Daring: My Passages by Gail Sheehy
And the Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould
The Circle by Dave Eggers
And The Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould
Creative Block various
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard
This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
I read below my average number of books/month in September, and I'm also writing this entry 19 days into October. Schmeh....I also got a new job! So we're going to concentrate on how proud we are of me for that instead of fewer wpm (word per month in this case) than average. September was full of crying in bed because of depression at current job and anxiety at searching for new one. In case you have not searched for a new job in a while or a restaurant job ever, it involves a lot of walking to places uninvited and handing them something they get far too many of and generally being an unfortunate human which leads you afterwards to crawling into bed out of anxiety from so many awkward human interactions in one day.
Luckily, all this trauma led to some job interviews which led to a fabulous new job. And none too soon, I'm in my final week at old job and literally screamed multiple times at work today, one of which was because the cooks were yelling at me to carry some food out as my pants were literally falling off my body...memories which I will no doubt cherish as I transition away from the horrible pot of horror that is my current job.
Anyway, the books. I read two rather lengthy books and one rather short one. One of the lengthy ones took me a few weeks and the other one a few days. The short one I finished very quickly because I'm obsessed with the author. I actually am not trying to set up a weird logic guessing game here, although I can see why that would seem like what I am doing.
The long book that took me a while to read was Daring: My Passages by Gail Sheehy. I generally enjoy biographies, but they take me a while to read because they are long and don't always chug along at the same speed as a novel. The main exception in my life being the Steve Jobs biography which stands as one of the best books I read in 2013.
Daring: My Passages was alas no Steve Jobs, but it was a fascinating document of the life of a pioneer of womanhood and feminist, Gail Sheehy. I had not heard of Sheehy before picking up the book at Frugal Muse when I was home, but as I read I learned that she is a prodigious reporter and what one might call pop-cultural-anthropologist, pop here meaning literally making cultural studies popular, not influenced by pop music. The title refers to a book she wrote, Passages, defining and categorizing the passages that many adults seem to go through and identify with which apparently was previously unreported.
Reading book length works by reporters is always interesting because they write in such a different way than essayists or novelists. I'm not going to skirt around the fact that my preference is for literary writing, says the student of creative nonfiction who has carried novels everywhere she goes from age 10, but I think it's important for any writer to observe the nuances which separate the forms and acknowledge all of their merits.
Reporters are obviously trained to be the most concerned with communicating information, and I find that this can make their sentences take on a quality of explaining that one might do in a research paper. The greatest reporters (Nora Ephron, pour one out) manage to avoid this, but that's pretty rare. I don't think that Sheehy reached that level, but I don't mean that as a disparagement. Her life contained so many feminist milestones that I wouldn't feel right faulting her for anything. That's why I bought the book in the first place, to assist in my ongoing primer on Women Who Owned Shit in the writing world.
The evidence of Sheehy's feminism lies not only in her own achievements, but in the reverence for the women she describes, such as her grandmother:
[After her grandfather died] “Grandma Gladys had no money and no skills. She had never gone anywhere except in the backseat of a car or a horse-drawn carriage. But she remained true to the self-reliance of her forebears. She promptly learned how to drive, bought a typewriter, taught herself to type, and marched out to get herself a full time job as a real estate agent. For the next forty years she went to work from nine to five every day. She moved in with us when I as a baby, still working. I never heard her complain.”
It's always refreshing when reading about the life of a writer to read about all their setbacks, especially when one's life feels like it is one giant setback peppered with humorous times of pants falling off at work and misogynistic men. Many of Sheehy's books were poorly reviewed or didn't sell, for reasons ranging from being before their cultural time to just not finding an audience. Understanding that the creative life is a battle for everyone, young and an idiot or successful and a real person is endlessly helpful for me to remember.
As inspiring as it is to read about early feminists, it's also crazy to read statements that still hold so true about how men regard liberated women and think to oneself, how are we still here? Read Sheehy describing how many men prefer a prostitute to a sexually liberated woman:
“All these young girls who said yes-yes, but on their own terms, were, well, scary. A paid girl relinquishes all rights to make emotional or sexual demands. She would never call his office the next morning and leave an embarrassing message.”
My thoughts on men's fears of a sexually liberated woman are destined for another section of my website, but glad to know it's a real phenomena.
Someone who I'm sure has lots of thoughts on liberated women is my current favorite writer/obsession, Emily Gould, whose book of essays, And the Heart Says Whatever, I had the immense pleasure of reading in September. I can (and have) (and will) write blog entries entirely devoted to why I am so enthralled by Emily Gould, but most specifically here, ATHSW helped me define one of the characteristics of what I love in contemporary writing: energy. Good words are dime a dozen. Writing well can be learned, and even if you debate that, I think we can all acknowledge that many more people can string words together than people who speak with creative energy and joy, people whose writing makes you want to go out and live.
I would teach And the Heart Says Whatever in a seminar called Books that Make you Want to Live. It made me not hate being young and lost so much. It made it seem like it's all going somewhere, even if somewhere is just another place down the line. It gave me confidence that you can write with grace about the everyday, instead of what the internet tells me these days, which is that I have to go out and have something traumatic happen to me if I ever want to be heard. (Not a great message to send, internet.)
The introduction of the book told me I would love it, because it ended with this paragraph:
“I can look back and recognize the things I've done and said that were wrong: unethical, gratuitously hurtful, golden rule breaking, et cetera. Sometimes the wrongness was even clear at the time, though not as clear as it is now. But I did these things because I felt the pull of a trajectory, a sense of experience piling up the way it does as you turn the pages of a novel. I would be lying if I said I was a different person now. I am the same person. I would do it all again.”
That sense of unapologetic living, barreling forward towards an unknown future spot, is one of the overarching themes of my life. As always, reading the tenets by which you live in print is endlessly comforting. Another great snippet of that, here on the topic of somehow sensing that you are destined for...something:
“I just knew that I was really good at something, or I could be, if I could figure out what. Free floating ambition is toxic because it means that anyone who has accomplished anything in any realm of human endeavor is the enemy because she might be your competition.”
And I thought I was the only one who resented anyone who has done anything ever!
In a move that will shock approximately no one, I also loved Gould's book because she recounts working as a waitress. I'm obviously partial to stories of writers I admire working as waitresses because I'm like hey sup please be my future life, but also because of the nuances that are so similar across different restaurants and ages and places of waiting tables:
“But large groups of single men were her favorite. Well, they are every waitress's favorite. You could develop a little relationship with them over the course of the evening, figure out who was paying, have some banter with him, make eye contact. As long as you didn't then run into him in the unattended hallway on the way back from the bathroom, everything would be fine.”
Lest you think that there's an unattended hallway on the way to the bathroom at IHOP, (the past six months of my life would have been so much more interesting if there were) I'm speaking here to finding comfort in the ways that waitresses learn to interact with humans, and knowing that the ladies I most admire have been through the same thing.
Another grand one: “The performance, of course, was for the benefit of dragon-shirts friends, and if I would collude with him in it, he'd reward me. This was what always happened to me, with small variations. I think this is what always happens. The waitress's role is always the same: she's a receptive audience for witticisms like 'I'd like an order of you.' It's a ritual that has almost nothing to do with sex and everything to do with dominance, the dude asserting his place at the head of a pack. It's gross, but what are you supposed to do, give every man who walks into the bar a lecture?”
Amen, sister. I'm sure that Emily Gould, like me, is a person who would usually give a gender talk to anyone who did this in average, non employment life. But it's hard for me to listen to people comment on this who haven't lived it, because not lecturing strangers on being misogynists is how you pay rent. It's not a thing I like about society but neither is nepotism and nobody has picked me up off the street and paid me to be myself yet so I'll continue to laugh at horrible jokes and flirt with strangers to get better tips.
A great line that I do not feel like explaining why it is important to me: “The past is not a place you can visit.”
On aging: “This is one of the most painful things about getting older, especially getting older in the same place where you were young: the constant realizations that you could have been doing everything better all along, if only you'd known how to read the map more accurately.” Again I choose not to explain. Both obviously have to do with the place I loved and lived for four years which I choose to only speak about in writing if I am devoting entire passages to it.
As I put down And the Heart Says Whatever I went to check up on Emily Gould's latest tweets and replied to one of them like a true creep. Whatever one day I will make friends on the internet.
Alas, I had to return The Circle to the library so I can't do my usual go back through my dog eared pages (I know I'm rude it was from the library. But isn't that an okay thing? The average person deserves my dog ears because I like good things) and list out the shining moments. So here are some recollections:
I have been a not-huge Dave Eggers fan since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I thought that not much happened. Name of novel non-withstanding, I continually got the impression that he was too big for his britches.
I found The Circle at the library and decided to give it a chance because I'm interested (when I'm not busy being vaguely jealous of) in the tech world/start ups, and thought that maybe a futuristic one wouldn't make me too jealous to read it. Plus I only like reading contemporary literary fiction (whatever judge me my purchases keep the books alive and yours could too) and it's pretty rare to find a good one at the library.
I loved it. I guess maybe Eggers britches are an okay size. Plus I never hated on 826 or McSweenys, both venerable organizations.
I am usually not a fan of anything futuristic, but the fact that it wasn't straight out dystopian and still imaginable helped.
Created a community and a world, which I always forget usually makes for a great book.
As Jasmine said, who read it right before me, “It wasn't great literature but it was an interesting concept and moved quickly and was engaging.” Pretty apt descriptions.
And a great commentary on the future of social media! All the vaguely recognizable actions of the internet made it just the right level of creepy.
A few too many moments of Hi I'm 1984 for the millennial generation. Like A. we get it and B. really think highly of yourself for that comparison that you obviously carved out.
Narrator was unlikeable in just the right way. I'm saying this as a good thing. You sympathize with her in the beginning, but her eventual descent into suckiness was actually a great aspect of the novel.
All my more specific notes got lost on the notecard that I wrote them on when I returned this to the library and tried to write them down then promptly lost the notes. Alas.
You may notice that I went from buying almost no books in August, back to buying way too many in September. I did not get my new job until October so I can't even use that as an excuse. My excuse is this: I don't care. Books are the most important thing. I can't read them as fast as I buy them, but I will continue to buy them. What better thing could my money go to? I can't think of a single one.
Buying Freedom may seem gratuitous because I've obviously already read it from how much I reference it, but listen: I found the copy I read in a hostel in Croatia. It was a falling-apart godsend. It was just the novel to read to throw myself into a traveling/art induced paranoia about how I interact with the world that I came out better on the other side of. But it was falling apart, and I didn't have space for it when I was done, so I left it with my friends who I was visiting in Palau. But it's such an incredible book and had such an influence on me that I need to have it on hand for reference or lending, so when I saw it at Bluestocking Books I was just like c'mon you need to be in my possession. And here it is.
Next month (aka very soon because October is almost over) features the really incredible Not that Kind of Girl (I note the irony but love them both too much to comment) and me buying literally so many books people are going to start questioning my financial state.