Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
The Best American Essays 2009
A Library of Literary Criticism
After Visiting Friends – Michael Hainey
No One Belongs Here More than You – Miranda July
The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose
Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls – David Sedaris
The Empathy Exams – Leslie Jamison
An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
White Girls – Hilton Als
Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
In Praise of Messy Lives – Katie Roiphe
Fidelity – Grace Paley
Books Not Finished
Praying Drunk – Kyle Minor
The Faraway Nearby – Rebecca Solint
Almost No Memory – Lydia Davis
The Ten Year Nap – Meg Wolitzer
Sister, Mother, Husband, dog, etc – Delia Ephron
Ello. I am currently reading a compilation of Nick Hornby's book columns for the Believer magazine over the past ten years, and while it is fun to read, as it often happens when I read things, they make me want to write about the same things. He organizes the beginning of each column by books bought and read every month, and I also read and buy books every month. And love lists. I'm not Nick Hornby, or famous, but I do think it's good to record my thoughts and musings about books I read because I've been reading enough post college that I have actually started to forget things about books I read in like, last November. Embarrassing. So here I go.
Also, Nick Hornby wasn't allowed to talk shit on books not finished, because of some agreement with the Believer because they don't want to shit talk anyone, to which I say: schmeh. (From his comments on the topic in the column, Hornby also says schmeh. But he was getting paid and I'm writing for my own website which I pay for, so I guess there are some perks to not being famous.)
Onward. As you probably know if you know me or have heard me speak, I buy a lot of books. I go back and forth on whether this is a good or bad things. I generally say good because it is important to buy books when so many people don't. (Apparently 43% of Americans don't read books of any kind. Kill me. Oh wait don't because then there would be one less American reading books.) I want to support the literary industry as much as I can on my Ihop salary, and I also think it is important to buy books because I hope to publish one someday so not buying them would seem a bit hypocritical if I'm ever going to complain about no books getting published. (I have never tried to publish a book so I don't know if this warrants complaints yet, but this is what I have heard.) Additionally, I've been trying the whole library thing, and it is not working out. I don't have time to read all the books I'm so excited to check out, and then they end up overdue, and it turns out that the San Diego Public Library system is not as liberal as the Madison library system about late fines. And then I get depressed about the books I haven't read and the fines I have to pay, so on and so forth, le sigh.
Plus, if I ever own a house (looking doubtful, see my burgeoning career at Ihop) I want to have enough books for my in-home library. This is really an investment for the future.
My books bought this month are from four separate occasions – one trip to the used bookstore a couple blocks down from my house where I meant to donate two books (and did) and ended up leaving with five more. Whoops. But I can't turn down an old edition of Best American Essays, especially what with fall coming up and thus the 2014 edition. 2013 was such a disappointment that I need an old one on hand to read to prepare me for 2014. It's important to me to beef up my academic section of my in home library, thus A Library of Literary Criticism. Although it is happening sluggishly, I am determined to read some classics that I should within my lifetime read, i.e. The Magic Mountain, plus both Ann Patchett and Bill McDonald love it and if you can't trust them who can you trust? Rounding out this trip was Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose, because it's always good to have some books of poems on hand.
Do you see now what I was saying about the library? I would literally never finish all these books within two weeks, but I want them on hand and will certainly read them eventually and would like to be able to browse them, especially the literary criticism and the poetry, at a moment's notice.
Three were purchased while I was waiting for a lunch date in a Barnes and Noble and spotted the buy two get one free table. I love the buy two get one free table! That's where I procured Random Family, No One Belongs Here More than You, and After Visiting Friends. A note on Barnes and Noble: I prefer independent bookstores, but everyone is suffering these days, so no apologies/no regrets. An Untamed State and The Empathy Exams were both kindle purchases, which means I read them at the gym. I haven't finished The Empathy Exams because a lot of times I just go to the gym for yoga classes and I can only read when I'm doing speed walking or the elliptical. So probably this month.
The experience of purchasing Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is going to get its own entry because it involves me getting told by a famous author that I should work at a specific institution which values physical attributes of mine not at all related to my writing or art or anything I generally value. Stay tuned!
I wrote a lengthy review of In Praise of Messy Lives which can also be found on this here blog, so I won't repeat myself. After finishing that I jumped into another collection of essays and criticism, White Girls. I first read Hilton Als in Best American Essays 2011 or 2012 and that particular essay struck me in tone in a way that has stayed with me. I'd heard a lot about White Girls over the past year and I'm always looking to improve my knowledge and perspective on race, and I can't turn it down from a more creative lens.
Als style is something I enjoy but that I'm not always sure I completely understand. The elevated tone and language sometimes leads me to believe that I'm intuiting things about the essays that aren't actually taking place, or vice versa, so I'm going to try not to say too much that I could be misinterpreting.
I loved Tristes Tropiques, the first piece and the lengthiest in the book. Many of the insights reminded me of intense friendships, of course one in particular, that I've had, and that is my favorite thing. The entire essay reiterates the concept of twinning, and relationships that are so much more than friendships but aren't romantically intimate.
“Perhaps SL will leave me for one reason or another, but he will never go away: I see myself in him and he in me, except that for him our twinship is essentially private and silent. So how do I justify putting our we-ness out in the world by writing about it? I can't. It's something I've always done; SL accepts this in me: half living life so I can get don to really living it by writing about it.”
One of the most interesting things about White Girls is that although it is mostly a commentary on race, it is also in large part about the intersectionality of race and gender and some of its best moments were the tiniest observations on this: “She was as conscious of her body as she was fearful of it; in short, she as a woman.”
Speaking of gender, there is an entire amazing essay about Truman Capote's gender identity, which based on some google searches hasn't actually been particularly documented. I highly suggest it for fans of Capote or fans of gender studies.
My personal favorite essay in the collection was obviously the one about Eminem. Nothing like academic geniuses analyzing the race and gender politics of pop culture. A note on that – I think that engaging with popular culture on a critical level is one of the best ways to actually change things in society. Pure academia is great for those of us who like it but how are we ever going to actually influence the general public unless we engage with what they like? i.e., pop culture. The essay, White Noise, is phenomenal and somehow manages to both critically engage with Eminem, praise him, and explore his emotional side.
“Mathers can't quite believe the world is the world. Nor can he believe there's not enough love in it – especially for him.” That first line – 'can't quite believe the world is the world' – mirrors how I and I'm pretty sure most of my close friends feel walking out of the house on a daily basis.
The other library book I managed to finish in the past month or so was Fidelity by Grace Paley. And it was a book of poems. Maybe I can only allow myself to get books of poems from the library because under duress I can read them faster and copy down the poems I want to re study later. A gem from Fideltiy :
“a person should be in love most of
the time this is the last proverb
and may be learned by all the organs
capable of bodily response”
I don't know what exact order this was in because I read this next one at the gym, but sometime around the time I finished White Girls I also finished An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I normally don't say that everyone should read a book because I think that there's no accounting for taste slash mainly I think that people usually say this about stupid books slash usually these lists are fifteen hundred books long and there's no way that anyone can let alone MUST read that many books, but I'm about to say it about two books this month so there I go contradicting myself.
I am going to say it about both An Untamed State and Random Family, for relatively similar reasons. Both books contain perspectives of marginalized groups (women and those in poverty, respectively) which everyone who is not in either marginalized group should really read to try and better understand the lives of those in such group.
Roxane Gay took a very specific and horrifying experience of a Haitian-American woman kidnapped from outside her wealthy Haitian family's estate and held in captivity for days, and spoke incredible volumes to the universal experiences of violence against women and how a man's damage can change the way a woman thinks and lives her life. I think this book could help a man better understand the terror of sexual assault than anything I've ever read. It even at times showcases how little men understand of it by showing sections from the narrator's husbands perspective. I'm not trying to shit talk men here. But I am saying that this book would be a very useful perspective for someone who has never feared being raped, whether they be man or woman.
Aside from perspectives, it's also an amazing book in terms of the things that generally make books great, such as being well written, plotted, and voiced. The action is hard to swallow at times but the book moves quickly and shifts between the terrifying scenes and flashbacks enough that I didn't feel trapped by the action. Except, of course, in the way that you want to feel trapped by the action, because you want to be able to feel a smidgen of the sense of entrapment that the narrator feels.
Random Family follows four youths in the Bronx from late teenagehood to adulthood, and the incredible part of the book's inception is that LeBlanc actually spent ten years with her subjects, not just interviewing them, but becoming a friend and confidant in their lives as they went through drugs, childbirth, motherhood, dealing, jail, etc etc etc. It's an amazing piece of investigative reporting that slices open a whole sector of American life that most Americans are completely blind to. That's why everyone needs to read this book. Obviously reading one more book can only do so much, but it's so illuminating to get to know and empathize with these people who lead just as dynamic lives as our own but with struggles most of us won't ever come close to knowing.
Speaking of gender, as I was earlier, Random Family also brings in a wide angle on what it means to be female in poverty and how it changes one's relationship to sexuality. In a world where men deal drugs and have money, women become trained by society to use their bodies as currency to get what they need from those men. This put men in a further escalated position of power than they already are in society as well as pitting girls against each other, again, more than they already are, in places where it's not uncommon for a man to have one main girlfriend and four on the side who the first one knows about and grudgingly accepts.
The book also explores the dynamics of prison in the United States as three of the main characters end up there for drug offenses. I highly suggest this book for anyone who watches Orange is the New Black, which I know is most of you! I read the memoir that the show is based on, and although the memoir acknowledges that the narrator was in prison in a very different way than most of the women that she met – for many of them, prison was relatively inevitable and only a different type of horror than the lives they faced outside, while for Piper it was a jarring year out of a privileged life that she got to return to after her sentence. The memoir explores the political and social implications of this extensively and the narrator acknowledges her privilege, but the show is lacking in this area. Random Family really explores it in depth and gives insight to many women who are probably similar to ones that Piper spent time with.
“The skyrocketing number of women in prison was the unintended consequence of a drug policy that snagged legions of small-timers in the attempt to bring their kingpins down.” Although arguably this is the same thing that got Piper in prison, RF shows the scope it took on families in poverty.
Random Family continues as a study exploring the intersectionality of poverty, race, gender, and drugs in the ghetto. When describing trying to make a legal case of Jessica ending up pregnant in prison from an affair with a guard, LeBlanc writes
“The legal challenge was a lot like the challenge of demonstrating the impact of racism or poverty or substandard housing: How could you untangle the structural injustices from the self-inflicted damage? How could you separate neglect from malice, the intended from the unintended harms?”
LeBlanc also demonstrates this when writing about Coco, one of the main focuses of the book: “Every opportunity Coco seized on improved her life, but sustaining the improvements proved impossible against the backslide of poverty.” She explores the debate of maintaining a minimum wage job versus subsisting on welfare, and the challenges of even keeping a minimum wage job when caring for 3 plus children.
As usual, the people who probably need to read a book like this the most (re: Republicans, anyone who asks why women in poverty have so many children, anyone who says the phrase 'why don't they just get a job') probably won't ever pick it up, but perhaps if those of us who already know some of the knowledge read it and gain a firmer and deeper understanding the empathy will still be spread.
And now on to books I didn't finish: I try to like short stories, but sometimes I just don't. Sometimes I don't like the stories or the writing themselves, other times I just can't get into that much disjointed-ness. I didn't finish two books of short stories this month, Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor and Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis. The former I have heard pimped and hyped a lot in various cultural publications this year, citing words like honest and brash and young talent, and well maybe it was those things but I just didn't like it. The prose seemed overdramatic to me and perhaps a little bit of angry white man playing it off as artsy. I'm sure it's good if it's what you're looking for, but I wasn't. On the other hand, Lydia Davis is great, I really loved her stories, but I think I'm going to have to buy one of her books because I can't commit to finishing something from the library that has so many separate narratives.
The Faraway Nearby was also great, I really love Rebecca Solint, especially the word mansplaining, but I did a bad job of putting it down in the wrong place and accidentally picking up Random Family more often. I may be able to finish it this month if the library doesn't shank me first.
Re: The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. I thought when I picked up this book, hm, I wonder if it will bug me too much to read about women who took time off from life to have children muse about it for four hundred pages. Lo and behold, I was correct. I don't care about these particular musings at this point in my life. Perhaps one day I will. Or perhaps I will have no children and continue to live my rock and roll lifestyle. Whatever, at least I know my tastes.
Re: Sister Mother Husband Dog etc. by Delia Ephron. Reading someone related to Nora Ephron: good idea. Reading someone related to Nora Ephron write many sentences about how Nora stole a lot of her lines and express vague jealousy: meh. The wound is still too fresh.
This was fun! And hopefully now I will start to remember what I read.