Satire, Woebegone Youths, and a Terrible Flu - my month in books, October 2014

Books read

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Books Bought

Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

Women in Clothes edited by Sheila Heiti, Heidi Julavantis, Leanne Shapton

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Happiness, an anthology by the editors of n+1

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

The Anatomy of Influence by Harold Bloom

October was a grand month for the relationship between books and me, which coincidentally is the only relationship in my life right now. I don't pick books by topic, I just grab whatever I want to read next, or what I've just had signed by the author while practically crying in the case of Lena Dunham, but this month had a lot of youths in various stages of romantic and other discontent, which is probably not a coincidence since that is my life.

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn did not fall into that category, it was a satire about a British literary contest and the skirmishes between the judges and the contestants. This was a book that I could tell was an artfully and well done book, but I was not very engaged by it. It brought up a lot of interesting conflicts, but at times it was so satirical that I couldn't take it seriously or find a personal stake in it.

Which interestingly enough brings me to the next book I read, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman. I also considered this book to be a satire, but in a less overt way, and I doubt that it was read as such by all consumers. It seemed to me to be a social satire on modern dating, which, for better or worse, is a topic which saturates my life.

It seemed to also serve as a portrait of a cultural subset – this particular one is a few strata above me, privilege and economy wise, and yet their concerns and anxieties seem to be pretty universal across smart young people who socialize. They're discussing the same topics, trying to figure out if what they say is considered racist, evaluating the intelligence of their potential mates while also being insecure about their own.

The way I found it most to be a well played satire was the writer of the book is a woman, and her character fully inhabits a common stereotype of a modern man – one who dates women semi frivolously, watching blithely as they become attached to him and all the while debating if he is attached to them at all, but continuing with them nonetheless. What I really liked about Waldman's approach is how she brought us into Nathaniel P's mind without making us sympathize with him, but also without portraying him as evil or sadistic. She just made his character fully, believably ambivalent about his prospects, if a bit pretentious in regards to his value towards women. As I read it, I saw this character's traits in so many men I've met, and wondered how Waldman pinned it down so accurately.

A favorite snippet from the book was an observation from the character named Aurit - “I hate the way men treat dating as a frivolous concept, it's bone headed” which I loved because it's true – men act like dating is a throwaway thing, and laugh at the women who take it seriously, but finding a companion is not a frivolous thing – men just take it for granted because in our modern society, they will have no trouble finding a girlfriend if they want one because women have been so trained to want their attention and please them.

Obviously Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham is all about idiot youths, even if her idiot youthness landed her a television show and mine is mostly me sitting on the couch reading all day wondering if I will ever not spend most of the hours of my day alone. I'll confess, I was worried that Dunham's book would be disappointing, that she wouldn't be as good a writer as she seems to be or that her stories would seem privileged and flat.

I got my first inkling that the book would be great when I met Dunham at her signing in LA. I'm going to write about that in another entry entirely, but suffice it to say she was so kind, genuinely interested in, and gracious to every person in line that by the time I got up there I was shaking and almost crying. An absolute goddess compared to the male authors I've met of late. But again, another entry for all that.

There were a few essays in Not That Kind of Girl that suffered from what I think is 'famous person syndrome,' which is if anyone wrote it who wasn't famous no one would care or the writing could have used some polishing to make it complete, which it probably would have gotten if the person weren't famous. But that small criticism aside, I absolutely loved Dunham's book.

The introduction hooked me in immediately, I was floored by this line: “I'm already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or thinking that it was your fault when the person you are dating suddenly backs away, intimidated by the clarity of your personal mission here on earth.”

I complain constantly about dating. I blog about it, I try to analyze it, I talk to all my friends about it and try to figure out just what is wrong. Then Lena Dunham told me in one sentence, the answer I hadn't known I was looking for. 

This was already evident from Girls, but I love Dunham's descriptions of her early attitudes towards romance and men because she describes so well what so many of us have gone through: “I was lonely as hell and didn't hate kissing him.” Dunham lets us know that these thoughts are normal, if the type that you hope to not have as you meet better men.

Another great Dunham-ism is her constant ability to point out casual misogyny in men's actions: when describing a man she had a complicated relationship with - “Rather than admit that he didn't want to waste two hours watching a woman's interior life unfold, he would tell me these films 'lack structure.'” Classic observation! And so true!

There were so many that I loved that I don't think it even makes sense to take stock of them all, but some snippets. Finding Jack, talking about her mother painting herself nude, how you can't let yourself be treated like nothing because you'll start to think it too, how open she is about her body, of course, the constant homages to Nora Ephron, her beautiful love of womanhood - “But I also consider being female such a unique gift, such a sacred joy, in ways that run so deep I can't articulate them. It's a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.”

One thing that made me sad, as it did in the next book I read, is that Dunham hated college and education in general. This is something I will never know, because I was blessed to attend a small program and community that I fell in love with, where I met my greatest friends and artistic peers. Sometimes I am afraid that it was the only lovely thing I got. But mostly when I read things about people who didn't have that, I am just so sad, because loving a place that much and throwing your heart into it for so long changed me in ways that I would never want to take back.

I thought it was a bit unself aware how she didn't acknowledge that not any three girls who made a ridiculous short moving about artists would end up hosting a fabulous party at a museum, but I'm working to forgive the privileged.

Oh but now we are on to All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen, which opens with a character ostensibly based on the author because they are both named Keith, hating Harvard. And I got sad, (but less sad because boo hoo Harvard,) and then I thought to myself, I'm sure that going to Harvard got him pretty well connected going out, since he was the book critic for some big old magazine at age 25, but I still can't imagine going through life without all the loving that Johnston taught me. I think it would take as many years to make up for that as it'll take me to figure out how to do anything in the arts, at least. (Check back with me on this in five.)

The book follows three separate narrators through either university, graduate school, or post university time, through various follies and finding faults in life and being generally dissatisfied. Which I get, but.

I don't want to say anything too negative about Gessen's book because he's married to the person I am most obsessed with in the world, Emily Gould, but I will say that I got over hearing about privileged white men's problems pretty quickly, especially because some of it was essentially privileged white men whining about aspects of their privilege and general lack of direction in life. To which I wanted to say, well I have no direction in life either PLUS I don't have any fancy degrees or fancy jobs and make 25 cents less an hour on average than you do.

I think that Keith Gessen is probably a really intelligent intellectual. I think this book would appeal to men who are also that, but I would like to read something of his that is intellectual rather than fictional because I think I would identify more with his intelligence than his state in life.

And there were some great lines - “Life is of course very long, and as I said we all have several lives. But that doesn't make it one long party.”

Also: “Misanthropes should not marry. At least not each other.”

The last book I read this month, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, was absolutely fabulous. It deserves to win not just the National Book but every award out there. It sparkled, it exploded, it was an entire world wrapped up in one perfectly sized box that I wish I could read over and over for the first time. I will no longer talk shit on post apocalyptic novels. 

The book opens with a performance of Hamlet being cut short by the main actor suffering a heart attack. Even though the actor dies within the first pages of the book, he will reappear again and again throughout the novel. That night, a very infectious flu becomes a pandemic, quickly obliterating every city in the world in a way that's just realistic enough to be absolutely terrifying. The novel then follows a theater troupe who travels between small settlements in the post apocalyptic world, a man who was the actor's best friend, and flashbacks to several of the character's lives.

This is a book that wasn't great because of a device it employed or one specific voice or how it dealt with a certain societal problem, it was just an excellent book. The morals and the voice and everything about it were good, and the story was great, but most of all it just shone. Everything about the world it created was on point and excellent.

One of the specific excellencies was how the book traces the ways that humans stay the same or change after disaster. Obviously nobody can know how we will act if the world goes to shit, but I think that I agree with the conclusions that Mandel drew – of some of the frustrations of human interaction following us through disaster, but love shining in nonetheless.

Of course the true theme of the novel, what you can gleam from simply knowing that there's a theater troupe after the apocalypse, is the vital importance of art to both the individual and to society. Art functions in the novel as both a personal salve and a saving grace to humankind, which is of course how I think of it constantly.

The gemiest of the gems -

“Hell is the absence of people you long for.”

“And considered the poverty of the room. Not poverty in the economic sense, but the sense of not being enough for the gravity of the moment, an insufficient setting.”

And that was October, truly a great month for books, all things considered. I will probably read just as much or more in November, because I spent 80% of my time not at work alone and if I don't read books I will go insane.