Marie Kondo in the Time of COVID-19

Over the last few years, mindfulness literature has been a growing subsection of the self-help nonfiction genre. What began as a response to a growing anxiety within America has suddenly come to a head with Covid-19, a crisis just as mental as it is economic. 

Amidst this with fortuitously good timing, Marie Kondo, known for her previous New York Times Best-Selling work, the life-changing magic of tidying up, has released a new book titled, Joy at Work, co-written with Scott Sonenshein. Kondo is a Japanese writer focused on the mindfulness and philosophical elements of decluttering one’s home life. Her books, fittingly published in stark white binding with red cover lettering, are beautiful hard-cover volumes that give practical and simple advice to working on the core of one’s home life. At the center of this approach is the idea to sort through items by category based on if they “spark joy” in your life. Her sophomore book is titled Spark Joy, and functions as an illustrated companion work to her first book. Her stance on reducing one’s possessions is refreshing in a time when we are physically unable to go out and spend money.

Kondo’s newest work is particularly applicable now that many Americans are working from home. The bedroom writing desk has been suddenly thrust into the position of full-time workstation. The home is neither physically nor emotionally designed to function as a universal space for all aspects of our lives. We can see this effect in the collective longing for external  work and social spaces. 

Joy at Work takes the same approach of mindfulness and decluttering that was so critical to finding joy and peace within a home, and applies it to the office for the purpose of maintaining focus and productivity, a task made all the more difficult by the tumultuousness of the present. Mindfulness works like Kondo’s are critical to maintaining a sense of momentum and poise in a time of crisis.

Kondo has unintentionally cued into a Covid-19 zeitgeist of craving in the American public. Much like how Nintendo soothed the youth of America’s need for control and plasticity with their recent Animal Crossing release, Kondo has done the same for the sudden shift in the American work life. If there was ever a time for self-help books to bring about overwhelming positive change in the face of adversity, it is now.

 

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The Guttural Poems of Billy Childish

With the world trapped at home, Americans have had their lives and communities forced into micro focus. Poetry is one expression of day to day life under adversity. Concentrated prose is a natural fit for moments that are small, honest, but also potentially ugly. An artist who expresses this reality like no other is the English writer Billy Childish, whose work examines the grit and grime of the domestic and the industrialized community.

billychildish-696x522-1Childish is well known for his poetry collections and longer form memoir. However, he has also had a successful career as a punk rock musician and studio artist. His accentuated British style with tweed, suspenders, and a waxed mustache makes him out to be a living deconstruction of working-class England. As an art school dropout and someone who lived on the dole for over a decade before making a living as an artist, Childish certainly walks the walk.

His poetry books are interspliced with original paintings and prints which create a modern Neolithic style, depicting sex, naked bodies, and misery. These drawings, which feel like neolithic cave paintings, make Childish out to be the artistic intersection between a back-alley addict and a Celtic shaman before the arrival of the Romans. Childish’s poetry is written like a primeval record of a cockney England in its most degenerated form. His writing forgoes the principles of the King’s English in favor of phonetic spellings in lowercase type with minimal or no punctuation. Stanza breaks and enjambment are the reader’s only guide to what feels like the ravings of a drunk outside an English pub. If Bukowski is modern masculinity unveiled in its ugliest and most honest face, then Childish walks that same path back much further to literary tradition of a decrepit England spanning back to the settlement of the British Isles.

His writing contains raw expressions of sexuality and violence. He writes in a poem titled, when the spunk hits yur in the face, “then this bloke says/ ‘ya nans dead’ n its the same man/ who raped you/ then it starts raining/ then someboidy makes yu nob sore/ then all this spunk starts flying atcha// then the bus comers/ but it dont go your way/ it aint half fare…” Childish not only fully displays the raw violence in life, but also a mundane ache and pain that comes with the grime of day to day living. This juxtaposition, combined with strange phonetical spelling and the fearlessness of his subject, makes for fascinating reading. 

The poetry of Billy Childish looks at the world with an apocalyptic glee. His focus and introspection is critical at a time when we are all confined to looking at the world through unwashed windows and bad news on the radio. I return to Childish for a connection with an ancient neolithic dread made new by industrialization. Though not uplifting, the poetry of Childish is certainly liberating in its unflinching gaze into the dark night of the city. 

 

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Authors Discuss Escapism in Literature

In her recent article Fairy Tales and Facts: How We Read in a Pandemic for Lit Hub, Siri Hustvedt posed the question: “if you are well and at home and have enough to eat and can concentrate on a book, do you read toward or away from your fear?” Along with reading Hustvedt, I spoke with novelist Stephen McCauley, author of The Object of My Affection and My Ex-Life, among several other acclaimed best-sellers, to gain an understanding of how different authors are processing the desire to escape into literature during these tumultuous times. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a total immersion in fear. As Hustvedt states, one can, “consume every factual tidbit available about the virus and its spread, the best mask to wear, or how to clean your groceries to avoid contamination.” She goes on to ask, “what could fiction with its imaginary ramblings possibly give anyone at such a time, except an escape into the unreal?” Hustvedt’s answer is an escape to the fantastic. In fairy tales, she explains, “the hero or heroine is tested sorely, but in the end, he or she is rewarded with happiness.” And to the magic in fairy tales, “the laws of nature are overturned and replaced by human desires.” 

However, magic is not the only way to find a respite from the fear and facts of the news. As McCauley explained, a piece of fiction can be utterly immersive and calming without the use of witches and evil stepmothers. “I find I’m not interested in reading anything either too grim or too suspenseful. [My] nerves [are] frayed enough as is,” he said, referring to the Covid-19 virus. “Since this leaves out much of contemporary fiction, I’m sticking with classics.” Having not read any Dickens in many years, McCauley has now immersed himself in Little Dorrit. “I’d forgotten what a singular pleasure it is to read Dickens,” said McCauley. “His sentences are lavishly embellished, his plots border on incomprehensibly complicated, and the cast of characters is immense. But once you ease into his style and accept his pacing, it’s spectacularly enjoyable. ‘Oh, good, here comes Flora,’ you think and then settle down for ten pages of the character behaving exactly as you know she will. It’s a thoroughly immersive experience.”

What are you reading under lockdown? Let us know in the comments, or write to us on our Facebook or Twitter.

 

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Client Profile: Terry Williams

“To see the real city,” Terry Williams writes in the introduction to his Cosmopolitan Life series of urban, ethnographic works, “you must descend deep into the shadows, go into the bowels of the city and be guided through history, remembrance and the sensorium, capturing a mosaic of people and places.” In Williams’ latest book, Le Boogie Woogie: Inside and After-Hours Club, Williams takes on this task for his readers, combining ethnography, narrative storytelling, and research to intricately illustrate a world most of us have no access to. As a longtime editor for Willams, our founder and lead editor, Dr. Weiner, was invited to a reading and talk for Le Boogie Woogie hosted at the Harlem Arts Salon

According to his New School profile, Williams focuses are “teenage life and culture, drug abuse, crews and gangs, and violence and urban social policy,” and Le Boogie Woogie dives into those issues. “From the raunchy life of players, madams, hipsters, poets, musicians, voyeurs and others,” Williams writes, Le Boogie Woogie “is about and for people interested in the fast life of the city where cocaine use and sex are commonplace.”

“I am insatiably curious about the life of other people,” Williams said at the reading. “Some would say I’m nosy,” he joked. An article about the reading at the Harlem Arts Salon in Social Research Matters, ‘Terry Williams: The Cosmopolitan Life of an Urban Ethnographer’, explains how his work is largely unprecedented. “‘No study had been done on cocaine users in their natural setting or to describe users as they lived,’ he writes in the book’s introduction. Others told him it wasn’t a good idea, ‘…but my job as a researcher is to see if I can gain the trust and acceptance of people other than my kinfolk’” (Social Research Matters).

Le Boogie Woogie was the latest addition to Williams’ Cosmopolitan Life series. CambridgeEditors had the pleasure of working with Williams on two upcoming books of his, The Soft City: On Voyeurism and Engagement and The Vanishing Indian Upper Class which will be released in July of this year.

 

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Where Should We Buy Books During the Pandemic?  

COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on American industry. In the literary world, one of the great victims is the independent bookstore. Independent bookstores already operate on thin profit margins and compared to giants of media, like television production or tech companies, the brick-and-mortar world of publishing is at the mercy of the market. According to Publisher’s Weekly and The New York Times, independent bookstores in NYC, like the famous Strand, have laid off almost all of their staff. Additionally, Powell’s World of Books in Portland Oregon has furloughed its workforce with the exception of a select few filling out online orders. 

However, it is not due to lack of need. In fact, many of us have more time on our hands than ever before to finally finish that 800-page tome on our nightstands. But unfortunately, as bookstores are hemorrhaging rent money and unable to operate, sales are going to Amazon. The giant of e-commerce is perfectly poised to pick up the slack in book sales. Though the company has stated that they are prioritizing the shipment of essential supplies to its customers, its subsidiary AbeBooks can take on some of the overflow. Additionally, many people will likely accept the increased shipping times to purchase their favorite books at Amazon’s usual low prices.

Now more than ever independent bookstores need our help to maintain diversity in the bookselling world. While COVID-19 threatens our health, it is an opportunity for the most well insulated businesses to strengthen monopolistic practices. Though it is a luxury to spend a little extra at a bookstore’s online shop, and you will have to pay shipping (something anyone with a Prime account may have forgotten about), COVID-19 is nothing if not a watershed moment for small businesses across the country. Instead of using an Amazon account, consider placing an order with your favorite bookstore’s online storefront. Or if they don’t have one, try Bookshop.org or another used book retailer like Thriftbooks or eBay. What we do with our wallets in this global health and economic crisis is critical in deciding who is still left doing business when all is said and done. 

 

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Renewed Relevance for the Forgotten War Memoir Written By the Father of NYC Ballet

In 1946, Lincoln Kirstein co-founded the New York City Ballet. However, lesser known then his contributions to the performing arts is his poetic memoir published in 1964 about serving in the US Army during the Second World War. Rhymes of a PFC is a tragically long-out-of-print collection of prose dealing with the stresses of combat, sexuality in the army, and existentialism under the constant threat of death. Now that we are the homefront of a biological struggle happening worldwide, Kirstein’s poems gain renewed relevance for their power and solidarity.

The book is split into sections reflecting the different theaters of war. Each section pays tribute to quiet moments so often left out of newsreels and documentaries. Instead of bullets and shrapnel, Kirstein chronicles the emotional struggles going on behind closed doors–battles not just with the enemy, but between allies and individuals. The complex and surprising nature of these issues can be seen in Kirstein’s reflection of the dynamic between American and British soldiers in regard to married women, which leaves the reader as burned-out as the cuckolded British Tommy. “Bert grasps the situation–/ After five long years,/ Young Bertie in a Yankee’s arms–/ And bursts into tears.// Bert will not try to kill him/ As the corporal thinks he might:/ He’s had his fill of fighting;/ He wants no fight” (50-51).

However, not all of the poems display animosity. There are several that reflect on the collective misery and desire for comfort among soldiers. Many of these sections have homosexual undertones that add a unique character to Kirstein’s poetic voice. In the poem, “Junior,” Kirstein chronicles the quiet tension of a transatlantic crossing. “Then Junior, through our nightmare, came stalking quick but dead;/ As I absorbed his fright from him, the mist on his shaved head/ Stood out like sweat. His two wild paws in helpless animal fright/ Trapped me in the clamp of love to nurse him through this night.// He was in peril. So was I. Be with us to the end/ Where every selfish soldier is rationed half a friend” (61).

Kristein writes wonderfully clever prose that outlines the entire conflict in Europe. The dreamlike quality of episodic poetic rhyme contrasts with visions of Atlantic Convoys, Uboats, and occupied Europe in the darkest days of the conflict. Now, in the biological world war against Covid-19, each of us is a soldier cooped up in a perpetual battle against infection. I’m sure many Americans are feeling the emotional strain of this war, and the economic strain of a wartime economy. In this regard, Kirstein’s recollection of quiet warfare is particularly enchanting and relevant.

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https://www.amazon.com/Rhymes-More-PFC-Lincoln-Kirstein/dp/B000I8UDGU

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Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: A Literary Take of the Legend and Language of the Apocalypse

In 1980, Pennsylvania-born writer Russell Hoban was living in London when he wrote his fourth novel, Riddley Walker. The book is a piece of science fiction which takes place in the south-east of England, several millennia after a mysterious apocalyptic event. As the news of today paints a picture that looks increasingly like something out of one of these pieces of pessimistic fiction, reading books like Hoban’s can be oddly relaxing, as we find delight in beautiful passages of a bleak world, one rich with legend and language.

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The first page of Riddley Walker confronts the reader with the fact that the book isn’t written in English, or at least, not an English that we today recognize. The narrative is told from the first-person perspective of the titular character, Riddley. Hobban wrote the book as if a man living millennia after the end of the world was speaking to the reader in his native dialect. To accomplish this, Hobban created a changed and degraded version of English. We experience firsthand how Riddley and his people have reinterpreted lost signs and signifiers. The end of the world legend is called “the Eusa story,” referring to the EU and USA. The light of what is presumably a nuclear blast has been personified in stories as “the Littl Shyning Man.” Canterbury has become Cambry, and the once-popular Punch and Judy puppet show is now a form of public announcement, which tells the story of the world to its people and warns about the dangers of technology.

Books like Riddley Walker remind us of the creative powers of literature to imagine a more colorful vision of a dark future. The concept of apocalypse in Riddley Walker is not just dangerous and strange in a Hobbesian sense, but also wonderfully literary. For us as readers experiencing the growing nihilism as a result of climate change and the invisible dangers of the Coronavirus, consider reading this forgotten classic of British-American literature. According to Hoban, the apocalypse is, after all, literary. 

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