Associations: I Dated Graham Greene by Lucy Ellmann

I was in a North Carolina Bookstore when I saw a thin pamphlet sticking out between two thicker volumes. Simple stitching, a black thread down the center. I Dated Graham GreeneLucy Ellmann centered on my attentions as I had been waiting—waiting—on a copy of Ducks, Newburyport (the title like a lost Marx Brothers routine) to make its way into my hands. No bookstore I had gone to had it in stock, and it seemed none would carry the volume unless it won the Booker. (This changed of course when it jumped to the shortlist, with no one wanting to repeat the delay of last year’s Milkman into American reader’s hands.) It seemed fitting to find this small book about the author’s life in bookstores by chance, published for Independent Bookstore Day. It also seemed fitting to spend a moment on the author’s shorter work, given that the first comment often made by reviewers is the massive page count of Ducks, Newburyport.


Much of the criticism (in the sense of both analysis and the discussion of faults) I’d read of Ellmann’s work strikes me as short-sighted—a hot take cribbed from the same Cliff’s Notes. Instead of seeing how others categorize her, here we see a glimpse into how an author sees herself through the lens of what should be a natural partner in her profession: a bookstore. Instead, the author pushes expectations to the side: “Bookstores scare me. So do books.” What follows is a 16 page analysis of the difference between the Platonic ideal of a bookstore and the reality of the physical space itself. Ellmann lists—bullet-point style—the many faults that can stress out the bookstore visitor, from “Amnesia, trying to remember all the books I meant to seek out” to “Geriatric affronts, when they don’t have the children’s books I remember.”

Through the text, Ellmann crafts the titles of books into the structure of her narrative. The Collector. Some of these are surface-level connections, while others suggest something deeper—an ironic meaning that can be understood only if you’ve read the reference. One can pull the list of books like yarn from a sweater to make the syllabus of a personal and sentimental education, gathering texts in the haphazard way of a lifetime’s reading material. Passionate Minds. These are moments that shape the text into the realm of prose-poetry:

Shakespeare & Co. in Paris—I sat on a couch there one summer when I was about twenty, waiting to be picked up by some literary type. A Sentimental Journey. Nothing happened. This surprised me, but I think I only sat there about ten minutes. Maybe it takes an hour.

There is something in these moments reminiscent of Gertrude Stein (let’s skip the ever-present Joyce references—even if Shakespeare & Co. does seem to invite them). The text is made of small sections—ideas, memories, moments, feelings, provocations, the ubiquitous and the unique—circling and adding to each other. The style of Ducks, Newburyport is visible here as it is in Ellmann’s other works: the humor, the lists, and the sense that all of these items counted out before you are what go into the making of a life. All of these pieces of Ellmann’s text work towards a joke, towards the boom-crash of the drum and cymbals of Portnoy’s Complaint (referenced on page 11). It is here that the movement of the essay moves beyond the cheap laugh of Philip Roth into the humor of Anne Carson—to make multiple layers of meaning gather together in a reflection of both the writer and the reader.

Walking through the language of Ellmann’s works as I make my way through Mimi, her previous novel and the only other one easily available in America, I could see how other readers make the obvious connection between her father’s work and her own. (Her father makes a fleeting cameo in the essay.) I picked up a copy of Thinking About Women by Mary Ellmann (the author’s mother, born in Newburyport) and saw a very different direction. The lists, the experimental structure, and above all they playfulness of the text exists there too. That it seems the Ellmann family has given English letters so much of substance is remarkable. Discovering Lucy Ellmann’s work, wandering through a bookshop, has brought one of the rarest delights into my reading life—an experimenter who can be a storyteller of equal power. The Divine Comedy.

Interview at the NEPCA Blog

I’ll be out of town this weekend, but here’s an interview I did with the blog of the Northeastern Popular Culture Association (NEPCA) to promote their new publication, Pop Culture Matters. “Tackling the Femme” is one of Twenty Nine delicious chapters available for purchase here.

Just Released: Pop Culture Matters!

It’s finally available! I’m so proud to be a part of this book.


Thanks to the tireless efforts of  Martin F. Norden and Robert E. Weir; they have produced a book of the conference proceedings of the 2017 NEPCA Conference titled:  Pop Culture Matters: Proceedings of the 39th Conference of the Northeast Popular Culture Association.

We are very excited that this has come to fruition and are excited to share it with our community.  We encourage you to check it out, and if possible, request your institutional libraries to purchase a copy.

Also, keep an eye out in the weeks to come for interviews with many of the authors included in this volume.

Here is the book’s description and also the table of contents.

Book cover for: Pop Culture Matters: Proceedings of the 39th Conference of the Northeast Popular Culture Association edited by Martin F. Norden and Robert E. Weir“We immerse ourselves daily in expressions of popular culture—YouTube videos, hip hop music, movies, adverts, greeting cards, videogames, and comics, to name just a few possibilities—and far too often we pay only scant critical attention to them. The…

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Agnes V.

We have a habit in this world of only giving women their due when they become old and their “eccentricities” remind us of our grandmothers. That Varda became a meme (as so many obituaries liked to describe her) seems an example of this. I’m uncertain how much of the image she cultivated herself–she certainly was willing to play into the role to a point. But how much of this was just Varda existing? I don’t believe her image to be constructed for a public audience–her films are too personal, cutting too deep.

I’ve always admired Varda’s films for the ability to move between documentary and fiction; set-pieces and improvisation. One knows the direction one is moving in but not necessarily what will be placed in the frame. I can remark on the same beauty everyone else has and speak of Cleo from 5 to 7 as her masterwork, but even though it is a masterpiece, I still think Le Bonheur is the more interesting film. Both come from a world in the process of change. (The world is always changing; sometimes more-so than others.) Le Bonheur feels like Varda opening up, becoming color-struck, taking new paints to the canvas and daring herself to disrupt the domestic cliches of films: falling in love, having children, falling out of love, falling into adultery, having a territory to claim in the upcoming war of the sexes. I admire Le Bonheur for the reason I admire all of Varda’s work–I never know exactly where it’s going.

When Varda said that Beaches of Agnes would probably be her last film, I wondered where exactly she could go from there. Her art and life stretched out in other directions to other mediums. She recreated herself. And then she collaborated with the artist JR on Faces Places. This film has it all–the intertexuality, the sense of personal history as world history, the colors, the light, the insistence on viewing reality as something that can be played with, moved about, revisited, and recontextualized. Her work is divided in the handy Wikipedia bar between fiction and documentary films, but I find the line harder to draw than that.

Godard still gets funding for his works, even if the quality remains highly uneven and does not stand up to re-viewing. Varda, when receiving a lifetime achievement award, remarked that she could not secure financing for another film, even as she was being touted as a legend with the usual phrases. (She opened the door for women in cinema! She changed the way movies are made!–but no one rushes to open their wallet to let her do it again.) Legendary status can have its pitfalls–everyone thinks they know you when they know an idea of you. How much of any artist’s persona is really them? It varies by degrees with each one. But there is an honesty in Varda’s moments of inspiration, the happy accidents, fictive and the real coming together in ways no artist could plan that makes me believe her films offer a truer self than almost any other in cinema history.


All the Other Kids Made an “End of the Year” Book List, so here’s Mine

This past year has brought a number of amazing books into my life. Here are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2018, in no particular order.

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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara


Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood by Karina Longworth


Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Things I Don’t Want to Know, Black Vodka, and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy


The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Silent Woman and The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm


Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical by Anthony Bourdain


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Slow Days, Fast Company and Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy by John Le Carre


Pink Trace Notebooks by Wayne Koestenbaum


A Song at Twilight by Noel Coward

My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante


Moments with Chaplin by Lillian Ross


Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong


Gay Semiotics by Hal Fischer


Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker by Marie Darrieussecq


Women Thinking on Film


I don’t think I’d ever seen a film where a woman was so explicitly engaged in thinking before Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent Passion of Joan of Arc seems to be a close contender. Joan’s face is, in the inquiry sequences, constantly evaluating, probing, overwhelming search to explain the unexplained—her visions, her actions in battle, her faith and the gap of understanding. Hannah Arendt is, then, the first secular historical woman shown thinking seriously. There are previous glimpses to this land—almost any of Isabelle Huppert performances (including Elle), and many of Charlotte Rampling’s best moments in Swimming Pool show her thinking, rather than responding on the basis of emotion. But this is the first time that I have seen thinking given over to women in full, in the same way that men have been represented as thinkers. Von Trotta’s direction connects with Barbara Sukowa’s performance to magnify Arendt’s interior life—the life (and function) of the mind.


Yet in Joan of Arc, Joan’s thought is also portrayed as fearful, the anxiety of the person trying to give an answer to a question that will not lead to their further torment. She answers the questions thrown at her knowing the mad Monk played by Antonin Artaud will be able to make every answer a wrong one; regardless of its truth. Hannah Arendt is the woman thinker without overt emotional pull in her performance of thought. She could be thinking of the vague ideal forms of truth and justice, but she is still having to confront the “nobody” assigned to carry out a genocide.


I keep rewatching Hannah Arendt not only for its brilliant characterization of a woman thinking but also for the relationship between Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) and Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer). The two bounce off of each other, not only in ideas but sensibility and even language. McCarthy’s limited German is a recurring joke through the film, and yet she continues to try to learn in order to be closer to Hannah. Their private disagreements don’t boil into their public defense of one another. Ambiguous as both of them were to feminism, they occupy a territory of sisterhood, both committed to their roles, in different ways, as thinkers.

Feature on “theMystery.doc” @ LitHub

A feature article about the contest Grove Atlantic ran for responses to theMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh has been published at Literary Hub. I placed third in the contest, and my short story, “Resolve,” is linked to in the article. You can find it here.


You can directly link to “Resolve” at LitHub by clicking here.


This past week I received a signed copy of theMystery.doc in the mail. I’m looking forward to sitting down with my partner to look through it again. We’re reading House of Leaves (he’s already finished it and I’m working my way through) and I want to see how/if these two books can talk to each other. Maybe something will come of it.