last month and I don’t think I could possibly top her own enticing descriptions, nor do I want to spoil any of the individual stories. But I will say that any collection of short stories edited and introduced by Kelly Link (as well as Joan Aiken’s daughter, Lizza), one of my very favorite short story writers, is a collection well worth your time. Also, when a book contains not one but TWO ghost doggos (in two very different stories, no less), you know it’s something special. There are so many flavors of fantastic creativity happening in these stories that I am utterly enchanted by Joan Aiken. I know I’m late to her oeuvre, but now that I’m here, I can’t wait to read more of her work.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. This marks the second time I’ve read Shirley Jackson’s masterwork of haunted house fiction, though describing it as a haunted house story is a serious oversimplification. One might think that, having already read the book, it couldn’t be anywhere near as unsettling or outright frightening as it was the first time. Yet it turns out that I found my second vicarious visit to one of literature’s most malevolent abodes even scarier than the first. Perhaps because I already knew the story, knew what was going to happen during each strange day and each malefic night, I was able to soak up more of Jackson’s finely crafted atmosphere and pay closer attention to the actions of and interactions between her characters. I’m even less certain now about how much of the sinister goings in Hill House were the work of the house itself or were members of the small group of strangers, brought together with the purpose of exploring its labyrinthine halls, messing with each other. Or, perhaps one of their party was simply the perfect vessel for the malevolence that resides within the corrupt walls of Hill House. That I’m even more unsure this time around just makes me love the book and appreciate Shirley Jackson’s mind and skill even more.
The Southern Sympathy Cookbook by Perre Coleman Magness
The link between cookbooks and spellbooks is often overlooked, and The Southern Sympathy Cookbook is a kitchen witches’ grimoire without ever meaning to be. Death and food are deeply intertwined in Southern culture, and this book explores the rituals and recipes connecting them, not as a cultural anthropologist would, but with the love and understanding of someone who has spent a lifetime meeting tragedy with exactly the right casserole. There is no better magic than the ability to heal the broken heart, and this is the soul of funeral cooking- comfort, warmth, love, and the lifting for a moment of the weight of grief with the right combination of words and ingredients.
featured image: Madonna at Farley’s Prop House in London with photographer Lorenzo Agius, 2005