Recollections of My Nonexistence is a series of essays about growing up in the West, about becoming a writer, about being a woman who wants to do things in a society that doesn’t want women to do things. It’s also a story about a San Francisco that I worry doesn’t exist anymore, now that there has been so much money and so many tech people moving in and so many other people have been forced out.
But by and large, there is a thread of sexism and violence against women that runs through the book – these being the ways that women are kept in roles they don’t necessarily want. These are the ways that society tries to pretend women don’t exist, by silencing them in so many ways, including killing them.
Women, you, me, all of us, have a right to exist and to be heard, just as much as men do. These essays are the story of how Rebecca Solnit learned what that means for her and how she moves through the world.
Let me just explain up front Why Fish Don’t Exist: because, taxonomically, fish is an imprecise designation. It’s not that “animals that aren’t mammals that live in the water” isn’t a useful category to you and me, it’s that it’s not a rigorous biological categorization. That’s not the point of Why Fish Don’t Exist, or rather, it’s only obliquely the point of it.
It’s really a memoir; a memoir of a kid who was weird and anxious and had a philosopher for a father, the kind of philosopher who would insist that the chair she was sitting in didn’t actually exist, which isn’t going to make anyone less weird or anxious. She is in a period in her twenties where life isn’t going especially well for her, and she ends up slightly obsessed with a guy named David Starr Jordan, who was a taxonomist and the first president of Stanford University. So it also ends up being a little bit of a biography of him (aside: one chapter is the story of the possible murder of Jane Stanford, wife of Stanford University founder Leland Stanford, and it is WILD). Jordan was a taxonomist and eugenicist (second aside: forced sterilization is still a supreme-court-approved thing in the United States – this aside is less wild and more appalling), who was also really, really good at persevering. And that’s what she’s interested in: the perseverance.
As the above, ramble-y, paragraph implies: this book is all over the place. It’s not long, but it is crammed with interesting stories and it does all come together in the end to show you a person who is, not less weird or anxious than she was at the start of the book, but more accepting of her weirdness and anxiety, and therefore happier.
Why Fish Don’t Exist is an interesting, distracting pandemic read. It might make you feel better about the mental state that the pandemic has put you in. It certainly helped me.
I feel like Just Kids – a sort of memoir of Patti Smith and a sort of biography of Robert Mapplethorpe – is the prototypical late-1960s, early 1970s artist life in New York City. They have a precarious relationship to getting enough to eat or keeping a roof over their heads, but the art is the focus. When Patti Smith first went to NYC, she very clearly was homeless for awhile, though that phrase is never actually used. And there is much talk about food and hunger.
But mostly, the book is about art. About her helping Robert figure out that he was a photographer, first and foremost. About him helping her with her poetry. (She still writes in poetry on her Instagram account, it’s lovely.) About their struggle to create art and to live on the money they made from their art. In short, to be artists.
And you can see its reflection throughout pop culture, too, the idea that Greenwich Village and Chelsea are places for artists, even though they’re full of wealthy people who have second homes in the suburbs now. But back in the 1960s and early 1970s, they were neighborhoods where artists could afford to live very cheaply and near other artists too.
There is also a thread that follows Robert Mapplethorpe as he discovered that he was gay and how he eventually accepted it – it’s odd for me, now, living in the San Francisco Bay Area to remember how taboo being queer was for so long. And about the eventual photographs that got so much attention from the Republican Party – he was trying to shock and he did.
It ends, after jumping forward several years to cover Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989. Another thing it’s hard to remember – and for me to get my teenager to understand – is how pervasive AIDS was and its effect on not only artists, but the US as a whole. (Not everyone survived Reagan.)
I found Just Kids to be inspirational. It’s about Smith finding her voice and forming a band who will be ok with her being the front person. It’s about how fucking around for awhile in your 20s will lead to you figuring out who you are and what you want to do. And as someone who is about to re-figure out what to do with her life, reading about other people doing the same makes me feel less alone.
Guy Branum’s My Life as a Goddess was funny and charming and wonderful. It’s his memoir about how his childhood was awful, how it screwed him up, how depression probably runs in his family, and how he eventually became happy. Or at least happy-adjacent.
To a degree, growing up is about figuring out who you are and how you fit into the world. His story is that, but on steroids. He extra doesn’t fit in and takes an extra long time to figure out that he’s gay (or at least that’s the impression you get reading the book) and it resonates. I mean, it’s his story and it’s specific, but it’s specific in that way that makes it also feel very relatable and like everyone goes through something similar, if not this specific story.
And since I like a good YA story – also about growing up and figuring out who you are – this one is also good. Very funny and highly recommended.
Educated was not an easy read. It’s the memoir of a woman who was raised in a strict Mormon household, the kind that is convinced the government is after them. Her mother was a midwife at first, and then a healer later. Suffice it to say, there was no going to see doctors. There was no school. She didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was 9. The home environment was not healthy, to say the least.
But she ends up at BYU as a 16 or 17 year old (it wasn’t exactly clear from her writing), where she starts learning both about the world and how to learn. She ends up at Cambridge and then Harvard and estranged from her family and parents.
Educated was a powerful read – you feel her emotions, the highs and the lows. The desire to run away, the need to fit in, and all the therapy in between.
Honestly? I wanted This Is Not My Beautiful Life to be weirder. The pitch was: a woman, pregnant with her first child, opens up the door at her parents’ house to a police raid because they’re being charged with stock fraud, with possible drug charges. Did I mention this all happens in Florida? Because it all happens in Florida.
It was still a lovely story of a woman handling first her pregnancy, then life with a small child, coming to the realization that she has postpartum depression, trying to deal with the fact that her parents and their weird, weird friends are probably all hustling just on the other side of the law. It’s a situation that would drive anyone to distraction. She handles it sometimes poorly and sometimes well, like anyone would.
But with that pitch on the back of the book? It should have been crazier and weirder. I’m sure if it gets optioned for a TV show (and it would be a great mini-series) they will contrast her parents’ weird life with her much more normal family life.
Recommended for your late-summer reading needs.
I had not heard of the Mitford sisters until I read The Sisters, a joint biography of the six girls, brought up just in time to become adults around/during WWII. I found that book fascinating, not knowing anything about any of them.
Hons and Rebels is the memoir of one of those sisters, Jessica Mitford. She was one of the younger three, and the only one who became a communist. The girls were raised in the 1930s, when Hitler was on the rise, and there was a debate in the house about fascism vs communism, with at least one sister going heavily for each side.
What I liked most about Hons and Rebels is the sense of life and vitality that comes through it. Jessica is not one to do anything halfway. She cares, she is passionate, and she truly sucked the marrow from life (to quote Dead Poets Society for a second). It was the joie de vivre that made me love this book, and her.
I first learned about Kate Betts from Marketplace. She’s the person they call whenever there’s business news in the fashion world. She always seems very practical, and I enjoy that in my fashion types.
She is a strong, ambitious woman who gets shit done, and My Paris Dream is her memoir chronicling her post-college formative years in Paris, working for W. I need more stories like this one in my life – I admire women like her, who know exactly what they want and go after it. Though her descriptions of the office politics… Oy. W in the late 1980s/early 1990s is not a place I could have worked.
And I like fashion and the odd lifestyles and quirks around it – the weird, small stories that make people in the industry larger-than-life. Kate Betts delivers on those things: a French hunt, the bows in her friend’s hair, and more.
I liked it.
What’s it about?
Oh, The Glory of It All is a memoir about growing up in one of San Francisco’s elite families. There is a headline-grabbing messy divorce, a possibly narcissistic mother, a father who cares far too much about his position in society, a step-mother who may or may not be evil, and the son (the author) who fell through the parenting cracks. He does not hide how messed up he was, and a good chunk of the book is him figuring out how to become a normal person. How much blame to put on everyone… that’s an open question.
Why should you read it?
I read it because I have an idea for a character for a NaNoWriMo book, and she needs to be both a) messed up and b) from an elite San Francisco family. So this was great research for that.
You should read it if you like Vanity Fair articles about society people and their weird, weird lives. Or if you enjoy books like Crazy Rich Asians, which poke fun at Society and show how money can distort otherwise normal people. It’s also a portrait of San Francisco before the tech boom of the late 1990s started to change the entire SF Bay Area. If you’re interested in any of those things? This is the book for you.
What’s it about?
Yes Please is Amy Poehler’s memoir. She is a workaholic of a person, but she loves it. She is also funny and warm and this made me want to watch Parks & Recreation. (I had a small child when it aired. I wasn’t watching anything at that point.)
Why should you read it?
It’s another entry in the smart, funny women memoirs that I like to think of as a series: Bossypants, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Yes Please. These are great books for a teenaged girl (or an adult woman!) to read because these women are amazing role models. Plus, it made me laugh. What more could I ask for?