The Dead Ladies Project

When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding. A way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.

The Dead Ladies Project is an account of that journey – but it’s also much more. Fascinated by exile, Crispin travels an itinerary of key locations on its literary map, of places that have drawn writers who needed to break free and start afresh. As she reflects on William James struggling through despair in Berlin, Nora Barnacle dependable for James Joyce in Trieste, Maud Gonne fomenting revolution in Dublin, or Igor Stravinsky starting over from nothing in Switzerland, Crispin interweaves biography, literary analysis and personal experience into a meditation on the interactions of place, personality, and society that make escape and reinvention such an attractive, even intoxicating proposition.

Personal and profane, funny and fervent, The Dead Ladies Project ranges from nineteenth century to the present, from historical figures to brand-new hangovers, in search, ultimately, of an answer to a bedrock question: How does a person decide to live their life?

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If that summary hasn’t sold it to you, I don’t know what will.

Through this blog I have been casually putting together a list of books you should read in your twenties. This one shot right to the top. It’s required reading for any of us who ponder the possibility of getting on a plane and abandoning our lives on a semi-regular basis.

I know that is quite a few of us.

‘I was tired of being the person I was on an almost atomic level. I longed to be disassembled, for the chemical bonds holding me together to weaken and for bits of me to dissolve slowly into the atmosphere.’

I spend a lot of my time searching for models on how to live. I think we all do it. I’m not even just talking about scrolling through Instagram and admiring all the #lifegoals either. Sometimes it happens in the briefest of encounters. A few weeks ago at work, a lady walked over to me and my colleague and gave us a pep talk on how we shouldn’t let the world get us down, and the advantages of not giving too much of a shit (there are many) and when she was done she left and we’ve never seen her again, but behind her stayed this impression. All I could think was: that lady is doing life right.

In her travels through Europe and her various deep dives into the lives of the artists whose adventures took place there, Jessa Crispin is doing the same thing. She’s searching for comfort in other people’s struggles, for self-acceptance if not actual happiness (because what even is that, anyway?).

‘We both sit quietly, drinking the dregs of our tea and feeling the long expanse of years before us. The weight of uncertainty. Whether it’ll be a late blooming or whether the soil will prove to be infertile.’

She looks through that acceptance by studying a litany of delightful weirdos from history. This book is a fascinating study of characters we all know – William James, W. Somerset Maugham, Stravinsky – and those most of us might not – Nora Barnacle, Claude Cahun, Margaret Anderson.

They aren’t all stories of escape, although those are the ones I enjoyed the most. I like the optimism involved in escape. Some of them are tales filled with misery, or of betrayal, whether that’s by your own inability to leave a shitty situation, or the people of the island you live on selling you out to the Nazis (yes, I am being specific).

One the aspects of this book I truly loved was how Crispin looked into the idea of being a bit of a social reject as an adult. When you’re a teenager (and if you’re reading this as a teenager, I’m sorry), and kind of a strange one at that, all you’re told is that it gets better with age and by the time you’re a grown up you find your people and it’ll all make total sense.

Thus far, this has not been my experience.

(again, teenagers, ignore me. It gets better. You’ll be fine.)

So to read of a lady floundering at thirty, and not in the self-conscious I’m-such-a-weirdo non floundering-floundering with the perfect rom-com ending way, either, was both comforting and painful to read.

‘…it would be nice if a god did come down and say, This is that thing, stupid. The thing you have stared at the horizon waiting for for years now. It is standing right in front of you.’

At the end of Breakfast at Tiffanys, after Holly has decided to ditch the cat and her entire New York existence, Paul, exasperated yells at her that running away is pointless ‘Because no matter where you run you just end up running into yourself.’

The Dead Ladies Project is an entire book about that phenomenon. Jessa Crispin, William James, Margaret Anderson, Jean Rhys… all of them, they all had the same problem.

Some of them were okay, some not so much.

Which is just sort of what life is.

This book will make you inspired and depressed and introspective.

But, like, in a good way.

Feminist TBR

For anyone who hasn’t noticed, lately I have got even more obsessed with women’s writing, specifically, women writing about feminist issues. I put this renewed obsession down to Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour podcast and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. It also relates to a minor incident a few weeks ago, when I was walking home by myself, late-ish at night and a random guy decided to shove his drunk friend into me, for, as far as I can tell no reason other than to frighten me. This is far from the worst creeperie I’ve experienced, but it has me angrier than usual. I suppose it’s because in an ideal world I should be to complete a less than ten minute walk from a concert venue to a youth hostel alone without incident.

I feel like reading books about feminism is a healthy way to channel the frustration.

Summaries all from Goodreads.

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

41edjJkb2DL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters…This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf ’s embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.’

You Don’t Have to Like Me: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out and Finding Feminism – Alida Nugent

24611657‘Alida Nugent’s first book, Don’t Worry It Gets Worse, received terrific reviews, and her self-deprecating “everygirl” approach continues to win the Internet-savvy writer and blogger new fans. Now, she takes on one of today’s hottest cultural topics: feminism.

Nugent is a proud feminist—and she’s not afraid to say it. From the “scarlet F” thrust upon you if you declare yourself a feminist at a party to how to handle judgmental store clerks when you buy Plan B, You Don’t Have to Like Me skewers a range of cultural issues, and confirms Nugent as a star on the rise.’

 

The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats and Ex-Countries – Jessa Crispin

9780226278452‘When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding, a way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.’

I heard about this book on Stuff Mom Never Told You. I really recommend listening to the episode. Jessa is a fascinating lady.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More – Janet Mock

janet-mock-book-cover.jpg‘In 2011, Marie Claire magazine published a profile of Janet Mock in which she stepped forward for the first time as a trans woman. Those twenty-three hundred words were life-altering for the People.com editor, turning her into an influential and outspoken public figure and a desperately needed voice for an often voiceless community. In these pages, she offers a bold and inspiring perspective on being young, multicultural, economically challenged, and transgender in America.’ 

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

51KOK64918L__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.’

My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem

9780679456209‘Gloria Steinem—writer, activist, organizer, and one of the most inspiring leaders in the world—now tells a story she has never told before, a candid account of how her early years led her to live an on-the-road kind of life, traveling, listening to people, learning, and creating change. She reveals the story of her own growth in tandem with the growth of an ongoing movement for equality.’

Amazing review by Ann Friedman here.