The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Happiness: Ten Years of n plus one selected by the editors of n plus one
Redeployment by Phil Klay
The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum
Redeployment by Phil Klay
The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum
It by Alexa Chung
10:04 by Ben Lerner
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
The David Foster Wallace Reader
The books I read this month prompted me to say, on more than one occasion, phrases such as: “Other than contemporary literary fiction I mostly read anthologies” “I'm really into anthologies from literary magazines,” and “A good essay collection is just so hard to find these days.” It was also the month of a lot of jovial arguments with a guy who only reads classics with me trying to defend the state of contemporary writing and why it's important for writers to be in close cultural touch with it. In other words, it was a month where I was insufferably bougie.
But really, who isn't? The finer things in life are a gift to carry us through the monotony of adulthood. And what is adult life but figuring out which things you like? And I know what I like. I like essay collections. Luckily December began with a momentous event: my reading of The Best American Essays 2014.
For those who have not spent any time in my presence: I am infinitely more excited about the release of BAE every year than I am about Christmas. Because, fuck Christmas. But also because BAE is my chance to read all the good essays in one place instead of having to search the internet for twelve hours. It's a learning experience – with the exception of 2013 (Sorry Cheryl) I always read essays about topics that I've never encountered before and come away feeling much more informed. It's an introduction to new voices to watch throughout the coming year. It's always such a joy.
BAE 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, is, I would say, a pretty average addition to the canon of Best American Essays. This means that it is of course exceptional, but within the ranks of exceptional, it wasn't the best one I've read. That will go to 2012 until someone else comes in and slam dunks it like a champion. I'd say 2014 was far better than 2013 (by virtue of not having to listen to thirteen essays about motherhood when I just wanted to LEARN) but about on par with 2011.
The first essay, A Matter of Life and Death, in which Timothy Aubry does what essayists who are great do best and talks about a topic while talking about other things and magically telling you about life. In this case, how the challenges of marriage represent the challenge of life – doing something that is the same for a very long time and not self destructing. “Marriage gives you someone to blame for just about everything. Before you get married, when you feel depressed, you think to yourself, is this it? And by it, you mean life. Is this all life has to offer? Just one day followed by another? The same dreary routine?”
Strange Beads was luminescent in its simplicity, The Final Day in Rome was stoicly heart shattering. Letter from Williamsberg by Kristin Dombek wins the year's award for writer I want to become obsessed with in 2015.
The inclusion of Dave Eggers, was, as usual, good but made me think that Dave Eggers thinks that everything he does is not just good but great, that he's some kind of prophet. And by virtue of that feeling of masculine deity emanating from everything he writes, I start to like it less and less. I did not read Leslie Jamison's contribution because I have already read the specific essay and disliked it once in this year and felt no need to put myself through that again. This month also included a heavy amount of bewilderment at her inclusion on any Best of 2014 book list, when I found her collection – something I should have liked, given that it was an essay collection by a woman, whiny, insufferable, and grasping at straws for topics to write about because she wanted to be considered a literary writer but had nothing to say. Alas, it seems the institution has granted her access. Whatever, I'll stop carping now, the old curmudgeon said.
I've started to think that no Best American collection is complete without Zadie, and as usual, she delivered in plumes. She talks about popsicles in the third paragraph! And how she looks forward to eating all day! Amazing! I think we would be great friends.
The Old Man at Burning Man by Wells Tower was so spectacular that I immediately went on the internet and started googling how to contact Wells Tower so I could charm him into being my mentor. I figured that he was famous but not famous enough to be uncontactable on the internet. Turns out this is not the case. I found no way to contact him. Why does the adult world make it so hard for me to charm people? Where is the secret button that will allow me to send letters to people I know I would get along with? Geez.
Inkeeping with one theme of the year: everything is fucked about race in America, we have Jerald Walker's searing How to Make a Slave. I've tried many times to find a net copy so I could post it on facebook, but alas one seems to not exist. I don't want to ruin it but I do want everyone to know how badly they need to get their hands on this book so they can read it, so I'll say: analogies and metaphors of elementary school education of history and growing into a person who wants to teach their children about the world they are inheriting and also being beat down by the system the whole damn time. God it's just so good.
After my lovely BAE I moved on to Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, which fulfilled normalcy because it is a book of essays by a woman that I did like, which is how the world is supposed to work. It was immensely readable and fun, if a bit 'feminism 101.' I, like everyone else, follow Gay pretty closely in the news so there were moments when I wanted a little bit more theory and analysis from her, given her background and commentating ability. Then again, the masses do need to be educated on feminism 101, so I really shouldn't complain.
Kind of like Lena Dunham's book, the introduction to Gay's book absolutely killed it and then this trend was sometimes held up with some essays and let down by others.
One of my favorite things about the book was Gay's candor: “On my more difficult days I'm not sure what's more of a pain in my ass – being black or being a woman. I'm happy to be both of these things, but the world keeps intervening.” On this note, Gay does a great job of explaining in about one sentence what privileged people all over the world need to learn: that you can acknowledge your privilege while also acknowledging your struggles. In fact I'm just going to quote that whole paragraph because the more it is out there on the internet the more people will read it, even if it's just on my lowly blog.
“We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone. Of course we resent these accusations. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive, (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It's not my fault I am a white man,” or “I'm [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges that others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”
Boom. Nailed it.
More to love about Gay: her honesty about the little things in life. Example: “I go drinking with...the guy I go drinking with.” So simple, but so amazing! How else to describe our various social dalliances?
“How to be Friends with Another Woman” was hilarious and contained gems such as:
3A. If you feel like it's hard to be friends with women, consider that maybe women aren't the problem, maybe it's just you.
5D. Everybody gossips, so if you are going to gossip about your friends, at least make it fun and interesting. As a corollary, never say “I never lie,” or “I never gossip” because you are lying.
6A. Don't be totally rude about truth telling, and consider how much truth is actually needed to get the job done. Finesse goes a long way. (Side note: This is what I want to say to certain people in my life pretty consistently)
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST, IF YOU READ NOTHING I EVER WRITE FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, READ THIS QUOTE BY ROXANE GAY, UNKNOWN ANGEL OF SERVERS EVERYWHERE:
11. If four people are dining, split the check evenly four ways. We are adults now. We don't need to add up what each person had anymore. If you're high rolling, just treat everyone and rotate who treats. If you're still in the broke stage, do what you have to do.
[Further side note: I have literally one million stories I could tell about this, but I'll go with this one. Three women with babies were eating at a large table. Ordered pancake, a scramble, some kids juices, etc. Gave me three cards. Three ways? I asked. They looked at me like I was the idiot, even though they had not written anything on their ticket. No, by what we got. They said. I'm going to need you to label the bill for me then...since I don't know what your names are. I told them. Their individual bills added up to something like 13 dollars, 17 dollars, and 14 dollars. If you are responsible enough to have a CHILD, you split the bill three ways and throw each other a couple of bucks. It. Isn't. That. Hard.]
Sry for the rant. But come on.
One of Gay's strongest moments was this commentary on 'likeability' that brings her up with Franzen. As you should all know by now, the concept of liking is my enemy.
“In many ways, likeability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don't follow this code become unlikeable. Critics who criticize a character's unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.”
I'm so over social acceptability.
“Perhaps, then, unlikeable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don't dare be so alive.”
Other topics on which Gay and I agree: that trigger warnings are, overall, a bad idea. A fierce love of the blend of high and low culture.
One time when I do not exactly agree with her: when talking about women's fiction (I do agree with her that it's a stupid designation and it's just fiction) she talks about how Jonathan Franzen's novels about suburbia are about society and Meg Wolitzer's novels about suburbia are about women.
Well. Jonathan Franzen is a better writer than Meg Wolitzer. Not because he is a man. Because his books are masterpieces. I couldn't get through The Ten Year Nap by Wolitzer (probably one of the books Gay was referencing) because so many pages were dedicated to moaning about children.
Freedom tore my mind apart because it talked about how environmental destruction and overpopulation have become structurally embedded in our society in ways that we don't even see. Because it made me question how I relate to people and society and even my friends. Women can talk about these things too, they are not 'manly topics.' I'm 23, childless, and will probably stay that way throughout my whole life. I don't think that it's fair to ask me to care about how dull parenthood can be when I'm consciously making the choice that it's not a lifestyle I desire.
And, as I said, Jonathan Franzen is a better writer than Meg Wolitzer. But Zadie Smith is on par with or better than Jonathan Franzen. If we're going to compare female and male writers, we need to pick people who are in the same league so that the arguments can't be torn down by simple facts about ability.
I think it's important to be able to agree with and find fault with an argument. I agree with Gay that Tosh making rape jokes isn't funny. I would agree with the statement that rape jokes usually aren't funny. I guess I would say that men making rape jokes at the expense of women is never funny. But, I don't agree with Gay's blanket dismissal of any and all humor regarding rape.
Dangerous what I just said, I know, but hear me out.
Some people go to therapy. Some people don't. Some people talk to their friends. Some people write and make art. I do all these things to try and find my way through the complexities of being a sexual woman, and the challenges of life in general. But I also, as many people do, use humor to deal with the shit.
Nobody would ever tell you can't go to therapy. But for some people, humor is therapy. It costs less and it's more fun. And if a woman needs to use humor to deal with being raped, I'm not going to question it. I'm going to say you do you girl, because some things are so awful that we don't know what to do but make something out of them. Nobody should deny somebody else the right to get through the shit the only way they know how.
As I said, men making rape jokes at the expense of women is not funny. But to blanket statement all rape jokes doesn't take into account female comedians and social critique.
I'm going to save a lot of time in the future because when people ask me about why Fifty Shades of Grey is the worst I can just refer them to Gay's essay about it instead of explaining, and instead I can move on to the hilarious story of Victoria and I drunkenly burning it.
Some people are fan girls of musicians. I am a fan girl of n plus one. I am not at all embarrassed by this, I just wish I knew where the other fan girls of n plus one were so I could befriend them.
Almost every essay in Happiness, the n plus one anthology, floored me in the same way that Freedom did. I kept wanting to send them to everyone anywhere so I'd have someone to talk to.
In the grand tradition (also Freedom) of writings that lay out a perfectly doable plan for a world I'd want to live in and then depress me because I know that the majority of Americans (and all Republicans) are too stupid to let them happen, we have “Gut Level Legislation, or Redistribution” by Mark Grief, which gives a great argument for how a lot of our problems would be solved with an income cap. He goes into it pretty complexly, but I can sum it up with: does anyone really need five cars?
Chad Harbach brings us An Interruption, about the climate, my new favorite read least favorite I am crying every day topic.
If you don't want to read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, which is life ruining but necessary, you can pretty much grasp the shit storm by reading this paragraph from Harbach's essay:
“Now we know what we've done. Or we should. The fuel-burning binge (and the beef eating binge and the forest clearing binge) we've been on for the past hundred and fifty years, and especially the last sixty, and increasingly and accelerantly, has brought into view the most dangerous threat in the brief history of our civilization. It's become possible to glimpse the disappearance of so many things, not just glaciers and species but ideas and institutions too. Things may never be so easy or orderly again. Our way of life that used to seem so durable takes on a sad, valedictory aspect, the way life does for any nineteenth century protagonist on his way to a duel that began as a petty misunderstanding. The sunrise looks like fire, the flowers bloom, the morning air dances against his cheeks. It's so incongruous, so unfair! He's healthy, he's young, he's alive – but he's passing from the world. And so are we, healthy and alive – but our world is passing from us.”
Emily Witt talking about porn stars and coupling just made me want to talk about the weirdness of society all day every day. Wesley Yang intermixing young male shooters and ugliness and desire was again, mind bending. Keith Gessen telling us about money and writing of course killed it, not least of all because of the line of the month:
“I don't know any writers who wait tables but probably some exist.”
It's like a little hello from the future.
And then we got a gem from my new favorite from BAE, Kristin Dombek! About youth and sex and cities and drugs and hangovers all the good things. And then the book ended and I was sad.
And then I went Christmas shopping for myself because I couldn't go home and I bought all the books. It was amazing. I have never been happier. False. I was happier when I was surrounded by my friends. But now that I am pretty much always alone books are my friends so it was almost the same.
My first read of the loot was Redeployment by Phil Klay. I was very curious because it beat out my favorite book of the year, Station Eleven, for the National Book Award. I somehow left the book still liking Station Eleven more but totally agreeing with the National Book Award committee for giving it to Redeployment.
Saying that I personally liked Station Eleven More was not at all a commentary on Redeployment, because Redeployment was incredible. I don't usually like short stories or war stories but I loved these war stories so much it hurt. Everything about them was great, but I just need to say before I go and do some gems: the voice! The voice! The voice!
I love the moment when it's recognized that a certain way of speaking and acting that has been attributed to a generation being lazy and or dumb is finally recognized as great art when it's done well, and that's what this book getting the National Book Award accomplished.
See: “It was zero dark and cold, and half of us were rocking the first hangover we'd had in months, which at that point was a kind of shitty that felt pretty fucking good.”
It immediately made me feel like an asshole for ever being rude about soldiers – not about the military, because the book is critical of the military in its own way, but about assuming things about people who have served in the armed forces. But nobody has ever described with such clarity the struggles of returning. That is probably Klay's greatest magic.
“Here's what orange is. You don't see or hear like you used to. Your brain chemistry changes. You take in every piece of the environment, everything. I could spot a dime in the street twenty yards away. I had antennae out that stretched down the block. It's hard to even remember exactly what it felt like. I think you take in too much information to store so you just forget, free up brain space to take in everything about the next moment that might keep you alive. And then you forget that moment too, and focus on the next. And the next. And the next. For seven months.
So that's orange. And then you go shopping in Wilmington, unarmed, and you think you can get back down to white? It'll be a long fucking time before you get down to white.”
Word I wrote down at the end of that story: searing.
At times, probably all of the times, Klay was playing off what I just said about judging the military. He clearly knows the general liberal social critique and turns it on its head by having his characters show that they know what you're thinking and they know that you're wrong.
Another note: “best weird intimacy times.” I was really on it with the annotations for this guy. But what I meant by that was I loved how Klay gave his characters similar anxieties about intimacy to mine, which really goes to show that we're all freaks about how to get close to other people.
Many of the stories also touched on how much bullshit is present in the parts of the military that Klay experienced. Instead of judging the military (more) off of this, though, I saw it more as a reflection of pretty much any business / job / facet of American life. It seems so serious on the outside but so much is for show, so much really is bullshit. People who don't know what they're doing, people who think they're important because they've been told they're important but really do nothing.
We knew I was going to like Meghan Daum's new book of essays, The Unspeakable, when in the introduction (what is it this year with ladies and baller introductions) she said: “When I teach writing students, I often tell them that nobody will love their work if some people don't also hate it.” because that is pretty much my M.O in writing and in life.
I was not the biggest fan of Daum's first book of essays, My Misspent Youth, not least because it has a sarcastically disparaging reference to a member of my family. (true story.) I though it was a little too fake Joan Didion, a little too grasping at straws for topics. But it seems that now in middle age Daum's wisdom has overcome all that and let her be a great cultural and societal critic.
The Best Possible Experience recounts her many years of dating, some ridiculous individuals included, and the ways in which it perfectly led up to meeting her now husband, by societal standards late in their lives. But it was also about many other things, like this quote:
“I spent most of it with absolutely no eye toward making a permanent commitment. What I was in it for, what I was about, was the field work aspect.” Amazing! I wrote in the margins. Especially because, even before reading that, I was already working on an essay about dating that I'm calling 'Field Notes.'
In this essay she also greatly deploys the word fascinating as a way to describe the type of people she wanted to be around and I will say that I wholeheartedly agree. Most people are not fascinating enough, and on the same vein she goes on to talk about how she (and I and all the fascinating people) are different from normal people who want normal things.
Moving on: “On the subject of growing up, or feeling that you have succeeded in doing so, I'm pretty sure the consensus is that it's an illusion.” These essays are all about so many things that I'm going to stop trying to summarize and just say the nice things and tell you to read the book. Daum talks about how you shouldn't listen to songs from periods of your life for a variety of reasons, the best of which being this quote: “They will be unbearable not because they will sound dated and trite but because they will sound like the lining of your soul.”
Yeah. Yeah. Nights that I've tried to go to bed to playlists I made senior year and woke up from almost sleep to slam the pause button on the phone because for a second I felt it again and it hurt to much to listen to for even one more second. And then I stopped, because I got afraid that if I keep listening to those songs they won't sound like Redlands to me anymore, but lonely adulthood.
This is not a Meghan Daum quote, but it is Meghan Daum quoting Audre Lorde in the most genius thing a human has ever said: “The true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women.”
More true words: “It's hard enough to get adults to commit to a social activity until they're sure they're not getting a better offer elsewhere.”
You know, there was so much more greatness in Daum's book, but I can't do it anymore. I have been anxious all day and writing an eight page book review has not helped, and neither have napping and doing laundry and any other activity I have attempted to engage with. I'm sure that going to work at 5 pm will help, wait for it, not at all, but at least it is something I have to do. If anyone has ideas for how to interact with humans without getting as panicky as I am right now please do let me know.