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Entries in barbara galletly (8)

Friday
Mar252011

In Which We Become Hysterical And Shaking

She Fell Ill

by BARBARA GALLETLY

Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris
by Asti Hustvedt
W. W. Norton & Company, 384 pp

"The diagnosis of hysteria identified it as a ‘theatrical’ illness, an illness of surface and illusion, as a form of fiction,” Asti Hustvedt writes. French novelists and doctors shared an uncannily close bond through the 19th century. They were, in the author’s words, mutually fascinated. Friends that exchanged ideas, wrote prefaces to one another’s books to lend them legitimacy. Medical writing and fiction, especially on the subjects of gynecology and hysteria, are virtually indistinguishable even to scholars.

Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex wrote that during this period femininity is a forced "prolonged childhood"; a woman is confined to the family. She is not educated. Her political efforts are ridiculed. She can’t even really have money. She has no substantial control over the course of her life. Desires for comfort or physical affection are denied her; Freud would soon describe the libido as male, implying her sex drive is an alien force. She is powerless against visits from her employer in the middle of the night, rape...abuses for which she, the victim, is regularly blamed.

But this doesn’t mean she does not know or cannot think about what is wrong; worry about her reputation, her safety, her dying children or else the creepy wet nurse feeding her infant while she spends 18 hours a days wringing out laundry.

Ideas, it seems, are powerful and can alter us. As Janet [Charcot’s pupil], pointed out, the carriage wheel doesn’t have to drive over your leg; having the idea can be enough to paralyze the limb. (from The Shaking Woman)

So if she becomes hysterical, and by that we generally mean she is unable to bear physically the abuses she is expected to accept, a woman's body acts out against her conscious self. She is aware that "she" does things she does nott actually will: for example, she faints and has a seizure; psychological paralysis takes over her arm or leg or neck; if she is thirteen and gets involved with the neighbor’s son and winds up bleeding, scared, experiences night terrors; she is one of the many assigned to a sanatorium.

Naturally, it seems, the bodies and minds of masses of women revolted against that which didn’t quite "fit" in them. It is in part for these women that Asti Hustvedt, the author of Medical Muses, gives us what she calls "a non-hysterical book about hysteria." If she is lucky a woman will becomes a patient of Jean-Martin Charcot, the revolutionary doctor who will recognize that she is not really epileptic despite her seizures. He knows she is not insane even though she falls into a blank trance easily, reenacts her own rape regardless of who is in the room or what she has been doing.

A Clinical Lesson with Doctor Charcot at the Salpêtrière depicts Blanche Wittman fainting during a demonstration of her hysteria. Painting by André Brouillet, 1887.

Asti describes Charcot as a remarkably single-minded man who was the first to differentiate hysterical and epileptic symptoms and to treat hysteria as a curable affliction. He was able to separate his hysterical charges from conscious responsibility for their weird afflictions, and described them as manifestations of trauma. Charcot observed a patient as she relived her trauma, and years before Freud would articulate his theories, even encouraged her physical expression of her subconscious (though he will not know it as such). He usually, eventually, took credit for curing his patients. He recognized that men could be hysterical, too. Hysteria, it should be noted, is easily induced and highly contagious. One woman's seizure will trigger another.

Charcot's work towards understanding hysteria and its characteristics remains important today — we still don’t know exactly what it is, how exactly to cure it. The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) struggles to define hysteria (now called conversion disorder), and it’s rare to find someone with a medical degree to agree that it’s a "real" illness.

Charcot was a revolutionary, a luminary and harbinger of psychology, and yet he was still very much a part of a 19th century Paris in which women were obviously helpless and inferior beings. Charcot was also an artist, loved to draw, and a talented performer who directed his hysteria patients on stage masterfully. Charcot used them as examples of different characteristics of hysteria, by inducing "fits" with magnets, electrical prods, and hypnotism. He demonstrated and then recorded their behavior publicly:

Charcot's 'positively fascinating' teaching style also made a deep impression on Freud, who wrote, 'Each of his lectures was a little work of art in construction and composition; it was perfect in form and made such an impression that for the rest of the day one could not get the sound of what he had said out of one’s ears or the thought of what he had demonstrated out of one’s mind.'

The three women who are the special cases here, the "star" patients of the Salpetriere that served as Charcot's, and indeed Paris' "muses", models of hysteria, were fantastically tenacious, brave and strong. Beautiful Blanche (her real name was Marie) excelled at portraying the symptom/role assigned to her. Augustine was submissive, photogenic, easily sexually exploited, until one day she dressed as a man and walked out of the hospital. Genevieve was probably sassiest, a rebellious zealot who walked hundreds of miles on various missions across France whenever she was released from the hospital.

Blanche would develop from an ordinary hysteric into an exemplary one, She became a ‘queen’ whose talent and beauty were widely recognized. Her symptoms, which had at first been unpredictable, became protypical, medically perfect…the embodiment of Charcot’s symptomology.

It is scary to imagine a doctor demonstrating that, indeed, this woman can't feel a thing! by poking a needle straight through her arm. It is super creepy to see the photos of a woman writhing, terrified of a hallucinated foe or entranced by a divine vision that the same doctor commissioned and had published for general reference. It is shocking to learn that Charcot and Janet and even Freud shaped a history into which these prototypical women simply placed to remain symbols and icons for posterity, art and science alike.

Andre Breton and Louis Aragon called photogenic Augustine “the perfect hysteric” in a seminal 1929 publication The Surrealist Revolution.

Jane Avril, Toulouse-Lautrec's muse, was briefly a patient at the Salpetriere — she developed a nervous condition called "Saint Guy’s Dance" after escaping from her abusive mother, and learned to dance there, calling the hospital her "Eden" and living "amongst the great stars of hysteria, who were at that moment all the rage." They were indeed in better positions at the Salpetriere than they had been at home, and the "theatrical" nature of hysteria meant that even stars like Sarah Bernhardt made visits.

We have simply accepted this history until now, and have mostly relegated hysteria to a misogynistic past. So you can kind of see why this book is important in the way parts of The Second Sex are: finally, we now have a thorough version of the story of the patients of the Salpetriere to replace the one handed down by Pygmalion himself. But Asti's book is also a well-researched attempt at the reinstatement of hysteria and related mass psychogenic illness, which after all, has not really left us (evident, for example, in soldiers returning from war). So her point is also not to dismiss a person just because you don't understand her suffering:

She suffered too many blows involving hearts: her heart and the hearts of beloved others. The heart is the metaphorical location of love, after all. She fell ill with a broken heart.

I have a hard time separating this book from its sister, or one that came out last year, written by Asti’s sister Siri, who is a more established writer and also married to Paul Auster (so a more famous one). A novelist who in What I Loved created the character of a young woman working on a thesis about hysteria in 19th century Paris who inspires her lover's paintings. Of course, or weirdly enough, Asti is married to mixed media artist Jon Kessler. Violet Blum is definitely not Asti Hustvedt, but how strange it must feel to sort of be a character of your sister’s invention.

Siri’s recent book, The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, is an investigation of an episode that took place at a memorial service for their father, who died in 2004. Like the hysterics of 19th century Paris, Siri Hustvedt felt an unknown force take over her body and shake it violently while she gave a speech about her father. Every now and then, it comes back to shake her a little more.

Siri on the far left, Asti on the far right: the shaking day

Early on Siri clearly draws from her sister and shares sources, particularly the notes made by Charcot and his followers about the symptoms and definition of hysteria, but this is a wider personal investigation of her own history, the history of psychology, neurology, hysteria, and mental illness; whether an alien force (neurologically speaking) or an unfathomable (hysterical) part of herself shakes her. Her sister also draws on her work.

Siri is extremely empathetic, a careful observer. A very smart reader. With a wealth of experiences and friends to draw from, this means she is also an interesting writer. She expands on the conclusion Asti echoes in her study: hysteria is not just real; it is a diagnosis we must reconsider. Siri is not a doctor, but she makes the case for a greatly expanded definition of hysteria, narrative-based medicine, inclusion of relatable sample cases in the DSM, a holistic approach to treatment of pain. She faces the incredible challenge of how to work against oversimplification of and misconceptions about mental illness and the mind-body relationship.

We often forget that we do not think about every thing we feel or do, but actions can easily become automatic. Memory is selective for almost everyone; the brain makes choices without permission from a conscious owner, and this is usually reasonable. We cannot keep everything in the foreground at once — we are just too much, so when we need to know, we often have to work to understand why. Sometimes a mind-body disconnect can be a sign of hysteria. It can also indicate brain damage, or a combination of trauma and physical incapacitation.

Siri emphasizes the need to know as much of the story as possible: "The closest we can get to entrance into another person's mind is through reading," she points out, and a great success here is her demonstration of that point. Learning about what others feel, empathizing and reflecting, can expand understanding of how and what is felt, and not felt, and why. She convinces me to read carefully, too.

with Auster and daughter SophieAll told, she reminds us, "What does it mean?" is less important than incorporating "what", working towards ownership of a coherent ongoing story. "The conscious self’s boundaries shift. It is a question of ownership, me and mine." All our lives we continue to expand, overlap. Our sisters' stories become part of our own stories.

Clearly, a self is much larger than the internal narrator. Around and beneath the island of that self-conscious storyteller is a vast sea of unconsciousness, of what we don’t know, will never know, have forgotten. There is much in us we don’t control or will, but that doesn’t mean that making a narrative for ourselves is unimportant.

Literature insists on what medicine must remember. Ambiguities and shades of truth shall not be resolved, because they are true too. Which made me think of Elizabeth Bishop's sublimely painful "One Art":

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

Because if there’s one thing even the DSM knows, it is that we just can’t avoid disaster.

Barbara Galletly is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about her favorite novels.

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"Raggamuffin" - Selah Sue (mp3)

"Explanations" - Selah Sue (mp3)

"Crazy Sufferin Style" - Selah Sue (mp3)


Tuesday
Mar082011

In Which These Novels Thrill All Thinking People

Our Novels, Ourselves

Every private library should have a handgun and bidet, for similar reasons. Assembling a distinguished private place for your books is largely the milieu of private people collecting data they've already inputted, in case they should wish for that input to happen again. Now that print is dead, data is all we have. That and unsold copies of The Lexus and The Olive Tree in the discount section of Barnes & Noble. On Thursday we issue our 100 Greatest Novels list, try to be on time. In preparation, we asked young writers and artists to list a few of their favorite novels.

Part One (Tess Lynch, Karina Wolf, Elizabeth Gumport, Sarah LaBrie, Isaac Scarborough, Daniel D'Addario, Lydia Brotherton, Brian DeLeeuw)

Part Two (Alice Gregory, Jason Zuzga, Andrew Zornoza, Morgan Clendaniel, Jane Hu, Ben Yaster, Barbara Galletly, Elena Schilder, Almie Rose)

Part Three (Alexis Okeowo, Benjamin Hale, Robert Rutherford, Kara VanderBijl, Damian Weber, Jessica Ferri, Britt Julious, Letizia Rossi, Will Hubbard, Durga Chew-Bose, Rachel Syme, Amanda McCleod, Yvonne Georgina Puig)

Alice Gregory

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Of all the boredom-fighting antibodies I have personally tested, The Secret History is the strongest; it obliterates even the most resilient strains of ennui within minutes. I've given it to boyfriends for long flights and family members on bad vacations. It's algorithmically entertaining, like if Dr. Luke wrote a novel. Some hashtags include: Bacchus frenzy, drugs, incest, cable knit sweaters, murder. It's a pretty solid bet for anyone seduced by dead languages or charismatic scholars. Also read Maura Mahoney's 1992 indictment of Donna Tartt. It's great; you can agree with Mahoney's distaste while still loving the book.  

The Ambassadors by Henry James

The Ambassadors is a transitional novel; it's the preamble to "late James," which many consider to be incomprehensible and cartoonishly overwrought. But here you'll get a taste for his psychedelic syntax while still being able to read the story without diagramming its sentences. Our middle-aged narrator, Lambert Strether, over-thinks, under-acts, and witnesses the conversations of fin de siècle Paris like a stoned 15-year-old. Experiences seem to pulsate with alternating immensity and insignificance, giving way to "the terrible fluidity of self-revelation." He'll convince you that certain capitalized verbs and italicised pronouns have the power to unlock the universe.  

Mating by Norman Rush

One of the prerequisites for reading Mating is indulgent friends. They might block you on gchat and mark your e-mail address temporarily as spam. You will never so thoroughly underline a book or force more quotations on loved ones. The unnamed anthropologist at the center of the novel is a flattering, if sometimes incorrect, model of female subjectivity. Her journey into an experimental Utopian community in Botswana — and her love affair with its leader — inspires rigorous introspection. Norman Rush will get you out of a reading rut, teach you more vocabulary than Eldridge Cleaver, and show you what it really means to intellectualize your emotions. Seriously! It's as good as Moby Dick and Anna Karenina.

Alice Gregory is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here and her twitter here.

Jason Zuzga

In Youth is Pleasure by Denton Welch 

If Jean Genet, Temple Grandin, and M.F.K. Fisher were whipped into a exquisitely sensitive gay lad on the edge of puberty just before WWII and left to meander around the grounds and rills of an old hotel in a stifling British summer, where each new hair seen glistens with erotic potential, something like this novel might cut its way free from a chrysalis with tiny bejeweled silver scissors. The actual novel, along with its companions Maiden Voyage and A Voice Through a Cloud, were written by Denton Welch — after he was hit by a car while riding his bike and partially paralyzed at the age of twenty, before his untimely death at thirty-two. Never before or again shall peach melba be described in such a way.  

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban 

Millennia after nuclear volley, humans emerge once more (alas?) into language and consciousness, improvising with shards of speech still eddying among the ruins. The novel is composed in that tattered language, a explosive experiment in textuality not as virtuoso authorial performance (though it is that too) but as constitutive of the arc of tale itself, the reader struggling into mindfulness as brutal Riddley adventures in attempts to think himself into some coherent sense of place and self and purpose.  The last pages, an account of adults convened in audience for a trundled-along puppet show, crushed my heart in mournful hope. 

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson 

Jansson is best known for her series of essential children's books about the Moominfamily of Moominvalley, characters that one may get a swift sense of via sampling the Polish stop-motion animations of the tales crafted in close collaboration with the author in the mid 1970s, as in these two excerpts: Sorry-oo and the Wolves or The Hobgoblin Arrives at the Party, etc. In The True Deceiver, a Tove Jansson novel for adults, a strange game of wits cracks through a long scandiinavian winter in a village by the sea between young Katri Kling — good with numbers but bereft of affect, called "witch" by the village children — and local children's book writer Anna Aemelin who fears raw meat and in the short summers paints photorealistic pictures of the forest floor populated with cartoon-like flower-covered rabbits. Over the course of the novel, a dog transforms, a boat is built, contracts with distant licensees of Amelin's characters are renegotiated for better terms, and the rabbits disappear. 

Jason Zuzga is a poet and Ph.D. student living in Philadelphia. He is the non-fiction and other editor of FENCE. You can find his website here.

Helen Schumacher

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

In Sherman Alexie’s debut, blues legend Robert Johnson has come to the Spokane Indian Reservation searching for the tribe’s advisor, Big Mom, in the hope that she can help him get his soul back from the Devil. Upon Johnson’s arrival, he’s given a lift by the reservation’s misfit storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire and, as a thank you, gives Builds-the-Fire his guitar, who then starts a band and subsequently gets a recording contract in New York City. It's nearly impossible to write fictionally about music and not sound corny, and often Alexie does. But it is a small fault compared to the grace with which he writes about the contemporary life and spirituality of Native Americans on the insular reservation.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

When I first read Carson McCullers’ "tale of moral isolation in a small southern mill town in the 1930s," I was incredulous of a 23 year old writing something so brilliant and moving. But, looking back now on the novel 10 years later, it makes sense that someone that young would write about anger and idealism and passion with the confidence that she did. As we age, our idealism tends to become a shell of what it once was, and this book is one of our best reminders that it’s a tragedy to give up on our passion, no matter how bewildering it may be to express.

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams

A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2000, Joy Williams’s The Quick and the Dead centers on a pivotal summer in the lives of three motherless teen girls living in the American Southwest: eco-terrorist Alice, increasingly catatonic Corvus, and beauty-obsessed Annabel. As the story expands, it is increasingly populated by an eccentric cast of characters who orbit around each other in a state of limbo as Williams uses her tricky prose to sort the living from the deceased. Her language reflects the character of the novel’s desert landscape, her hard-boiled words both merciless and stunning.

Helen Schumacher is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find her website here.

Andrew Zornoza

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

"The armour was gone. She let me look beneath it. It was like a flower opening. . . ." The Chrysalids' odd future is a dinosaur: that depressing final hope that refuses to die out, ergo, the Millennium Falcon spinning and Obi-Wan Kenobi, singing: I'm a high-flying astronaut/crashing while/jacking off. . . .

Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Possibly, the truest, clearest, novel ever written and certainly the best guide to fatherhood.

The Green Child by Herbert Reade

An alternative accounting of the sublime, like a historical deconstruction of the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also, one of the worst opening pages in literature — Danielle Steele's Star (She was wearing a blue dress the same color as her eyes that her father had brought back from San Francisco) had more promise.

Crash by JG Ballard

"After having been constantly bombarded by road-safety propaganda, it was almost a relief to find myself in a real accident. . . .” The strange and compulsory reverse engineering of Crash and High-Rise to achieve Empire of the Sun follows an orbital trajectory not unlike one of Ballard's own tragic space pilots, tracing out one of the densest expressions of human feeling onto the tiniest constellation of obsessions.

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

An adventure story with cross-dressing pirates; a fevered dream; a study of human and meteorological caprice; and, abridged, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

Andrew Zornoza is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is the author of the novel Where I Stay and the forthcoming Forest and Locket.

Morgan Clendaniel

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey

Sleeper pick for the great American novel. It's about educated elite versus the working class,the taming of the west, self-determination, the merits and pitfalls collective bargaining, shattered dreams, natural disasters, infidelity, and the relationships between fathers and sons and husbands and wives. (Gatsby is about what? A super rich guy and a car accident?) More importantly, it's the book for ever plaid-wearing, faux-outdoorsmen type who went to a good school and couldn't actually chop down a tree with your decorative axe (that is me, and most everyone I know). Because it's partially about what happens when you're required to chop down that tree anyway, which is a moment of which I think many of us live in both horror and awesome anticipation.

The Odyssey by Homer

I guess this technically predates the idea of novels. But I've found that prose translations — try Butler  — that treat The Odyssey more as story than trying to approximate a meter and feeling of verse are actually the best. In those cases, this reads just like a brilliant novel about a man's desperate attempts to get home to see his wife, with some monsters in the way. Most of the things that were vying for spots in my top three just contain plot devices that happened in The Odyssey first, so why not go right to the source?

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I read all three of these books once a year. Every time, I find some new detail that I missed before, and it's amazing that Tolkien managed to pack these books so tight with details about the fully-formed worlds. I watched the movies recently, and they pale embarrassingly in comparison. It's a real lesson in the power of the written word and the human imagination: The movies are just flat approximations of something that is so tangible and vivid while you're reading.

Morgan Clendaniel is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is an editor at FastCompany.com. He twitters here.

Jane Hu

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

The pitch of this novel is perfect. Two orphaned children, Henrietta and Leopold, meet for one day in a house in Paris while on separate journeys to new homes. The novel is divided, like Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, into three parts — the middle section takes place in “The Past.” Here, we discover the world of romance and intrigue that produced Leopold and subsequently abandoned him.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska’s forbidden affair is one you wished you could had, because their experience of unfulfilled love actually looks richer than any resolved or established relationship. If you’re not crying by the final pages, check and make sure you’re reading the right book.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The bleakness of Faulkner's novels is part of their hopeless beauty, and I will take the desperation of Caddy Compson and Quentin Jr. over Lena Grove’s more hopeful journey always. Introduced through Benjy’s eyes, Caddy is the pure image of love. In fact, every line trembles with love, or poetry. You might not always know what happens in terms of narrative, but you will feel why.

Jane Hu is a writer living in Montreal. You can find her website here.

Ben Yaster

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass

The Tin Drum's a memorable read for its absurdity — or magic, depending on your attitude toward the diminutive by choice. But what I remember most clearly about this novel wasn't the narrative of stunted Oskar Matzerath's misadventures in Poland and Germany before and after World War II. It's the vivid, surreal details — the eels slithering in and out of the horse's head on the sea shore, the woolly carpet Oskar lays down in the hall of his boarding house, the German pillboxes assembled as if the Axis defense line were a sculpture garden — that have stayed with me. That, and Alfred Matzerath's death upon swallowing his Nazi pin. Just desserts, I suppose.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

There have been times in my adulthood when the idle waywardness described in The Moviegoer has struck too close. If you're a regular reader of This Recording you've probably felt the same thing. But unlike Binx Bolling, I don't go to the movies because I'm cheap. (I could have practically bought a share of News Corp. for what I paid to see 20th Century Fox's Avatar 3D. This is actually true.) Nor do I lament the passing of the southern gentleman's life of leisure, the birthright stolen from Bolling. When I read this book, I didn't understand it as an expression of existential angst so much as a comeuppance for the patrician set during the rise of middle-class postwar New Orleans. Then again, my mom has given me an unsolicited Nation subscription every year as a birthday present. (This is also actually true.) Whatever your take, this novel is a moving illustration of the sadness of not knowing what you want in life. Folks who recently graduated with humanities degrees can surely sympathize.

Lush Life by Richard Price

Let me cut you off before you begin: Clockers is the better book. I won't argue otherwise. Lush Life resonated more strongly with me, however, because it described something of which I was a part: gentrifying New York. The novel's ostensibly a crime procedural. But the story unspooled is more than a whodunnit. It's a keen examination of urban life and its contradictions, of the permanency of place and the flux of people inhabiting it, of how timeless themes of love and death emerge from the day's pettiest trifles. Don't let me get too lofty, though. It's also a fun, entertaining read, full of wry dialogue and carefully drawn characters. And I've heard that the restaurant was based on Schiller's Liquor Bar. Sounds about right to me.

Ben Yaster is a lawyer and occasional writer. He splits his time between New Haven and Brooklyn.

from a cover for 'The Sea, The Sea'Barbara Galletly

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

While most concur about Flaubert’s specialness, generally, and this is the most popular of his books, I imagine many would disagree with me about this choice for best book (Flaubert’s Sentimental Education was more careful still, and more male, and often comes up first for smarter people). But this is, for me, the best book and most familiar. A novel on novels, it is beautifully written, and laden with subtle and less subtle subtext: each word is the mot juste, in as many ways as possible. Each sentence appears almost living, richly embedded with precious aesthetic gifts to you, the reader; but it is also poison, and driving you mad. “She was not happy and had never been,” Emma reflects after another furtive, too-hasty encounter with Leon. “Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust?”

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

This novel is no longer my favorite, but it certainly was at one point in college when I was better read. Like all of Iris Murdoch's books, it really pushed me, especially away from it. She is so brilliant and so compelling a writer though that the novel's sum total is worth the angst it will cause to see it through. Amongst other things, Arrowby will teach you something about how to write, and that the contents of memoirs matter very much.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

When I’m trying not to sound like an idiot for choosing the greatest novel ever to be the “best” I call The Ice Palace my favorite novel. Written by Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas, it is the story of two young girls who become friends. But it is really a masterfully written story about the complexity of emotions and pain generated during, perhaps as a byproduct of the birth of a relationship between two young girls who are just on the verge of understanding who they will be and where they have come from. And it contains the most stunning description of ice and death I have ever read. 

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

It is my opinion that W.G. Sebald is the greatest prose writer of the second half of the 20th century. His careful empathy for his difficult subjects is matched by his great ability to adapt modern media and traditional form to fit his stories. In the way that a great poem is neither billable as fiction nor nonfiction, Sebald's complex works transcend the category of novel (or non-fiction). The Emigrants and On the Natural History of Disaster are also great books, but Austerlitz, his last one, he comes closest to the sublime.

Barbara Galletly is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her website here.

Elena Schilder

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I read this once at 16 and once at 25. I remember reading the opening as a teenager and thinking that I'd identified some kind of writerly trick — an expansion of human thought and experience so exaggerated as to be comical. The second time I read it everything made me cry.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

This book created whatever mythic landscape has since existed in my mind labelled "the novel." I'm not sure whether to be grateful for that or not. It is full of bad writing and bad values which probably misshaped my pre-adolescent brain. But I love it; it's what I think they call "juicy."

Home by Marilynne Robinson

I reread this one recently and remembered that it is a really painful book — as in, a book full of pain. The emotional dynamic among the characters stays at an unrealistically high pitch throughout. This is a book about what it would feel like if we were always thinking of other people.

Elena Schilder is a writer living in the Netherlands. You can find her website here.

Almie Rose

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho and Less Than Zero are too obvious, though I love them also. But there is something about this one that I couldn't shake after reading it. This might be his best. It's a fake autobiography of his fake life. It made me laugh out loud: "Without drugs I became convinced that a bookstore owner in Baltimore was in fact a mountain lion." Then suddenly it turns into a horror novel and it's creepy as hell. There's one scene in particular, towards the end, with this thing...I don't want to describe it.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

The best novel about New York ever written. Every time I read it I practically devour it with excitement as it twists and turns into its clever ending. Yes, I know it's technically a childrens' book. I don't care. Raise your hand if you read this and didn't want to hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and bathe in a fountain. If you didn't raise your hand you are missing your soul.

The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll

This book is just bizarre which is probably why I like it so much. It also has the best character name ever: Saxony Gardner. This is the novel I keep coming back to. It's like a mix of David Lynch and Roald Dahl. The main character refers to his father's Oscar winning film as Cancer House. The book is darkly funny and made me want to read every scrap Carroll's ever written. His imagination is so good it makes me angry.

Almie Rose is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her website here.

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Our Novels, Ourselves

Part One (Tess Lynch, Karina Wolf, Elizabeth Gumport, Sarah LaBrie, Isaac Scarborough, Daniel D'Addario, Lydia Brotherton, Brian DeLeeuw)

Part Two (Alice Gregory, Jason Zuzga, Andrew Zornoza, Morgan Clendaniel, Jane Hu, Ben Yaster, Barbara Galletly, Elena Schilder, Almie Rose)

Part Three (Alexis Okeowo, Benjamin Hale, Robert Rutherford, Kara VanderBijl, Damian Weber, Jessica Ferri, Britt Julious, Letizia Rossi, Will Hubbard, Durga Chew-Bose, Rachel Syme, Amanda McCleod, Yvonne Georgina Puig)

The 100 Greatest Novels

If You're Not Reading You Should Be Writing And Vice Versa, Here Is How

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

francine du plessix gray in paris in 1942

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