Recommended Reading: The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer

IMG_5370As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I do not have strong Feelings, as many do, about Amanda Palmer, singer and performance artist perhaps best known for her punk-cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls. She gave a very well-received TED talk in 2013 and is now the best-selling author of The Art of Asking*.

[You may have heard of her with respect to her Kickstarter campaign that garnered more than a million dollars to produce an album, as well as the ensuing controversy regarding volunteer musicians (overblown, from where I sit). Or you might know of her tangentially since she’s married to Neil Gaiman, author extraordinaire of various works of speculative fiction (here’s a review). A friend in high school (brilliant, creative, and rather sad) was a big fan of Dresden Dolls, so I’ve kept an ear out for Ms. Palmer over the years, and she pops up pretty frequently in my various newsfeeds since she was based in Boston for many years.]

I read this book out of sheer curiosity; I find Ms. Palmer fascinating. Though her lyrics, several of which are included in The Art of Asking, reveal an introvert’s self-examination and anxieties, she’s outspokenly open about much of her personal life (from sharing finances with her spouse to not shaving her legs) and her artistic process. You might get a sense of this openness from the book’s cover. She’s worked as a street performer and recently appeared in only body paint to benefit the New York Public Library. She and Mr.Gaiman have an open marriage. In essence, she does things I would be utterly terrified to do or utterly uninterested in doing.

And she makes her living by making art, which most writers will tell you is extremely difficult in this day and age. The Art of Asking is a memoir that also explains how and why she is able to do this.

The book shifts back and forth in time, but the touchstone is Ms. Palmer’s street performance as “The Eight-foot Bride” in Harvard Square. Wearing a wedding dress and painting her face white, she stood silently on milk crates in the bustling square; when someone dropped money in the jar she set out, she theatrically handed the person a flower from her bouquet. The performance went on until she ran out of flowers (or until it rained). This is her theory of the arts economy in miniature: artists should put their work out into the world, and ask for compensation from those who connect with it, being prepared for the fact that most people will walk by without leaving any of their change behind. Build on those connections, ask for help when you need it (without shame, without expectation), and eventually everything will work out. And more than work out: the community you build will function even in your absence; people will find each other and help each other based on their shared connection.

The fan connection part of this model—-making art for a specific audience, to find that audience rather than making something and hoping it will become a hit—-reminds me of writer Diana Gabaldon, who maintains a personal connection with fans better than almost any other writer I know of (Neil Gaiman also comes to mind, perhaps unsurprisingly). Ms. Gabaldon writes her own posts on facebook, comments on fan art, keeps readers up to date with excerpts from her work in progress, even visits book blogs that review her books (like this one, actually). Result: devoted fans who are happy to pay for the art that she makes, and who joyfully connect with other fans over matters Outlander-related (knitting!) and not.

Accustomed to doom and gloom about the state of the arts and humanities, I found Ms. Palmer’s optimism and practical suggestions refreshing; I’d definitely recommend the book to enterprising new artists.

But wait, you’re thinking. What about the memoir part of the memoir?

Well, it’s terribly interesting, as you might expect from an indie rock star. Putting on an act to get out of a terrible record contract, pop-up ukulele shows with six people, getting trapped in Iceland but still finding fans, and masters-level couchsurfing all make appearances. Here’s a passage about the latter I liked:

Couchsurfng is about more than saving on hotel costs. It’s a gift exchange between the surfer and the host that offers an intimate gaze into somebody’s home, and the feeling of being held and comforted in their personal space. It’s also a reminder that we’re floating along due to a strong bond of trust, just like when I surf the crowd at a show, safely suspended on a sea of ever-changing hands. (157)

The book is also three love stories. One is about Amanda Palmer’s love for her community of fans and fellow artists; one is the tale of how she fell in love with Neil Gaiman (apparently, I learned at their event at the Boston Book Festival, when they couldn’t agree on his wording in recounted arguments, she let him write his own dialogue), and one is the story of her lifelong love for Anthony, her neighbor, friend, mentor, advisor, and relationship coach. They met when she was a girl, and he died after the book was published, but Ms. Palmer’s writing about his illness is a moving testament of the great love between kindred spirits of the platonic variety.

I have quibbles, of course. One involves her anecdote about Thoreau, a favorite of Ms. Palmer’s, who accepted help in the form of doughnuts baked by his mother (among other things) while he was living at Walden Pond. The problem with Thoreau, in my view, is not that he took his mother’s homemade doughnuts, but that he didn’t acknowledge the gift in his book on self-reliance—-of course the gendered nature of the labor that his mother performed is part of this issue. Ms. Palmer wouldn’t fail to offer thanks in this way; she heaps gratitude on the relevant parties.

On a more serious note, I don’t think she completely owns the mis-step she made when she wrote a poorly-received poem in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings. I’m all for empathy, but the way she chose to offer it was poorly timed and ill-considered, at the very least—-and I say that as someone who, with my family, was .3 miles from the infamous boat.  I think the often vitriolic and violent response to the poem was completely inappropriate and, as she writes, was difficult for her, but I would have liked to see some sort of re-assessment of the original incident.

Overall, however, Ms. Palmer’s writing is lively with piquant detail, her pacing is good, and her sincerity apparent. I’d like to read more about her adolescence (Why did performance art seem like a good idea? Whence the angst?) and her thoughts on parenthood now that she and Mr. Gaiman have a son. She notes that writing is not her preferred artform, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel to The Art of Asking in the next few years.

tl;dr: As Forster wrote, “Only connect.”

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

A literary-minded electrician (now out of business, alas) in our neck of the woods.

A literary-minded electrician (now out of business, alas) in our neck of the woods.

Recommended Reading (and a Classics Club Checkmark): Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon

photo 1 (14)About two hundred pages into Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, it occurred to me that somewhere out there is an HBO executive repeatedly berating himself or herself for not acquiring the TV rights to the seven (soon to be eight)-book-long series. Sex, violence, accents, great costuming possibilities, episodic structure, and a huge built-in audience of (largely female) fans? Good grief. It’s a series just waiting to happen. And it will happen, on Starz, this summer. Someone please offer to get me cable, because Ronald D. Moore is producing, and I think we all know how much I loved his Battlestar Galactica.

Before I get into the Claire & Jamie festivities, a funny story: A couple months ago, my friends (who also happen to be neighbors) were talking books at our consciousness-raising rap group (aka Wine Night), and Elena mentioned Outlander, and gave a rough outline of the plot. This rang a bell. Well, two bells, actually. Outlander had appeared on a best-of-classic sci-fi list, so I’d added it to my in-progress Classics Club list over the summer. But that’s not what came to mind first.

As a teenager, I came across Dragonfly in Amber, the first of Outlander‘s sequels, in the local library. I liked the title, and had no idea it was part of a series, so I just started flipping through. Oddly enough, the book kept falling open at some pretty steamy scenes (I’m looking at you, patrons of the Bertram Woods branch). Despite the fact that my parents never once in my life stopped me from reading a book, nor hovered over me while I read or browsed books, I was too chicken to check it out. So, rebel that I was, I’d pop by the shelf from time to time while I was in the library to read a chapter or two. I was a couple hundred pages in when someone took the book out, and I never found out what happened to Claire and Jamie. In fact, I forgot all about the book until Elena and a glass of pinot noir shook it loose from my uncooperative memory.Dragonfly in Amber

Onto the books. As per usual, I will give you advance warning of spoilers, which in this case appear at the end of the post.

Both Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber are door-stops: 850 and 947 pages, respectively (my editions are the mass-market paperbacks). And they’re tricky to classify by genre; let’s go with 55% historical fiction, 35% romance, and 10% SF-F.

The premise: Claire Beauchamp Randall, a former army nurse, is on holiday with her husband, Frank, in the Scottish Highlands. Frank’s a historian with a particular interest (which Claire doesn’t share) in the Jacobite risings of the eighteenth century, so naturally he finds plenty to occupy his time on their trip. On an outing, Claire, an amateur herbalist/botanist, gets too close to a circle of standing stones, only to find herself transported to 1743 — two years before the disastrous Jacobite Rising of 1745 (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). Disoriented and confused, it takes her some time to discover when and where she is. As an Englishwoman, she’s an “outlander,” a sassenach, and her position is most precarious.

Which is not to say that 1743 Scotland doesn’t have its perks: adventure, intrigue, professional pride (Claire quickly gains a reputation as a skilled healer), and an extremely good-looking young man named Jamie, who has his own set of problems (price on his head, a sadistic English army captain interested in him, etc.). Needless to say, events conspire to put Jamie and Claire very much in each other’s way as they attempt to navigate through the Highlands’ natural and political terrain. Much danger (and sex) ensues as Claire is forced to choose between her past and her present.

Outlander follows the pair to the end of 1743; Dragonfly in Amber picks up where Outlander leaves off, and includes a long foray into France (happily, Claire and Jamie both speak perfect French.) as they try to stop the Rising before it begins, with the help of Claire’s foreknowledge. But time is tricky stuff, as any good sci-fi fan knows.

Ms. Gabaldon doesn’t write literary fiction, and that’s just fine — because she does write rollicking adventure with excellent pacing. Near the end of Outlander, the tension was so extreme that I had to put the book down and catch my breath. The historical detail is intriguing, especially since the reader makes discoveries alongside Claire. If there’s a woman perfectly suited for dangerous time travel, it’s Claire: she’s quick-thinking, brave, very intelligent, and possessed of numerous practical skills thanks to her training as a nurse. She’s pleasant company as a narrator. Jamie’s a puzzle at first; he has all of the attributes you’d expect (strong, tall, brave, loyal, suitably appreciative of heroine,etc.), but he’s also very young and, for the most part, respectful toward women. Actually, sometimes I thought he seemed too much like a thirty-five year-old man, rather than a twenty-three-year-old; the author’s point that people grew up faster in centuries past is well taken, but sometimes Jamie’s emotional maturity is no verra believable, ye ken?

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Won’t happen again.

Bottom line: these are deliciously entertaining and diverting books, but if you prefer your fiction free of gore and bodice-ripping, look somewhere else.

Spoilers Ensue. Also, TW: sexual violence and child abuse.

Both novels include scenes of rape and attempted rape, and Dragonfly in Amber has a particularly horrifying account of a child being raped. In all cases the rapists (eventually) meet the eighteenth century version of justice, and in all instances rape is not glorified or glamorized, but shown as brutal and causeless. The victims are not blamed.

The villain in  Outlander is the aforementioned sadistic English captain, Jack Randall (just to complicate matters, he’s Frank’s ancestor.). Randall’s particular interest is the sexual debasement and torture of men (though he’s perfectly happy to beat Claire, and attempt to rape her too) — and he’s got his eye on Jaimie. I’ll get back to that in a second, but first, here’s my major philosophical issue with the books: Jack Randall is described, by Claire in 1968, as a pervert, and it’s not clear to me that what she’s describing is his sadism, rather than his homosexuality (which is referred to more than once). For that matter, why does the only gay character in the two books have to be a pedophile, rapist, and sadist? I realize that homosexuality wasn’t even a term in use in the eighteenth century, and that Outlander was published in 1991, but c’mon. Of course, I haven’t read the next 5,000 pages of the series, so maybe I’m speaking too soon.

UPDATE: Kay from WhatMeRead tells me that there’s a non-vilified gay character in another of Ms. Gabaldon’s books.

UPDATE 2: I’m happy to be wrong — please scroll down in the comments to read Ms. Gabaldon’s (!) clarification on this point.

Anyway. True to conventional romance tropes, Jamie rescues Claire from attempted rape at least twice in Outlander alone, but at the end of the book, something I’ve never seen in fiction happens. Jamie, condemned to hang, is in prison, and Claire’s first rescue attempt fails. Jack Randall is about to have her raped by one of his minions and then killed, but Jaime trades her life for his acquiescence to Jack Randall’s predilections. Basically, he consents to be raped and tortured to save Claire’s life.

And that’s exactly what happens. There’s no last-minute saving of his “honor.” Claire does manage to organize a rescue, but Jaime suffers for hours first. The last act of the novel is Claire’s struggle to help Jamie heal, physically and psychologically, from his experience (he does). These scenes are excruciating to read, but I was impressed by Ms. Gabaldon’s turning a romance trope on its head.