Tag Archives: artists

11 Days, 11 Books: 2020’s Reads, from Best to Worst

I happen to have finished 11 books so far this year – though a number of them were started in 2019 (one as far back as September) and several of them are novelty books and/or of novella length. Just for kicks, I’ve arranged them from best to worst. Here’s how my reading year has started off…

 

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale – Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of bipolar Cornwall artist Rachel Kelly and her interactions with her husband and four children, all of whom are desperate to earn her love. Quakerism, with its emphasis on silence and the inner light in everyone, sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows for family secrets to proliferate. There are two cameo appearances by an intimidating Dame Barbara Hepworth, and three wonderfully horrible scenes in which Rachel gives a child a birthday outing. The novel questions patterns of inheritance (e.g. of talent and mental illness) and whether happiness is possible in such a mixed-up family. (Our joint highest book club rating ever, with Red Dust Road. We all said we’d read more by Gale.)

 

Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil – An extended essay whose overarching theme of hospitality stretches into many different topics. Part of an Indian family that has lived in Kenya and England, Basil is used to a culture of culinary abundance. Greed, especially for food, feels like her natural state, she acknowledges. However, living in Berlin has given her a greater awareness of the suffering of the Other – hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered the EU, often to be met with hostility. Yet the Sikhism she grew up in teaches unconditional kindness to strangers. She asks herself, and readers, how to cultivate the spirit of generosity. Clearly written and thought-provoking. (And typeset in Mrs Eaves, one of my favorite fonts.) See also Susan’s review, which convinced me to order a copy with my Christmas bookstore voucher.

 

Frost by Holly Webb – Part of a winter animals series by a prolific children’s author, this combines historical fiction and fantasy in an utterly charming way. Cassie is a middle child who always feels left out of her big brother’s games, but befriending a fox cub who lives on scrubby ground near her London flat gives her a chance for adventures of her own. One winter night, Frost the fox leads Cassie down the road – and back in time to the Frost Fair of 1683 on the frozen Thames. I rarely read middle-grade fiction, but this was worth making an exception for. It’s probably intended for ages eight to 12, yet I enjoyed it at 36. My library copy smelled like strawberry lip gloss, which was somehow just right.

 

The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame – This is the last and least enjoyable volume of Frame’s autobiography, but as a whole the trilogy is an impressive achievement. Never dwelling on unnecessary details, she conveys the essence of what it is to be (Book 1) a child, (2) a ‘mad’ person, and (3) a writer. After years in mental hospitals for presumed schizophrenia, Frame was awarded a travel fellowship to London and Ibiza. Her seven years away from New Zealand were a prolific period as, with the exception of breaks to go to films and galleries, and one obsessive relationship that nearly led to pregnancy out of wedlock, she did little else besides write. The title is her term for the imagination, which leads us to see Plato’s ideals of what might be.

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – Collins won the first novel category of the Costa Awards for this story of a black maid on trial in 1826 London for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. Margaret Atwood hit the nail on the head in a tweet describing the book as “Wide Sargasso Sea meets Beloved meets Alias Grace” (she’s such a legend she can get away with being self-referential). Back in Jamaica, Frances was a house slave and learned to read and write. This enabled her to assist Langton in recording his observations of Negro anatomy. Amateur medical experimentation and opium addiction were subplots that captivated me more than Frannie’s affair with Marguerite Benham and even the question of her guilt. However, time and place are conveyed convincingly, and the voice is strong.

 

(The next one is a book my husband received for Christmas, as are the Heritage and Pyle, further down, which were from me. Yes, I read them as well. What of it?)

 

Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker – This has had us in tears of laughter. It lists examples of English being misused abroad, e.g. on signs, instructions and product marketing. China and Japan are the worst repeat offenders, but there are hilarious examples from around the world. Croker has divided the book into thematic chapters, so the weird translated phrases and downright gobbledygook are grouped around topics like food, hotels and medical advice. A lot of times you can see why mistakes came about, through the choice of almost-but-not-quite-right synonyms or literal interpretation of a saying, but sometimes the mind boggles. Two favorites: (in an Austrian hotel) “Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension” and (on a menu in Macao) “Utmost of chicken fried in bother.”

 

All the Water in the World by Karen Raney – Like The Fault in Our Stars (though not YA), this is about a teen with cancer. Sixteen-year-old Maddy is eager for everything life has to offer, so we see her having her first relationship – with Jack, her co-conspirator on an animation project to be used in an environmental protest – and contacting Antonio, the father she never met. Sections alternate narration between her and her mother, Eve. I loved the suburban D.C. setting and the e-mails between Maddy and Antonio. Maddy’s voice is sweet yet sharp, and, given that the main story is set in 2011, the environmentalism theme seems to anticipate last year’s flowering of youth participation. However, about halfway through there’s a ‘big reveal’ that fell flat for me because I’d guessed it from the beginning.


This was published on the 9th. My thanks to Two Roads for the proof copy for review.

 

Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle – I love these simple cartoons about aliens and the sense they manage to make of Earth and its rituals. The humor mostly rests in their clinical synonyms for everyday objects and activities (parenting, exercise, emotions, birthdays, office life, etc.). Pyle definitely had fun with a thesaurus while putting these together. It’s also about gentle mockery of the things we think of as normal: consider them from one remove, and they can be awfully strange. My favorites are still about the cat. You can also see his work on Instagram.

 

Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals by Stuart Heritage – I bought this for my husband purely for the title, which couldn’t be more apt for him. The stories, a mix of adapted fairy tales and new setups, are mostly up-to-the-minute takes on US and UK politics, along with some digs at contemporary hipster culture and social media obsession. Heritage quite cleverly imitates the manner of speaking of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. By its nature, though, the book will only work for those who know the context (so I can’t see it succeeding outside the UK) and will have a short shelf life as the situations it mocks will eventually fade into collective memory. So, amusing but not built to last. I particularly liked “The Night Before Brexmas” and its all-too-recognizable picture of intergenerational strife.

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – The Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize shortlist? You must be kidding me! The plot is enjoyable enough: a Nigerian nurse named Korede finds herself complicit in covering up her gorgeous little sister Ayoola’s crimes – her boyfriends just seem to end up dead somehow; what a shame! – but things get complicated when Ayoola starts dating the doctor Korede has a crush on and the comatose patient to whom Korede had been pouring out her troubles wakes up. My issue was mostly with the jejune writing, which falls somewhere between high school literary magazine and television soap (e.g. “My hands are cold, so I rub them on my jeans” & “I have found that the best way to take your mind off something is to binge-watch TV shows”).

 

On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho [trans. from the Japanese by Lucien Stryk] – These hardly work in translation. Almost every poem requires a contextual note on Japan’s geography, flora and fauna, or traditions; as these were collected at the end but there were no footnote symbols, I didn’t know to look for them, so by the time I read them it was too late. However, here are two that resonated, with messages about Zen Buddhism and depression, respectively: “Skylark on moor – / sweet song / of non-attachment.” (#83) and “Muddy sake, black rice – sick of the cherry / sick of the world.” (#221; reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s “tired of London, tired of life” maxim). My favorite, for personal relevance, was “Now cat’s done / mewing, bedroom’s / touched by moonlight.” (#24)

 

Any of these you have read or would read?

Onwards with the 2020 reading!

Book Serendipity Strikes Again

Only two months since my last Book Serendipity entry, and already another 17 occurrences! I post these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. I call it serendipitous when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such incidents. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)

 

  • Characters with lupus in The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff and Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid [I also read about one who features in Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger] PLUS I then read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, who died of lupus

 

  • Daisy’s declaration of “I am not a muse. I am the somebody. End of fucking story” in Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid reminded me of Lee Miller’s attitude in The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
  • Mentions of old ladies’ habit of keeping tissues balled up in their sleeves in The Girls by Lori Lansens and Growing Pains by Mike Shooter

 

  • (A sad one, this) The stillbirth of a child is an element in three memoirs I’ve read within a few months, Notes to Self by Emilie Pine, Threads by William Henry Searle, and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

 

  • A character’s parents both died in a car accident in The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff and Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

 

  • Two books open on New Year’s Eve 2008 and comment on President Obama’s election: Ordinary People by Diana Evans and Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
  • Three novels in which both romantic partners are artists and find themselves (at least subconsciously) in competition: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer and Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson

 

  • There’s a Czech father (or father figure) in The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl and The Girls by Lori Lansens

 

  • I’d never heard of 4chan before, but then encountered it twice in quick succession, first in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson and then in The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James

 

  • (Another sad one) Descriptions of the awful sound someone makes when they learn a partner or child has died in Hard Pushed by Leah Hazard and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

 

  • Alan Turing is a character in Murmur by Will Eaves and Machines Like You by Ian McEwan
  • Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (a pioneer of microscopy) is mentioned in Machines Like You by Ian McEwan and The Making of You by Katharina Vestre

 

  • A woman is described as smelling like hay in Memoirs of a Book Thief by Alessandro Tota and Pierre Van Hove and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

 

  • An inside look at the anti-abortion movement in Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood and Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer

 

  • The attempted adoption of a four-year-old boy who’s been in foster care is an element in The Ginger Child by Patrick Flanery and Machines Like You by Ian McEwan

 

  • The loss of a difficult father who was an architect is an element in All the Lives We Ever Lived by Katharine Smyth and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (and in last year’s Implosion by Elizabeth Garber)
  • The improv mantra “Yes, and…” is mentioned in No Happy Endings: A Memoir by Nora McInerny by Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously by Jessica Pan

Four Recent Review Books: Flanery, James, Tota and Yuknavitch

Memoirs of adoption and a life steeped in trauma and sex; a metafictional mystery about an inscrutable artist and his would-be biographer; and a European graphic novel about a thief. You can’t say I don’t read a wide variety of books! See if one or more of these can tempt you.

 

The Ginger Child: On Family, Loss and Adoption by Patrick Flanery

Patrick Flanery is a professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London and the author of four novels. In his first nonfiction book, he chronicles the arduous four-year journey he and his husband took to try and become parents. For a short time they considered surrogacy, but it’s so difficult in the UK that they switched tracks to domestic adoption.

The resulting memoir is a somber, meditative book that doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of queer family-making, but also sees some potential advantages: to an extent, one has the privilege of choice – he and Andrew specified that they couldn’t raise a child with severe disabilities or trauma, but were fine with one of any race – whereas biological parents don’t really have any idea of what they’re going to get. However, same-sex couples are plagued by bureaucracy and, yes, prejudice still. Nothing comes easy. They have to fill out a 50-page questionnaire about their concerns and what they have to offer a child. A social worker humiliates them by forcing them to do a dance-off video game to prove that a pair of introverted, cultured academics can have fun, too.

Eventually there’s a successful match and they have tentative meetings with four-year-old O—, his parents’ fifth child, now in foster care. But this is not a blithe story of everything going right. I enjoyed the glimpses of Flanery’s growing-up years in Nebraska and the occasional second-person address to O—, but there is a lot more theory and cultural criticism than I expected, and much of the film talk, at least, feels like irrelevant asides.


With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James

This is a twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” desperately trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. But, with rumors abounding that The Maas Foundation is preparing to announce Ezra’s death in 2011, James finds that his subject’s story keeps shifting shape and even disappearing around him – as one interviewee tells him, “Maas is a black hole. His presence draws everything in, warps, destroys, changes, and rewrites it.”

The book’s epistolary style deftly combines fragments of various document types: James’s biography-in-progress and an oral history he’s assembled from conversations with those who knew Maas, his narrative of his quest, transcripts of interviews and phone conversations, e-mails and more. All of this has been brought together into manuscript form by an anonymous editor whose presence is indicated through coy but increasingly tiresome long footnotes.

Look at the sort of authors who get frequent mentions in the footnotes, though, and you’ll get an idea of whether this might appeal to you: Paul Auster, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell and Thomas Pynchon. I enjoyed the noir atmosphere – complete with dream sequences and psychiatric evaluations – and the way that James the “writer-detective” has to careen around Europe and America looking for answers; it all feels rather like a superior Jason Bourne film.


My thanks to the author for sending a free signed copy for review.

 

Memoirs of a Book Thief by Alessandro Tota (illustrated by Pierre Van Hove)

[translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]

In April 1953, Daniel Brodin translates an obscure Italian poem in his head to recite at a poetry reading but, improbably, someone recognizes it. Soon afterwards, he’s also caught stealing a book from a shop. Just a little plagiarism and shoplifting? It might have stayed that way until he met Gilles and Linda, fellow thieves, and their bodyguard, Jean-Michel, a big blond goon with Gérard Dépardieu’s nose and haircut. Now he’s known as “Klepto” and is part of a circle that drinks at the Café Sully and mixes with avant-garde and Existentialist figures. He’s content with being a nobody and writing his memoirs (the book within the book) – until Jean-Michel makes him a proposition.

The book is entirely in black and white, which makes it seem unfinished, and the style is a little grotesque. For instance, Brodin is almost always depicted with beads of sweat rolling off his head. The intricate outdoor scenes were much more to my taste than the faces. The plot is also slightly thin and the ending abrupt. So, compared with many other graphic novels, this is not one I’m likely to recommend.


With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

This really blew me away. “Out of the sad sack of sad shit that was my life, I made a wordhouse,” Yuknavitch writes. Her nonlinear memoir ranges from her upbringing with an alcoholic, manic-depressive mother and an abusive father via the stillbirth of her daughter and her years of alcohol and drug use through to the third marriage where she finally got things right and allowed herself to feel love again after so much numbness. Reading this, you’re amazed that the author is still alive, let alone thriving as a writer.

Ken Kesey, who led a collaborative novel-writing workshop in which she participated in the late 1980s, once asked her what the best thing was that ever happened to her. Swimming, she answered, because it felt like the only thing she was good at. In the water she was at home and empowered. Kesey reassured her that swimming wasn’t her only talent: there is some truly dazzling writing here, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality.

There are so many vivid sequences, but two that stood out for me were cutting down a tree the Christmas she was four and the way her mother turned her teeth-chattering crisis into a survival game, and the drunken collision she had after her second ex-husband told her he was seeing a 23-year-old. With the caveat that this is extremely explicit stuff (the author is bisexual; there’s an all-female threesome and S&M parties), I would still highly recommend it to readers of Joan Didion, Anne Lamott and Maggie Nelson. The watery metaphor flowing through, as one woman learns to float free of what once threatened to drown her, is only part of what makes it unforgettable. You’ll marvel at what a memoir can do.

A couple of favorite passages:

“It is possible to carry life and death in the same sentence. In the same body. It is possible to carry love and pain. In the water, this body I have come to slides through the wet with a history. What if there is hope in that?”

“Make up stories until you find one you can live with. Make up stories as if life depended on it.”


With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Two “Summer” Books

With summer winding down, I decided it was time to read a couple of books with the word in the title to try to keep the season alive. These turned out to be charming, low-key English novels that I would recommend to fans of costume dramas. Both:

 

I knew very little about Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February when I picked it up in a charity shop. From the ads for the 2013 film adaptation with Dan Stevens, I had in mind that this was an obscure classic. It was actually published in 1995, but is inspired by real incidents spanning 1909 to 1949. It’s set among a group of Royal Academy-caliber artists in Lamorna, Cornwall, including Alfred Munnings, who went on to become the academy’s president.

The crisis comes when Munnings and Captain Gilbert Evans, a local land manager, fall for the same woman. A love triangle might not seem like a very original story idea, but I enjoyed this novel particularly for its Cornish setting (“From dawn to dusk it had rained non-stop, as only Cornwall can”; “The sea was slate grey and the sky streaky bacon”) and for the larger-than-life Munnings, who has a huge store of memorized poetry and is full of outspoken opinions. Two characters describe his contradictions thusly: “I can see he’s crude and loud and unpolished and Joey says he cuts his toenails at picnics but…”; “he’s one in a million, a breath of fresh air, and he’s frank and fearless, which is always a fine thing.” The title refers to the way that love can make any day feel like summer.

The cover image is the painting Morning Ride by A.J. Munnings.

For more information on Munnings, see here.

For more information on Gilbert Evans, see here. (Beware the spoilers!)

 

From 1961, In a Summer Season was Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel. The ensemble cast is led by Kate Heron – newly remarried to Dermot, a man ten years her junior, after the death of her first husband – and made up of her family circle, a few members of the local community, and her best friend Dorothea’s widower and daughter, who return from living abroad about halfway through the book. Set in the London commuter belt, this is full of seemingly minor domestic dilemmas that together will completely overturn staid life before the end.

From Kate dyeing her hair yet being keen to avoid accusations of “mutton dressed as lamb” to her son Tom’s disgust at his grandfather’s ageing body, old age and wasting one’s time on trivialities are a twin paranoia here. The title is not only a literal note of when much of the action takes place, but also a metaphor for the fleeting nature of happiness (as well as life itself). Kate remembers pleasant days spent with her best friend and their young children: “It was a long summer’s afternoon and it stood for all the others now. There had been many. And she and Dorothea were together day after day. Their friendship was as light and warming as the summer’s air.”

So much happens in the last seven pages. I wished the book could have turned out differently, yet the conclusion effectively sews it all up, and all within a cozy 220 pages. If you enjoy writers like Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, you must try Elizabeth Taylor. Her work is similarly built around wry, perceptive observations about relationships and ways of life. This was my fourth novel by her, and I’d call it my second favorite so far after Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.

 

(Secondhand books are such good value: These two charity shop paperbacks cost me less than 85 pence in total. Such a low total spend per hour of enjoyment!)

 

 

This month I also read The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt (discussed here along with a few other recent reads). Earlier in the year I reviewed Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer, and last year I reviewed the Summer anthology from the Wildlife Trusts. “Summer” turns up fairly frequently in titles of books I’ve read or want to read, in fact. Here’s the whole list!

Have you read any “Summer” books lately?

Classic of the Month: The Moon and Sixpence

This was indeed the perfect follow-up to Fabrizio Dori’s Gauguin, the SelfMadeHero graphic novel I reviewed earlier in the month. W. Somerset Maugham’s short novel functioned like a prequel for me because, whereas Dori focuses on Gauguin’s later life in the South Pacific, Maugham concentrates on his character Charles Strickland’s attempt to make a living as a painter in Paris.

The Moon and Sixpencethe unusual title comes from the TLS reviewer’s description of the protagonist in Of Human Bondage as so absorbed in reaching for the moon that he doesn’t notice the sixpence at his feet – is narrated by an unnamed author drawn into Strickland’s orbit through his wife Amy Strickland’s attendance at London literary soirées. He hasn’t gotten to know the couple very well at all when he hears that Charles, a stockbroker, has abandoned his family and left for Paris to pursue painting – a hobby for which he’s never previously shown any aptitude.

Amy sends the narrator off to Paris to talk sense into her husband, but Charles never shows the least remorse. The narrator marvels at his insouciance and utter conviction that he is meant to be an artist.

He was single-hearted in his aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself – many can do that – but others. He had a vision. Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.

I noted familiar themes from Of Human Bondage (published in 1915, four years prior to The Moon and Sixpence), especially the artist’s struggle, nomadism and the threat of poverty. Dirk Stroeve, the talentless Dutch painter who becomes friendly with the narrator in Paris and recognizes Strickland’s brilliance even as he lets the man walk all over him, reminded me of the happy-go-lucky Thorpe Athelny in Bondage.

At less than a third of the length of that earlier novel, though, The Moon and Sixpence struck me as a condensed parable about genius and sacrifice.

 

Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. … It was the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets. … There was something primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to … mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.

This is a fascinating character study, whether or not you’re aware of Gauguin’s life as the inspiration, and would be a great introduction to Maugham’s work if you’ve not read him before. (Secondhand copy from Bookbarn International.)

My rating:

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.

Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.

lonely cityWhereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.

Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)

Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.

In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).

A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.

The American cover

The American cover

The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.

The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.

(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)

With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.

My rating: 4 star rating