Baller Ladies following Nontraditional Narratives and a Privileged but Nonetheless Talented White Guy - books / February

February 2015

Books Read

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Good Prose by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd

Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss

Lillian on Life by Allison Jean Lester

Books Bought

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss

Lillian on Life by Allison Jean Lester

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

There were parts of February where I got better at needing distractions than January, and parts where I was so paralyzed by the anxiety that causes me to need distractions that I couldn't even read, could only sleep. Life's like that though I guess, you do better then worse then better and then eventually something else happens. Theories from Becca.

With the exception of the journalist Tracy Kidder, talk about a month for the badass contemporary ladies! As you can see from the lists, I bought four of the books I read this month within this month, and it was all in one shopping trip at Barnes and Noble. Here's my thoughts about Barnes and Noble: do I shop at an independent bookstore if I can? Of course! But I mostly want to read contemporary literary fiction, and used bookstores rarely have that, and the only independent around here that sells new books is Warwicks, and honestly they are good but don't always have what I'm looking for. Neither does B/N, but this month they were killing it. Plus like, dude a bookstore is a bookstore at this point.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill was on a whole bunch of best of lists last year, and rightfully so. I finished the book in a day or two and already find myself wanting to reread it instead of continuing to trudge through The Magic Mountain, which I am attempting to do now. It tells the story of a couple's perhaps dissolving marriage, but it's so much more than that. It's not narrated like a traditional fiction story, it's told in vignettes that jump in time and somehow communicate so much more feeling and truth and ambiance than a normal narrative does. The book leaves you feeling like you truly know the characters without ever describing them traditionally or even saying their names. This all was super inspiring to me because I'm working with similar things in my own writing.

The main character experiences so much anxiety and communicates it in such small and intricate and yet completely telling ways -

“I was thinking about what it would be like to live somewhere so beautiful. Would it fix my brain?”

“There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.”

She also lets you in on her insecurities that she's accepted in such colloquial and interesting tidbits, that make me want someone like her as a friend:

“Nor does he keep a list of those who infuriate him on a given day. People mean well. That is what he believes. How then is he married to me? I hate often and easily.”

Also, and as always this might be the secret best part, so funny!

“My husband reads the book to her every night, including very very slowly the entire copyright page.”

Also, the constant truth:

“What Rilke said: I want to be with those who know secret things, or else alone.”

I really loved Miranda July's Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, but I was also pretty cognizant of her overt hip-ness. I'd say that The First Bad Man is like the ultimate combination of really liking talent and overt hip-ness. Like, in the meta way where it becomes hip to talk about taboo things in a strange tone.

This shouldn't detract from the fact that I think it's a great and well written book, and it was interesting and it made me anxious which usually means that the book is doing important things. Verdict's out if that's true or not for the rest of my life.

The book follows a lonely middle aged woman (first sign of anxiety, because that is one of my fears) who has probably unrequited love/fantasies for/about a coworker at semi-meaningful, semi-ridiculous job, as she takes in the daughter of her bosses who is an odd duck with some poor habits, and the strange relationship that they develop.

The book and the said relationship oscillated between being genuinely insightful and unique to 'strange for the sake of strange.' I trust that most people will know what I mean by this.

Although the narrator's solitude gave me a good deal of anxiety, of course it also had humorous truisms that I identified with. “We had a good run, me and me.”

“Suddenly it occurred to me that nothing might be happening. I'd done that before. I had added meaningful layers to things that were meaningless many, many times before.”

“Polite – the only thing worse than dull.” A true zinger to the heart.

A second zinger - “Living just meant not dying, it didn't necessarily include any bells and whistles.”

There were points where I was like el oh el Miranda July really doesn't understand the life of anyone who has a real job that they go to every day, but I let it slide because sometimes my own annoyance at artistic privilege starts to annoy me in a roundabout way and I just want to go to sleep.

Many more things happen in the book but it's definitely attempting to be surprising so I'll leave them out. It's a great read, although I think that the out there-hipness at times covered up a lack of more style and voice. But I'm excited to see what other people I know thought of the book, perhaps my opinion will change later.

Next I read – or I should say, next I finished, because I started this book a while ago, Good Prose by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd, a book about the art of nonfiction writing. Tracy Kidder is an award winning journalist with many books under his belt and Richard Todd was his editor at The Atlantic.

I'm going to get the white male elephant out in the open in the room right away – reading a book by privileged white guys about their guffawing about writing practices at a fancy New York Magazine of course at it times had its frustrations for a struggling albeit skilled female writer who has no connections or privilege. That much is obvious, but I want to expand on what specifically in this scenario got to me, because I don't like being mindlessly annoyed at privilege without analyzing what specifically about it bothers me.

Kidder talked – at length – about how shitty some, many of his early stories and manuscripts were, and how much time Todd spent giving him leeway and letting him rewrite and sometimes giving him advice and other times letting him get to the conclusions on his own, over a period of many months. One is left to wonder, was Kidder on retainer at The Atlantic this whole time? Even if he had another source of income, what I'll say is -

Must be nice.

Must be nice to have a connection to a fancy magazine and the leeway to have literally months to work with a pet story that you've decided is important enough for people to hear about, must be nice to have someone skilled advising you, must be nice to know that you don't have to work your ass off for a year just to get published on a mediocre website. Must be nice to not be sending your shit out into the void on a consistent basis, or working with the idea that it might never go anywhere, because hey, you're already in the shabby chic old school offices of The Atlantic.

What I'm getting at here isn't that Kidder didn't work hard. It's clear that he worked very hard to become a great nonfiction writer, but there's a difference between working hard at your craft while a fancy mentor is watching you as a safety net, and working hard at your craft with no one to advise you and a .1% chance that you'll ever even figure out how to submit to a fancy magazine, nonetheless be on their staff while consistently submitting mediocre drafts. But I mean, such is life.

With that out of the way, the book had a very crisp and entertaining look at nonfiction writing, and I definitely want to go back through and copy down my annotations into a creative process type notebook. It was also a good thing for me to be reading now, because I've been continually frustrated by the lack of artfulness and skill in the discussion of literature lately. Kidder doesn't ignore this because he's talking about nonfiction, rather he embraces the idea that good writing always needs to also be good art.

“With good writing the reader enjoys a doubleness of experience, succumbing to the story or the ideas while also enjoying the writer's artfulness. Indeed, one way to know that writing deserves to be called art is the coexistence of these two pleasures in the reader's mind.”

And just little sentences that help illuminate very true aspects of writing -

“What the imaginative reader wants is telling details.” Holler.

One of the consistent pleasures for me when reading the book was how many references it made to great nonfiction writers and the pearls of wisdom they have bestowed, as well as describing them in apt and clear sentences that showcase Kidder's skills. For instance, this passage about the DFW -

“Wallace was both a supple and complicated thinker, and a master of the self-effacing mode, his busy mind darting easily from slang to hermeneutics.”

When Todd is discussing Kidder in the chapter on Editing and Being Edited, he said this thing that made me think that maybe my main problem is also going to be good for me as a writer eventually: “He had a virtue useful to a writer, a virtue he never lost: an obsessive mind.”

I think about this a lot, because it's like sure I could go on medication to make my anxiety better, but I don't want to lose the things that make me a good creative thinker. Where's the line??

This book, and even just re-looking through it, has inspired me to continue my writing education via the school of self, and keep a notebook with notes on writing and creativity that I get from books. Maybe then I'll be inspired to learn other things like geography and wine and then maybe my brain will have less space for bad thoughts.

I cruised on with the nonfiction with Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land, a book of 'American Essays,' as the cover proclaims. Broadly put, the essays deal with Biss's (that's gonna be a hard word to keep looking at) encounters with American cities, American problems, and American history. Race is a consistent topic, and I always enjoy reading well written, thoughtful and incisive essays about race that don't automatically jump the gun and shout. It's not that I don't think these writings have a place, because with the current climate anger is certainly not only acceptable but important, but as a learner I also need to be reading things that will expand my thinking about the issue rather than telling me what I already know, that shit's fucked up. (again, still necessary, because not everyone knows that shit's fucked up, but ya know)

Biss's reflections on race range from the historical to the observational to the insightful: “There is no biological basis for what we call race, meaning that most human variation occurs within individual 'races' rather than between them. Race is a social fiction. But it is also, for now at least, a social fact.”

She brings in cultural commentary to illustrate her points, in ways that reflect truisms that most liberal social thinkers already know, but are nonetheless important to repeat: “But the black family, as they explain after an uncomfortable silence, already knows how to act white, of course, because that is the dominant culture within which they have to live their daily lives. Knowing how to act white is a survival skill for the black family.” [In reference to a six episode series Black. White]

Biss also speaks often of education, having taught in underprivileged schools as one of the many jobs she did in the years she was starting out as a writer. This, of course, I appreciated, because it's wonderful to remember that there are writers out there who now have books published and teach at great universities but were once oscillating between jobs, many times for years.

The book is organized for the most part by place, with New York, California, the Midwest, and some before and after type things. I did a slight eye roll at the Goodbye to All That, because does everyone have to write one? Also, can't anyone ever figure out that the original one isn't just about New York? Anyway, I should stop talking because I'll probably write one one day, and Biss's wasn't bad, it really confronted privilege and suckiness more than many other adaptations, but, schmeh.

I was stoked to find in the California section that Biss spent a good deal of time living in my San Diego! I often feel strange for how little I hear about my city, such a large place, in anything literary, so it was a nice surprise.

She moves to the Midwest for grad school and has a lot of high headed commentary on the undergrads, which I get but am also like kind of over it. People are stupid, let's get mad at the old stupid people instead of the young ones.

I find that as the book went on I was underlining a lot of the times she quoted other writers and thinkers, which is good because I learned a lot, but also made me wish that I was underlining more of Biss's own conclusions rather than those borrowed from others.

My last book, Lillian on Life by Allison Jean Lester, was another gem in my growing lexicon of mixed genre work...well it wasn't mixed genre, it was fiction. Let's go with experimentally plotted fiction. The book is formatted as a collection of casual 'essays' by a 'woman of a certain age,' Lillian, who has never married and didn't have children, on various aspects of life.

I loved the casual voice of the book, and the nontraditional structure. It's something I consistently search for in fiction that I read, but it's hard because you can't really google it, at least not with much success, and it's impossible to look for at the bookstore more than just like, browsing and hoping for the best.

That, and the nontraditional woman narrator, because alas we still don't have nearly enough representations of women who aren't in long term committed traditional relationships who don't have children. Le sigh. But Lillian on Life was also great because it didn't beat you over the head with this, or make the protagonist seem pathetic...I'm not coughing at anyone, Miranda July, but it just let it lay as a backdrop to the book while also proving how complex the character's life was.

Mostly the pleasant thing about reading the book was the consistent observations on life that rang oh so true. Won't list them all but will list a few:

“People say it shouldn't matter, that you shouldn't worry about whether or not other people see your lover the way you do, but when are things ever that simple? Have the people who say that ever lived at all?”

Or when she says that when she dies she wants six former lovers as her pallbearers. Amazing.

“People say that some things are meant to be. The question that doesn't get answered, or even asked, is what these things are meant to be. Then there are more questions. I can say I was meant to be with Ted. But then, what does with mean? Or even be? He was completely under my skin. He still is. His breath crawls beneath the first layer. His ghost is in the air under that. How much more with can you get? How much more be?” (Referring to man to whom she was a mistress, and girl, non traditional romance narratives, holler.)

It was a good month in books and mostly baller female ladies. Let's see if I finish The Magic Mountain, and let's get excited that a lady in my writing group bought me Shopgirl.