Blue Nights by Joan Didion
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Friendship by Emily Gould
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Scarecrone by Melissa Broder
The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang
Friendship by Emily Gould
The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang
I managed to get a lot of reading done in August, despite moving – or perhaps because of moving, because I didn't have internet for the entire month. I was also poor due to paying a deposit, so I only bought one book, the other acquisition of the month having been a gift from my mother because I mentioned wanting it and she is a nice lady. It's good that my mom picked it up at the good old University Book Store back in good old Wisconsin, because after checking Warwicks and browsing the bookstores around Hillcrest, I couldn't find Friendship anywhere. This is disconcerting regarding my opinion of San Diego bookstores considering that it is a new and famous book by a famous in literary circles if not street famous author. I am keeping an eye on all of you.
It's probably the first month I've only bought one book in since the days when my life was filled with kegs and social experiment parties instead of hours alone with books, but the money calls.
The month began with a true gem of a book, as everyone probably knows because I'm sure I'm the last one on the block to read it – Blue Nights. Similar to every other young person who somehow fashions themselves to be a writer, I have loved Joan Didion since my first days of being assigned her work in my wee years as a student in Nonfiction I. Perhaps my most intense (re: embarrassing) connection with her work is the numerous times I read Goodbye to All That and cried a lot during my months preparing to leave college. I'm pretty sure I had it permanently open in a tab on my old computer. Cool, Becca.
Blue Nights is somewhat of a memoir about her life after the death of her daughter, Quintana, but one of the things I loved about it was that it didn't have the traditional structure of a memoir. The chapters were each musings from a different perspective or time frame about her daughter, and the displacement helped shape the tone of the novel and put us in Didion's shaky, to say the least, mindset after her daughter's death.
Didion's writing has a quality of excavation, as if she is examining every detail of her life as an anthropologist would an ancient site, and it is visible even down to the individual sentence. She also, in this book, has an incredible grasp of the passage of time and living in the present moment: after listing off a variety of objects that elicited depressing responses re the passage of time, comes this line:
“In fact they serve only to make it clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”
There was only one moment in the book, isolated on one page, where I took issue with Joanie (I feel like she'd hate me referring to her as Joanie,) In discussing the idea that her daughter's life was privileged, she writes
“Privilege is a judgment....an opinion....an accusation. Privilege remains an area to which – when I think of what she endured – when I consider what came later – I will not easily crop.”
I get that what she's saying is that since her daughter died at a young age of a horrible malady, she shouldn't be accused of having led a privileged life. I feel...that is problematic. (Another liberal arts college word, much like privilege.) The way in which Quintana died was truly horrid, but that is separate of her privilege growing up. The day to day life of growing up privileged is arguably easy, and adult life in the professional world I imagine to be far easier than becoming an adult without connections, which Quintana presumably had. Bad things can still happen to people with privilege, but bad things don't happen less to people who aren't privileged. Horrible incidents and growing up with privilege are two separate realms of life.
In other words, poor people's children die young from horrible diseases too. Unimaginable tragedy strikes most people at some point, regardless of if they grew up with a silver spoon.
So basically I just don't think it's something she needed to mention in the book. In talking with one of my friends about this passage, he guessed that it might have been a response to how some people reacted to The Year of Magical Thinking, which I haven't read, but I don't think that the response to people calling you privileged after a tragedy is to say that you aren't privileged because horrible things happened to you. The people who aren't privileged can easily just fire back at you all the horrible things that have happened to them, and the whose life is worse contest isn't one I ever like engaging in.
Anyway, I loved the book, that was just a small but interesting hiccup I had. Gem: “We still counted health and happiness and love and luck and beautiful children as 'ordinary blessings.'”
Alas, I did not love the next book I finished, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. I had been reading it on and off for a few months because it was on my kindle app (which I never use anymore thanks to Emily Books created by Emily Gould...what nobody is obsessed) which I read at the gym, and because it kept annoying me so I had to keep leaving it behind.
Here is the thing: as a writer of personal essays myself, I'm always very excited about essay collections. Unfortunately, this often ends in disappointment because some people want to write essays but don't actually have enough to say to write a whole book of them. Thus I end up bored and wondering how this person got an MFA, got essays published in journals, got an entire book published, of their self-absorbed chatter.
The reason I'm working at IHOP (etc) instead of applying for MFAs in nonfiction is because I want to experience more of life before I go to school to get a graduate degree in writing about my life. This is different than it is for people getting MFAs in poetry or fiction because you can create at any age, but it takes more life experience to write about your life experience. All my professors told me this and I agreed with them, so I'm wondering why there aren't more professors or graduate program advisors giving their students this great advice. Everyone pretty much knows that a writing program can only teach you so much. It's hard to teach creativity, but you definitely can't teach interesting things happening to you.
Not very many interesting things happened to Leslie Jamison, nor did she talk about them in the interesting way that makes personal essays a form that I love so much. I actually believe that a talented writer can take even a humdrum experience and in the telling make it applicable to universal truths as well as make it exciting to read. Again, Jamison didn't do that. She took small pithy experiences and didn't make me have this so called empathy for her at all in the telling, because she related to how they made her feel and how they affected her life and how hard everything was for her. And nothing else. When she wrote about abortion, she didn't relate it to any greater struggle or how women are treated in society, she just talked about how it kind of sucked but not really. If that were enough, I'd have a lot of essays to read because a lot of women get abortions. But that isn't enough. Enough is to make us laugh and cry at the same time, to make us ask questions and wonder and think about the stories that comprise our lives in new ways. Instead, I just wanted it to end so I could leave the gym.
I honestly don't remember half the essays, even though I'm looking at a copy of the title page right now, but I'll surmise what I do remember: medical actor sounds like someone who wants to be a writer said, what will be an interesting side job that nobody has written about before so I can write an essay about it? The could have been interesting essay about a weird disease where people think things are growing in their bodies was tedious and made me annoyed with even the most sympathetic characters. In Defense of Saccharine was an essay defending liking sweet things, to which I say, if you like something, you'll make more of a statement by liking it unabashedly than by penning an entire essay trying to defend yourself for liking it.
But nothing, nothing could have prepared me for the last essay in the collection, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain. My female pain is that I wanted to stab myself after reading a THIRTEEN SECTION LONG essay about some mysterious sadness that some females feel and trying to get everyone to feel bad about it.
I have a lot of things to say about this.
Most of them are angry.
Perhaps I will write a separate blog entry detailing them all.
I don't want to write more than a short paragraph ranting here, so I will pare it down: a great way to make men and women who hate on women think its okay to hate on women is to talk about how weak and in pain we all are. Especially in vague, non descriptive language that leaves the reader wondering what exactly you are talking about in the first place. I'm characteristically an easily saddened person, but I don't need to go around writing long boring essays about it. Instead I try to figure out the things that make me sad and figure out how to be less sad about them so I can go on living my life. If I do write about them, I explore the specific issues rather than making up, well, a 'grand unified theory of female pain,' which, and this will be my last word on the topic, isn't even a theory because after reading the entire thing I could not gleam even the beginning of a weak hypothesis.
I'm moving on.
Gave some current fiction a chance with Astonish Me, always a scary prospect because so much fiction is bad. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead wasn't....bad. I don't know if I will bestow good on it either, though. I really liked most of the book, actually. I was engaged in the story of a former dancer who helped a very famous dancer defect from Russia. I wanted to keep reading. I was bored by her woes of being a parent as I usually am when reading books that involve parents, because the only thing going through my head is 'you did this to yourself, you did this to yourself, you did this to yourself.' I loved the protagonist's other dancer friend, who was a baller and lived a life dedicated to art instead of having children, I actually often think of this character now when trying to explain my desire for my life to people. The plot thickened, I was happy, the language was nice, the way the story jumped in time was effective.
Then the end came and I wanted to throw the book against the wall because for what seems like the millionth time in a book, it resolved itself with an improbable coupling of two characters who would never be together in real life and demeaned the value of one of the female characters with the choice. I won't go into more detail but is it really that hard to create an ending that isn't a complete cliché? Honestly it marred the whole book for me.
Thankfully, I had my new favorite, Friendship, to turn to after these disasters. I have developed a bit of a writer-crush on Emily Gould over the past few months, from some things I've read of hers online and her quippy twitter presence that reminds me of myself and Naomi enough that I think we should just all be friends. She also seems to be a nice real life human because when I made a funny joke responding to something she said on twitter, she favorited it and replied back, which was probably the most exciting thing to happen to me in July.
Friendship proved to be just as good as I anticipated it to be. It follows two best friends who have reached their late twenties with not much to show for it and are trying to navigate lives that seem to be spinning out of control. Just my jam since I am in my early twenties and my life is showing no signs of ever being in control in the first place. It's funny, well written, and so, so, relatable.
I think it was especially relatable for me because of the specific type of best friendship it describes. I think many people have a best friend, but few people have found or put in the effort to have a true life companion best friend. A friendship like that is a relationship. It takes on a life of it's own. You may shower together, fight in ways that could break anybody else up, think in the same patterns, create keg race tournaments, people will ask if you're having a party tonight when they mean at your best friends house. It helps when the people in it aren't dedicating their time to actual relationships, ha. Anyway, Emily Gould clearly gets it – I instagrammed this passage on the instagram that my best friend and I both use:
“I meant 'happened to either of us,' but we are a couple, in a way. I mean, we're life partners. All these people' – Amy gestured at the couples walking by them at the outdoor flea market, eating grilled corncobs and tacos, grinning at each other in Ray-Bans – 'are obviously going to break up once their sexual chemistry peters out. But we'll be together forever.'”
The characters are also the same type of people that my friends and I are. Trying to make it in creative professions but working other jobs, consistently trying to toe the line between being a good employee and showing the true snob colors. Believing in idealistic things but also liking nice things like new clothes -
“And there was Sam's charming Marxist thing of thinking that restaurants, new clothes, et cetera, were frivolities that only served to keep workers addicted and enslaved by the capital. Amy agreed with him about this, in theory, but she loved wearing a new outfit for the first time, ideally to a restaurant.”
Another one that resonated with me personally was this sense that even though we're all liberated and feminism and great, there is this kind of pull back to domesticity that I can see everywhere from the media to my friends. I sometimes worried that I was the only one who was experiencing discomfort with this, but of course not – Emily Gould to the rescue.
“I guess I'm talking about this weird vapidity that women seem to aspire to,” Amy said. “This kind of US Magazine editorial voice that infects people's conversations and lives. Just fetishizing...children and domesticity and making it seem like they are the goals of women's lives, the only legitimate goals women's lives can have.”
The most life changing book of the month award goes to Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, because I am a vegetarian now. I have not fully made the transition yet, AKA when the new IHOP specials included a waffle with BACON AND CHEDDAR CHEESE baked into it I had to try it, but I am in the process. It really isn't that hard, except for eating out. Anyway, this lovely work of nonfiction by one of my favorite writers who oh snap, I get to meet next week back at Redlands.
I am going to save my main reviews of the book for an entire different blog about my choice to become a vegetarian, but suffice to say the book laid out the reasons why not consuming meat is a great choice in well written and very clear prose. It covers everything from factory farms, to how the animals are mistreated – a light word, tortured would be better, to the environmental concerns, to the concerns for our bodies. Safran Foer makes a fair argument, interviewing both factory farm workers and owners of farms which only use sustainable agriculture and kinder slaughter methods.
Stay tuned for my full review once I meet him next week EEP and write the review. Yay.
Scarecrone by Melissa Broder was a lovely book of poems from the monthly Emily Books reader which I read while on my breaks at IHOP. A lovely image, I know, the poor waitress reading poetry to sustain her dying brain on her breaks. Cliche but alas it is true.
I picked up The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang at Warwick's when I was about halfway through Friendship and realized that if I didn't go buy a new book before it was over that I would be depressed when I finished. Alas the selection at Warwick's was not up to its usual standards. I found this little book, which follows a family and one of the son's fiance's through a day (the sixteenth of June, obviously) on which many events transpire, including a funeral, and, you guessed it, a Bloomsday party. Okay you probably didn't guess it unless you are James.
Anyway, I bought it because of the basis in Ulysses nerdism. For that purpose the book was good, it had enough in jokes and references to keep a Bloom fan sustained, although they were mostly surface level things that could've been figured out from looking up the book on Wikipedia. I was hoping for some episode alignment with chapters but alas. Anyway beyond that the book was...fine. I was kept entertained for the most part. It was well written in the way that people who were trained for a while in how to write well write things, without much creativity or energy. The characters circumstances were interesting enough, and even though the plot was a bit contrived it was still entertaining.
My main beef with the book was that the protagonist was mostly the worst. The book jacket said it described people who fell out of the societal standards of happiness, and while that may be true, it basically was about privileged people with privileged people's problems. Yeah the main character grew up in a 'normal suburban house,' but growing up in a normal suburban house and then going to Harvard still qualifies as privilege. She has an anxiety disorder that involves pulling out her hair – but then ditches the therapy someone else is paying for to try and doesn't make any effort to work on it. Not making an effort doesn't constitute a lack of privilege.
It was enjoyable enough, with some moments of insight. But for the most part Lang's book served to deepen my mistrust of current fiction.
On to the next month, where I've already read a big ole memoir of a big ole feminist journalist, Gail Sheehy, and and am started on the amaaaaazing And the Heart Says Whatever by my obsession Emily Gould. After that I'll be embarking on NW by Zadie Smith in a cross country book club with some fellow Johnston alums, and perhaps some theory. Other than that, only my too many books overcrowding my two bookshelves will tell.