Book Review: A Short Ladder of Artist Memoirs


The ladder begins with Crying in H Mart. I am struck by how much I envy Michelle Zauner’s ability to write honestly. I don’t mean brutal. I mean truthful. I don’t mean this to sound snide whatsoever, but I found myself making a case for it. I think a few of us felt this way. It’s a little complicated. Like, I liked it, I connected with it. I recommended it. But I had to prove to myself it was good because it does things we’d been told never to do: refuse to explain foreign words; get along with all of the secondary characters, refuse the dramatic ironies; talk about identity without being an identity expert. Identity experts are annoying anyhow.

Quick aside: a book I always want to recommend but don’t get to often is by another woman rocker who wrote a memoir: Kim Gordon, but not Girl in a Band (which is great). Her collection of art and music criticism from the 1980s and 1990s: Is It My Body. So good.

Pop Songs by Larissa Pham. Another phenomenal collection of personal essays revolving somehow around pop music, but this time, more athletic, more intertextual citations, more kegels. Meta-erotica. Pham’s skills in defamiliarizing erotica are bar none. If Zauner’s writing was a long sequence of push-ups getting hairier and hairier (from the toes, from the knees), Pham’s is an isometric hold.

By no means new, but I recently read Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles for the first time and am so sad I didn’t read this sooner but grateful nonetheless for how strong it is in its honesty, and this time I do mean brutal. Chelsea Girls drinks everyone under the table. This, Close to the Knives and Stone Butch Blues are still at the very highest apex of memoir for me. Yes, they share some things in common. This is a word association post and I call it a ladder. So yeah maybe the queer white confessional is my language. I don’t have to connect to the story to connect with the story you know.

Something I wrote reminds a friend of John Berger’s Confabulations, and to be clear I am not pretending to approach anywhere near the caliber of the late venerated art critic. Just that a connection was made, so I went and read that a couple weeks ago. Like H Mart, I had to make a case for this book but for opposite reasons. Like, wtf he gets to write like this? I wouldn’t get away with it! But it’s really good and anyway here is the next rung in a ladder of memoirs laden with references to art.

There’s a rhythm in these scribbles—as though my pen was accompanying your voice. But a pen isn’t a mouth-organ or a fiddle, and now in the silence my scribbles mean almost nothing.

I love when Berger writes in the second person. You is such a beautiful word. I am almost as inspired by this as I am inspired by you.

Maybe if I climb the ladder long enough I find you in the ladder.

Here’s a picture of the Flower Supermoon.