I Will Only Stay Friends with People Who Read The Argonauts

As I read The Argonauts, I thought again and again how influential it would have been for me to read this book when I was in college. Not that it wasn't influential now, but it summarized and went so far beyond everything I've learned and thought in the past six years that I couldn't help but wonder how incredible it would have been to view Johnston and society through the lens Maggie Nelson so intricately crafts.

When I reopened it to begin my notetaking for this review, I just wanted to start reading again – the book is so rich in thought, in intimacy, in creativity, pure beauty of words, that I continually want to tattoo it's most poignant sentences into my brain so I can utilize them as frameworks through which to view the world every hour of the day.

The Argonauts is a polemic on queer family making in the twisted society we live in, a reflection on how individuals fuse to make a life, a conversation with all the best theorists that have ever lived on the most pertinent questions of conformity, society and identity today. It quarrels with the questions and contradictions that ostensibly make up a partnership – the one at the core is what words can express, and what remains inexpressible, but there are hundreds more – how to pick what parts of this society are salvageable, and what must be destroyed, what can be lived with and what must be burned. Nelson interrogates what it means to live in and abide by the social construct, and blows it up in ways that even the most revolutionary minded of us may not have imagined. Paradox is at the heart of this incredible book, and how to live with the multitude of paradoxes that life presents. Nelson interrogates language itself, in relation to gender, thought, and pretty much anything you can imagine. To me, The Argonauts was about everything – everything that goes into making a thoughtful and artistic life within the galaxy of other people. 

Nelson's writing contains such crystalline, accurate turns of phrase such as 'feral with vulnerability,' 'in heart or in art,' as well as longer analyzations of the feelings that I know I and probably many people I interact with have inhabited at one time or another but never been able to put so eloquently into words: “In the face of such phallocentric gravitas I find myself drifting into a delinquent, anti-interpretive mood.”' “busting the avant garde's mythos of itself was, even then, my idea of a good time.”

At the heart of The Argonauts (other than paradox) is Nelson's partnership with artist Harry Dodge, who is genderfluid, and their journey into the beautiful terrain of queer familymaking, choosing which parts of the traditional family model to salvage while throwing others forcefully out the window. The book also goes deep into describing Dodge's revolutionary work, and the ability to see his artistic process alongside Nelson's writing process is an incredible gift. This loving portrait and Nelson's singular writing style meld to create the belief that life is a conversation, with theorists, with lovers, with friends, with family, with ideas and art and our surroundings.

Reading The Argonauts forces you to think in a way that questions everything that gives itself a name and rules, everything that abides by a definition – how structures are built and maintained, how language both controls and frees our abilities to move as individuals in relationships and in society. Nelson purports that we must be willing to hold all aspects of our lives and our culture up for critical examination. Just when you think you know what is coming next, Nelson flips the map and creates a new key – she interrogates the use of heteronormative as a buzzword, she attempts to vilify marriage as an institution by breaking it from the traditional set while acknowledging that the desire to get married is by virtue putting faith in it's system. She questions pretty much everything that self congratulatory radical people repeat on the internet, and our brains are richer for it.

Nelson's words blend seamlessly with the all star theorists she peppers throughout her pages, cementing her in my personal A team of contemporary and classical thinkers. She breathes interdisciplinarity onto the page, and gives an intimate, hard won portrait of a union of artists, which feels like a treasure to be let in on. This is a book for people who love thoughts and theory, words and how they can or, in some instances, cannot communicate the essential truths one finds in life. It is a book for people who care deeply about making art and making a family, whatever type of family that is. It should be required reading for all humans, but for now I'll settle for all the thinking humans that I know would love it as much as I did.  

Book Review: Paulina and Fran

I was hesitant to read this book, because the author, Rachel B. Glaser, is intimidatingly young. I don't know how intimidatingly young – not for lack of trying, the internet just wouldn't reveal her exact age to me, but young enough to freak me out since she already has a story in New American Stories as well as a collection and this novel.

However, Paulina and Fran is about one of my consummate favorite topics, female friendship, and the author lives in Northampton, where my best friend lives, so I decided to buy it for my best friend for Christmas and then if I got stressed out while reading it I could remember that I had to do it for gift giving.

I'm glad that I decided to get over my insecurities and read it, because despite (or more likely because of,) the author's young age, the book took place in such a familiar setting (weird person college) that it was comforting, funny, and relatable despite some moments of questionable metaphor and some forays into outlandish plot land.

The book begins in the titular characters junior year of college, but we meet Paulina and Fran and their social galaxy separately before their friendship begins. Paulina is an intense storm of hair and personality, hungry for social status and callous about the worth of her fellow students. Fran is a quiet artist, amiable to her friends and surroundings to the point of becoming too comfortable and trusting. They are set up to be enemies, as Paulina is in an ongoing feud with Fran's best friend, who Paulina calls 'the venus flytrap,' but on a study abroad trip to Norway they gravitate to each other after Paulina decides that the rest of the students are imbeciles.

Of course, I immediately identified with that impulse, because that's how I attached myself to most of my friends. These comparisons to my life in college were frequent throughout the novel, and I'm sure I wouldn't be unique in that – anyone who went to a small liberal arts college with weird hookups and heavy drinkers can appreciate the odd home feel of the novel.

The emotions and sentiments that the characters express characterize not only college but also the dramatic and perilous feelings of coming into your personality while young -

“Paulina studied herself in the mirror, admiring her hair, which hung in elegant auburn curls, but faulting the dress for failing to express her mood."

Descriptions like this one accurately depict this (this being, a few years ago) particular moment of youth – when one is always on display, hungry for every social interaction, trying to expertly mix a cocktail of social life and art.

It's still rare to find a book that takes the social lives of women seriously, that depicts their concerns as real without devolving into self deprecating, male influenced commentary. This book was superb on that front – the thoughts expressed regarding friendship were accurate and biting without apology.

But at the same time, the writer weaves in acknowledgment that this moment of life is a passing phase, and I remembered so accurately that feeling where you're feeling such intense emotions but also totally aware that you are a little bit ridiculous:

“A tidal wave of nostalgia knocked everyone over before anything even happened.”

The occasional ridiculousness of the characters, their words, their emotions, their actions, worked for the majority of the novel – but there were times when they became too absurd or maudlin to be believable, even within the universe of a hipster liberal arts college. 

Glaser clearly has the blend we all dream of – an equally artistic and intellectual mind, as evidenced in her descriptions of her characters and their conversations and settings -

“Her nose wasn't simple”

“In a tragic use of alphabetical order...”

The book feels more alive in the descriptions of the characters and their age and setting than it does in it's supposed topic, the friendship of Paulina and Fran. The universe it creates is beguiling and interesting, but the friendship is less so. Paulina and Fran drift in and out of each other's orbits in the months and years after the Norway trip, extending into adulthood across New York City and the Midwest, which is not implausible (though other elements of the tail end of the novel certainly are.) They both retain a mild obsession with each other, but there isn't enough grounding as to why. Perhaps that is only a critique someone whose female friendships take place on the backdrop of Victorian dramas would level, but regardless – the ways the women interact are not the most fascinating aspect of the book.

More fascinating, for me, was the novel as a portrait of a subset of culture, a study on the habits of youth. The descriptions of the ways the characters interacted with the world while in college rang true, time after time -

“Once Paulina endorsed something, she raised it too high in her regard.”

“This party sucks,” Fran said, “everyone is jut making up theories.”

“It's hard to be your age – there's maybe too much freedom, or too much pressure”

“Everywhere Fran went, she inhabited like her bedroom. Her joy, her moping – none of it was hidden.”
“At school she'd seen herself as special, but in the weeks since graduation the world had slowed and now it was clear that everyone was as insignificant as the scrappy backyards one passes on trains.”

But after their graduation, things take a turn for the absurd. Having lived in all the worlds the novel inhabits – college, post college in random cities, post college in New York City, the college aspects rang so much truer than the life in random cities or in New York. Again and again, events took place that were too silly to even take as artistic license.

I'll have to wait till my mom reads this one to hear if it's a worthwhile read for people who didn't go to college in the past 3-6 years. I hope it's artful descriptions withstand it's unrealistic moments for people who weren't experiencing the moment it so accurately portrays.

 

Book Review: Global Weirdness, Climate Central

Alas, it is the time of year again where I must read a depressing environment book to remind myself of the true state of the earth. Not that I needed much in the way of reminders this year, because it has been 60 degrees for about half of the past month in New York City and apparently it snowed in parts of Southern California today. But I digress.

In my continual effort to become an autodidact of climate change, I bought “Global Weirdness / Climate Central,” a compendium of short entries on the various components of the climate that interact to make up the current state of the world. Since I am no science human, I need to spend a significant chunk of time reading climate books for laypeople to inundate my brain with the basic information so later I can go and read more science heavy books. This is also what I do with economics by listening to Marketplace every day and hoping that eventually the words and concepts seep into my brain via osmosis.

The modus operandi of Global Weirdness was “to lay out the current state of knowledge about climate change,” which it does in sixty digestible 3-5 page polemics, based on reports from scientists and journalists at Climate Central. Even reading each chapter heading would give you a small climate change primer – but the entries are generally so coherently explained that even those of us whose brains are least acclimated to science words (aka, myself) can easily grasp the concepts. It delves into deeper science when necessary, but I never felt like I was lost in the jargon or that I was missing out by not having significant prior knowledge.

As the writers explained many different manifestations of climate change – melting ice in the arctic, the proliferation of clouds, changes in vegetation, ocean acidification, they connected the specific effects of these disparate elements to the larger trends that will dictate the future changes to the planet.

One theme that emerges is that humans, plants, animals, and certainly the earth itself, could theoretically survive many permutations of the climate, but we have acclimated very particularly to the way we live now – what with building giant infrastructures and reproducing millions of spawn every year. In other words, we were at the optimal circumstances, we adapted to them, and it's not that it's impossible to change, but what with the billions of humans and the structures they inhabit it'll be quite a difficult task, and will probably involve a not-desirable amount of death and destruction. As the book puts it -

“It's one thing for a small band of people to pack up camp and move a couple hundred miles to a better location if the climate changes. It's a very different thing to try and move a city like Cairo or New York or Shanghai because the sea level is rising. It' svery different to relocate the farms of the Midwestern United States up to Canada – along with the highways and railroads and power lines that serve them – because it's become to hot and dry to grow grain.”

The book utilizes well thought out and, thankfully, simple metaphors to help us through the basics of what is happening to the earth - in one of the most often repeated examples, they describe the amount of excess CO2 in the atmosphere like a bathtub with a slow drain - in the past 200 years we've really let the faucet go to town in dumping out CO2 into the atmosphere, but the drain isn't getting any larger. So the natural processes that we've always relied on to keep the earth at a livable equilibrium can't keep up with the water (CO2) gushing out into the atmosphere (the bathtub.) If I feel comfortable paraphrasing a scientific analogy, I think it's safe to say that the authors did their job. 

The team of writers behind Global Weirdness manage to avoid the doomsday speak that is pervasive in much of the literature and print about climate change, despite the fact that most of the information they communicate is relatively doom-ish. This is a powerful choice, because it doesn't let the reader negate the information for being over apocalyptic, but still communicates the dire circumstances in ways that are difficult to deny. (Although deny them idiots will, as evidenced by how few people seem to believe that the world will be drastically altered within our lifetimes.)

The book serves as a useful primer on pretty much any topic within the realm of climate change that one could delve into, and because of that it doesn't dive particularly deep into any one area. That worked for me, because it gave enough information to help me choose which topics to do more research on, and the necessary information to not be lost in a more in depth work. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who gives a shit about the environment but doesn't know where to start with how to turn giving a shit into actual action and knowledge. 

Finding craft when you're not looking, books of May 2 of 2

Ah, part two is upon us. I began writing this literally four minutes after finishing part one, aka I'm really just separating the giant blocks of text. As I said, for the future I will just post about my reading life more frequently to avoid challenges like trying to remember and discuss nine books in one blog post.

I've been embarking on a long term project of reading books about writing and craft, taking notes and acting as though I'm still in school for creative writing, which obviously, I wish I was. I take notes in a special notebook and then later I will look at them and pick out the best pearls of wisdom. This month I read On Writing by Stephen King. Let's take this moment to note that I am not as pretentious as I may seem, because I have a great deal of respect for Stephen King as a writer even though I personally do not usually choose to read genre fiction. I really have respect for the kings (or queens, you know, ungendered royalty) of any genre, especially ones who show as much dedication as King.

I wrote 'shut up' on the first page of the book, not because he said something I disagree with, but more like a 'that's so awesome' version of shut up, because listen to this: Stephen King is/was in a band with Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, and Barbara Kingsolver! What! As I said, shut up! Amazing!

I don't think it's entirely necessary for me to transfer every note I took in my writing notebook into this blog post, rather I'll pick the choiciest pieces of advice and my general feelings about the book as a writing craft guide: less obnoxious than Francine Prose, more useful than Anne Lamott, not as nitty gritty as Tracy Kidder. But also, Stephen King had to struggle a lot and didn't have a fancy time at The Atlantic, so points for him.

This is less a piece of writing advice than just a fact that a lot of people should have pounded into their heads, but: “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

This one recalls Cheryl Strayed's now famous 'write like a motherfucker': “You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

“Writing is refined thinking,” reminds me of why I write in general. I enjoy thinking, the paths it takes, the narration my brain places on the world. Writing is a way to enforce these meanderings, and every day I think that I need to do it more, to get down all the thoughts.

This one made me laugh while thinking about all the times that I disclaim my rudeness: “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

Speaking of rude, I've been known to say lately: “I''m so over plot.” I say this because after the cocktail of studying theory and reading a good amount of fiction, a heavy handed novel is so easy to spot and so unpleasant to read. Guess who agrees? Stephen King!

“You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer, anyway – is nowhere. I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible.”

Also, Stephen King is funny. I wrote lol (one of my favored annotations) at least twelve times in the margins.

Although not a book about writing craft specifically, The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits is in a similar vein because it follows the thought maps of an artist, which is another great form of reading creativity. The Folded Clock is a (non-linear) collection of diary entries that Julavits wrote over a period of two years, shortly after she had a presumed to be life threatening stint with pelvic floor syndrome. She doesn't recount this in the book, rather she discussed it on my very favorite podcast Lit Up, with Emily Gould and Angela Ledgerwood. Anyway, each entry follows a thought that develops into a greater observation of the world, an idea of Julavits past and present as an artist, characterizations of her marriage and awesome life, and, you know, lots of other things.

Let's just quickly note here that I don't hate marriage and children categorically, I love hearing about married people with children who still live interesting awesome lives, just as I love hearing about anyone who has an interesting life. And boy does Heidi Julavits have an interesting life, possibly one of my dream lives minus the children. Except when she takes her kids to the cemetery to visit the graves of dead authors, I was like that is exactly the type of parenting I'd do.

What this book is, at the core, is some collected observations of the world from a unique thinker, so I will quote some of my favorite of those observations:

“Still, the tradition with landmark birthdays is to give a gift that presumes the receiver needs reminding that they are beloved and alive.” I never thought of birthdays that way before, but I love it!

“Fame basically prohibits casual conversation. What's your opening gambit with George Clooney? It's all so fucking awkward.”

“As he must do in these situations – What else is there to do save divorce me? I really did pick a fight with him the other day about military time – he approached me calmly.”

“No one was around to publicly shame me, but I am perfectly able to shame myself.”

Her descriptions are just too good: on describing some artists who threw a super bowl party: “These were sporty-spirited bohemians.”

Julavits intertwines her experience as a woman with many of her entries, most poignantly as a female artist married to male artist: “I am highly sensitive to the insensitivity of people who treat my husband and a writer in my presence while failing to treat me as one, even if they do consider him to be the better/more valuable/deserving of eternal renown. I never do this to other writer couples, no matter if I think one is superior to the other.”

Humility in anyone is comforting, and in Julavits case, hilarious, as in this quote from when her and her husband were for some reason at a summit with political theorists: “Here is a good example of why we are worried. Last night my husband and I, in bed, googled WW1 why did it happen.”

Just to show that I am not averse to relationships in general, just averse to the traditional narratives, I'll share this line that encapsulates the type of relationship I would like to have with a life partner: “Our inability to understand makes her a regular character in our couple narratives, the ones we tell about the weirdness we've weathered together.” Weathering weirdness! Isn't that the dream? Or when she describes her husband as a “unique thinker.” That is maybe the dream trait in other humans, not just in relationships, but in friendship, coworkership, roommateship, any type of ongoing contact.

As always, it's refreshing to read about the daily lives of people who have aspects of the life that you one day desire, because it's a reminder that they are just normal people who have managed to find their way through the hedge maze of absurdity that is trying to live as an artist. Such as the fact that Julavits frequently discusses how often she loses things – this is such a small thing, but it truly is refreshing. I have, no joke, had the thought: how can anyone who is as forgetful as me make a real life work? But people do it all the time, successful people aren't perfect. Also, I will (at this age) never get tired of hearing about how artists struggled in their youth. Especially if they spent time waiting tables, which Julavits did, holler.

“I thought instead: I must remember to do this when I am seventy. I must remember to find a rock that feels exactly like my son's four year old back. I must remember to close my eyes and imagine that I am me again, a tired mother trying to teach herself how to miss what is not gone.”

Who are we once we pass ourselves? Is the question I wrote in the margin. I don't feel particularly apt to speak to this passage or this question since I am 24 and not yet arrived at a life that I will consider to be my life life, although some aspects of it have already arrived: my friends, my love of reading, and my artistic self is at least developing toward where I want it to be. But though I can't imagine much about the future, I am thinking very abstractly about the passage of time and the most vital way to live a life. I think that the dream is probably to always be conjuring aspects of a life that you are happy to inhabit, so it never truly passes (until you die, that is) but what do I know? Literally, nothing.

On a less existential note, since I love games, I was stoked to see Julavits describe what I will make into a great party game:

“We mused for a while on the topic of “Were They Funny?” Shakespeare, was he funny in person? Was Rilke? All of these dead people, were they funny or not? You couldn't tell by their work what it would have been like to hang out with them in person.”

Sometimes I read things that I think may help me understand people, but they also make me morose at the things that life can do to a person. Julavits is referencing a writer she meets whose wife has recently died - “I'd heard that he'd been bereft since his wife had died. That it was a 'matter of time' before he joined her. I told him that we'd put flowers on his wife's grave, but didn't tell him that he had not yet qualified. Sometimes, I figured, people don't need reminding that they are still alive.”

Le cry.

With that note (what note? The thing that is tragic to no one but me, because of how it in my head relates to something it might not actually relate to at all? Whatever) I move on to Changing My Mind, by Zadie Smith, a collection of her essays from various publications on various topics over a some year period. Zadie is up there with literary god status in my book, as well as goddess of aesthetic perfection. Like how can a person have such perfect bone structure? Anyway...

Zadie is one of those rare writers who is clearly as much of an academic theory genius as she is an excellent literary stylist. AKA, sometimes she casually references things that I have no knowledge of and I'm like there is so far to go in learning that I will perish. But one must go on and just try to keep learning and understanding more, instead of perishing.

It's always a joy to find things in books that you're reading from random years (Changing My Mind was published in 2009, but the essays themselves were first published in a variety of years, obviously preceding 2009) that speak directly to the current cultural climate. Of course, this usually means that the ideas were always discussed and important but the dunce caps of the majority are only catching on now, but it's nonetheless a great way to intersect reading and life. The first essay in the book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What does Soulful Mean?” speaks directly to the broad cultural questions currently circulating about diversity, authorship, and identification, as well as what it means to promote diversity in literature without stealing voice. This quote shows Smith's nuanced reaction to reading Their Eyes Were Watching God as a teenager.

“And though it is, to me, a mistake to say, 'Unless you are a black woman, you will never fully comprehend this novel,' it is also disingenuous to claim that many black women do not respond to this book in a particularly powerful manner that would seem 'extraliterary.'”

Smith speaks here to finding a bridge between exclusionary language (“you will never understand my experience”) and the importance of featuring diverse voices in literature. Diversity in literature benefits everyone, both the people who are reading a published voice that gives levity to their unique experiences and those who will learn from understanding the difference of the looking at the world through subjugated eyes.

I want to find more writers who publish literary criticism that is truly academic in nature, but it's pretty hard to come by. The downside of studying theory in college is that my threshold is pretty high, i.e., I'm easy to eye roll at the mediocre. But at the same time, I don't have the time to dedicate to straight theory that I did in college. (Even then, it was a struggle, and in one memorable case, tear inducing.)

In “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov”, Smith encounters one of my budding literary interests, structure, as well as the good old 'role of the author' debate. It begins with this:

“The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It's a fortunate reader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime.”

That's another dream, isn't it? To know your most favored literature so well that you can live inside it. Okay now I'm getting caught up in rereading this essay because it's so good. Anyway, she goes on to describe the exchange of power between the author and the reader, and the myriad of ways that people react to the idea that a reader and culture can take ownership of a novel away from an author. I found myself in between the categories she describes her students being split into: some who accept the idea of the 'death of the author' so easily that they have may have always read that way inherently, and some who take it as a 'perverse assault on the privileges of authorship.' I see it as an exchange, as a gift, as a conversation with the author who has sacrificed so much.

The next essay, about Kafka (speaking of rereading, I already want to reread all of these essays. Help me give me more like this!) contains this amazing little tongue in cheek gem: “The truth was that he wasted time! The writer's equivalent of the dater's revelation: He's just not that into you.”

Even though this was not one of my writing craft books, I still got a snippet of it in “That Crafty Feeling”, a lecture Smith gave to Columbia on craft. Has she written an actual book about writing craft? (This is where I take a break to look, and change my laundry.) Laundry is changed, and there is no book by Zadie Smith on writing. The essay was great though, and I highly recommend it to other writers. Just a few choice gems:

“I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage.”

“When building a novel you will use a lot of scaffolding. Some of this is necessary to hold the thing up, but most isn't. The majority of it is only there to make you feel secure, and in fact the building will stand without it.”

In “Speaking in Tongues,” which begins with a discussion of how Smith changed the affectation of her voice to be taken seriously and goes on to explore many facets of racial presentation and Barack Obama, she continually works towards new perspectives in the discussion of race: “In my conscious life, though, I cannot honestly say I feel proud to be white and ashamed to be black or proud to be black and ashamed to be white. I find it impossible to experience either pride or shame over accidents of genetics in which I had no active part. I understand how those words got into the racial discourse, but I can't sign up to them. I'm not proud to be female either. I am not even proud to be human – I only love to be so. As I love to be female and I love to be black, and I love that I had a white father.”

There's really something for every passion in this book of essays, Smith moves to women, celebrity, film and media presentation in “Hepburn and Garbo.” The essay begins with this relatable sentence: “And [Katharine Hepburn] appeared in a large proportion of the other movies I can stand to watch without throwing something at the screen or falling asleep. The sheer scarcity, in cinema, of women who in any way resemble those unusual creatures we meet every day (our mothers, sisters, wives, lovers, daughters) has only intensified in the twenty years since Katharine Hepburn ceased making movies, and this has served to make her legacy more precious as time has passed.” and goes on to describe how the extremely unique individuals of the title were warped by the continual commentary and gaze of the media and public.

The book ends with everyone's (okay, my and a few other select people that I've met) favorite thing, a great writer writing a sad time about David Foster Wallace. Are they going to anthologize these anytime soon? This one and Johnny Franzen's could make a novella on their own, and I'm sure there's more out there. Mary Karr? How about you?

Smith's essay, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace” was actually begun before he died, as a critical essay, so it deals heavily in analysis of Wallace's work. As the title suggests, the essay's primary theme is of the gifts of literature, but not at all in a 'ah here's the cornucopia of lessons from literature' way, a better way to describe it would be theories on what giving means in the realm of writing and literature.

“We have to recognize that a difficult gift like Brief Interviews merits the equally difficult gift of our close attention and effort. For this reason, the newspaper review was never going to be an easy fit for Wallace. He can't be read and understood and enjoyed at that speed any more than I can get the hang of the Goldberg Variations over a weekend. His reader needs to think of herself as a musician, spreading the sheet music – the gift of the work – over the music stand, electing to play. First there is practice, then competency at the instrument, then spending time with the sheet music, then playing it over and over. Of course, the arguments that might be employed w/r/t reading in this way are deeply unreasonable, entirely experiential, and impossible to objectively defend. In the end, all that can be said is that the difficult gift is its own defense, the deep rewarding pleasure of which is something you can only know by undergoing it.”

You can't read a critical study of Wallace (or, of course, the words of Wallace himself) without encountering the questions of boredom. But I find as I return to both Wallace's writing and writing about him over the years, that this question of boredom only becomes more and more relevant. Not on a particularly linear path, like oh I grow more and more bored as the years go by, rather that it keeps bringing new questions of how both I and the people I regularly interact with relate with the world. The habituation of boredom, the acceptance of the dull and mediocre as an alternative to intellectual stimulation, these are the things I see happening so often and try so hard to fight against. For me, realizing how easy it is to grow bored if I live the way that society dictates, with the jobs and the television and the lame conversations and the lack of thinking.

“Wallace wanted to interrogate boredom as a deathly postmodern attitude, an attempt to bypass experience on the part of a people who have become habituated to a mediated reality.”

Smith discusses how the widespread perception of Wallace's work is so far, presumably vis-à-vis the difficult gifts, from the pulse that beats beneath it. “The popular view of Wallace was of a cooly cerebral writer who feared fiction's emotional connection. But that's not what he was afraid of. His stories have it the other way around: they are terrified of the possibility of no emotional connection. This is what his men truly have in common, far more than misogyny: they know the words for everything and the meaning of nothing. Which is a strange idea for fiction to explore, given that fiction has a vocational commitment to the idea that language is where we find truth.”

She analyzes Wallace's revolutionary sentence structure, which she considers his truest innovation, giving us a handy dictum for understanding at least the idea behind his discursive sentences: “The point is to run a procedure – the procedure of another person's thoughts! - through your own mind.”

The other thing you can't read an essay about Wallace without is TEARS. Zadie doesn't deliver on the sad quite as heavily as Johnathan did in his big ole DFW essay, which is probably for the best, because, you know, tears for years. But she does give us this:

“The story 'Suicide as a Sort of Present' now inevitably resonates beyond itself, but it is also the same story it always was: a reminder that there exist desperate souls who feel that their nonexistence, in the literal sense, would be a gift to those around them. We must assume that David was one of them.”

Not much in the world sadder than that, way to slaughter me with tears re: one sentence this month Heidi Julavits and Zadie Smith. But shortly after, Smith iterates something to bring us back to the surface: “Wallace understood better than most that for the secular among us, art has become our best hope of undergoing this experience.”

Hard to follow Zadie Smith in any sense, so my apologies to Michelle Orange, although I have for the most part great things to say about This Is Running For Your Life. I'm so happy that I got to read essay collections that satisfied me this month, instead of the previous months where I've been doing a lot of eye rolling at men writing about pet topics.

This collection, which I would (very) loosely categorize as essays on media representation, imagery, women, emotional lives...things such as that. Which is good, because any collection of essays that can be too easily pinned down is usually a disappointment. There's a long, well done critique of the representations of women on screen, culminating in the manic pixie dream girl, that pretty much everyone I know would probably like – evident from these sentences:

“The issue had moved approximately not at all: Where do a woman's intentions end and the world's indifference to them begin? Is it a statement – subversive or otherwise – if nobody's listening? Or no one can hear you above your breasts?”

Probably the one I engaged with the most on a critical thought level was “Have a Beautiful Corpse”, which I would describe (again, loosely) as some questions and discussions regarding the artist as ultimate sufferer. Orange interrogates the trope successfully, exposing the flaws over a series of both personal and cultural reflections.

“But Gilbert removes the casual connection between hard spiritual labor (call it suffering if you must) and what we instinctively recognize as its product: deeply committed, transcendent, necessary art.”

I'm working on developing my thoughts on this, ideally to be carried out more theoretically later, but something towards the thesis I hope to develop...Suffering has become far too conflated with artistry. Bad things happening doesn't make you an artist if you aren't willing to work at the craft to discuss them with eloquence rather than just saying what happened over and over. People think that they can be the next great artist by writing down their struggles, but what they don't realize is that what made the most revered 'suffering artist' figures great isn't the suffering they went through, but the intense process (which, at the end of the day, only comes down to work) post-suffering of crafting it into something different, something alive. I do think that most artists feel suffering and emotional pain more acutely than the general population, but that only goes to show that a great artist can make something beautiful out of a mundane experience of suffering, not that she who has suffered the most is the greatest artist.

In an essay about attending a psychology conference as a media representative, Orange writes something which I would like to paste all over the internet: “If the evidence of overt social biases has eased somewhat, the power of putting a name to something inconvenient, uncomfortable, or plainly fraught and calling it a sickness has only intensified in the decades since the DSM was forced to expunge its homosexuality diagnosis.”

Yeah. Not everything needs a name and a label. It's possible to learn to relate to the world and other people through being 'different' without isolating oneself under a label that shuts out the possibility for healthy resonance to the spectrum nature of the human experience. I.e. you can acknowledge that you have a weird time with the sexuality or the moods or the socializing without forcing yourself into a labeled box.

I'm hesitant about the challenges I had with Orange's essays, namely the sense that there were a lot of words and sentences that seemed to unnecessarily complicate her ideas rather than support them, because although they made the essays harder to digest, it was probably a feature of her mental narration. I love a good mental narration, and I really enjoyed Orange's willingness to wield the phrase 'I don't know,' it showed me that her words were probably used as much to reach a conclusion as to describe things. I go through a similar process myself. I guess the takeaway goal is to just try and not let it be confusing. My only actual criticism is that I don't really know how much I care about ten pages of her annoyance at people telling her that she looks like someone they know. The final theory about it was interesting, but the repeated telling of just how horrible it is to be told you look like someone fell pretty flat.

My last book of May was Hunger by Knut Hamsun, and as discussed far earlier in this month's reading times, I don't generally pick up classics of my own volition (though I will try and start soon,) so it can be gathered via logic that this book was given to me. All I will say on that front is that now that I've experienced literature as a gift from a certain type of human relationship, I know that I always want to share books with people with whom I share that type of relationship. How's that for unnecessary words?

Hunger was quite the anxiety inducing autobiographical artistic struggle. What with my recent rejection of plot (which Hamsun shares according to the notes in the book,) and interest in narration and thought process, this book was a perfect study. It's almost entirely mental process narration, and it's pleasurable to read while taking the reader on a complicated mental discourse. I mean pleasurable less like pleasant, because the anxiety the narrator goes through seeps into the reader, but taking pleasure in the act of reading as a vehicle to thinking like someone else, and seeing the ways in which that does and does not correspond to our own thoughts.

The central thing (not plot, kind of conflict? Hard to say, which is usually for the best) in the novel is the narrator not having any money for food or housing and trying to write things but struggling with making any money for food or housing. And I'm like, same, except I have food and housing because I spend the time that you spend worrying about money and food having my brain slowly wiped away by serving food and making money. What an interesting irony! We both end up pissed off about trying to be a writer in world that doesn't support it.

“The thought of God began to occupy me again. It seemed to me quite inexcusable for him to meddle every time I applied for a job and thus upset everything, since all I was asking for was my daily bread.”

I can't speak to asking god this question, seeing as I don't believe in god, but I can speak to asking these questions of life. Like why give me the drive to write and create things and think if you're also going to make it so hard to live as that person? And not even in a brain anxiety way, but in a day to day life way. Why is it so challenging to live as a thinking creator, and why is society so poor at fostering these very important things? Why does life reward people who have mundane interests and don't like to think by making it so much easier for them to find jobs and contentment? On the flip side, is that real contentment? Questions that it is very hard to find people to discuss!

Hunger was another flip side of the coin to the writing craft guides I've been reading, because of the ways the narrator describes artistic process. I think that both are so necessary to the development of a creative thinker. You need to be able to think freely about your ideas and let your brain roam to come up with cool shit, but you also need to learn the skills to harness those things. Like a horse, one might say.

Speaking to that - “If only a single scintillating thought would come, grip me utterly and put words in my mouth! It had happened before after all, it had really happened that such moments came over me, so that I could write a long piece without effort and get it wonderfully right.”

Ah, reminded me of the moment when I birthed Shame.

Will never tire of the moments in books when the author says something so normal in such a funny manner: “This wasn't really a room for me; the green curtains before the windows were rather tawdry, and there was anything but an abundance of nails on the walls for hanging one's wardrobe.”

Anything but an abundance of nails!

Also, “I started to mull over the high points of my first involvement with the police.” I'm with ya there, Knut.

Last but not least, the narrator is totally absurd. Just says the most ridiculous things but you're somehow still like, cool. Which is kind of how I am, to those who like me at least. Most people don't understand at all, but the people who do are just like, cool. They are the best ones.

 

 

 

 

"Love Me Back" by Merritt Tierce, or I Swear I have good reasons for only having read one book this month

I have been putting off writing about what I read in November, because the ah, amount is really embarrassing.

TO BE FAIR: It was my first month actually working full time at my new job, and update: I work a lot now. I worked maybe 28 hours at IHOP in a really big week, and now I actually get overtime. Nobody cares about how different restaurants are structured so I won't detail, but not only is this restaurant so busy that there is literally never the possibility of getting cut three hours early as there was at IHOP, but we also have a lot more to do after the shift is done. I love it so this is great for my sanity, but not as good for my reading time.

However, I'm sure I'll manage to get back to my usual average since I am no longer spending three hours of my day in bed crying (cry-hop.) The real problem was obviously that my best friend came to Southern California for 10 days, hence I got literally none of my usual mental work done while she was here. But this is of course not a problem at all because I miss her and wish she was here all the time.

Anyway, after all that explanation, here is the fact: I only read one book in November. For shame!

Book read November 2014

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

Luckily the only book I read this month was a great book which accomplished many of my goals in reading: contemporary literary fiction, check, female author, check, relates to my life an intense amount because it is about a waitress....check.

Obviously, two of those are traits that almost every book I read has. I pretty much only read contemporary literary fiction or essays and I would say ¾ of the books I read are by female authors. But although I often read books by women who have worked as waitresses (Emily, Cheryl <3) I don't often get to read a book where the main character actually is a waitress! Joyous day!

Love Me Back is the story, told in episodic lyrical prose, of a young mother, Marie, who is employed as a server at a variety of low to high end restaurants. The beginning shows her drifting between jobs at places from chains like Chili's to daytime cafes, and the bulk of the novel follows her time at a swanky steakhouse.  It interjects with passages exploring Marie's accidental pregnancy at age 16.

Since I only read one book this month, and the one book relates to my life, I will also take this as an opportunity for some commentary on serving. Every server has a holy grail, the job that is the top of their niche, and although we can obviously change niches. The high end steakhouse represents the holy grail of fine dining servers, or really anyone for whom fine dining is a realistic possibility, of which I am not one because I am bad at things like not having a personality and following very stringent guidelines.

I was very lucky to get my own personal holy grail serving job as only my second serving job in San Diego, working at one of the two busiest brunch places in the mid-city area, very famous in San Diego and actually in the world. Breakfast serving is its own niche, due to the pace, high turnover, and desire to get up early, get your shit/money done, and leave rather than the normal serving routine of doing...whatever during the day and then killing it at night. Those who know me would think I would prefer this since I don't think I ever woke up before 11 AM in college, and now I have to wake up between 6 and 7 on the reg, but I actually prefer this because then when I leave I can get everything done, rather than dreading work all day.

Anyway, the book also deals heavily in my other favorite topic...promiscuity! Only somewhat joking. I really do count women who do what they want sexually and don't give a shit what anyone thinks among my favorite topics. The character also happens to be a mother, but unlike I don't know, every book in the very popular motherhood cannon, her daughter lives with the child's father and the narrator spends a lot more time worrying about how to deal with the crazies at her job and the revolving door of men in her life than what type of diapers her daughter needs or generally spinning words out of the problems about motherhood. Which, as I'm sure I continually offend people by saying, is just not something I'm interested in reading because it is literally the textbook example of a problem you just wanted to have and then brought upon yourself and decided to spend forever complaining about.  (I am referring here to most of the books I find myself reading that involve motherhood, where the characters with children desperately pined for children and then went on to spend mucho time complaining about them.  Not about unwanted pregnancies.  I'd love to read a book about an unwanted pregnancy.  Please recommend one now.)

But this book is not a mother who pined for a child complaining about it and other middle class homeowner problems, it's the opposite, which is working class people with real problems that they did not bring upon themselves being baller and salt of the earth and dealing with their shit alongside other salt of the earth folk who entertain and destroy things simultaneously.

I found my first great line on the first page, which is always a good sign.

When discussing a date she went on - “The Gordon Parks exhibit was my idea and I knew it scored with him – maybe made him think of how I could be an accident, a good one lodged in the mire, just waiting to be sprung.”

Well it doesn't take an expert critical thinker to figure out why I like that one. I am obviously the good one lodged in the mire.

The narrator comes in from the beginning with a strong and distinct voice, a voice that if you heard the person talking in real life wouldn't come off as literary fiction but the author is so adept that you can read her skill even through the colloquial vernacular. Aside from the obvious solidarity of the smart waitress, Tierce also gives her narrator an inner monologue that I identified immediately with: as she does lines of coke off a surgeon's bathroom counter after she gets anxiety when they're about to have sex:

“Don't worry, I said to myself. We're leaving.”

As I reread the parts of the book I annotated while I was reading it, I find myself getting swept up and wanting to read it again which rarely happens, except anytime I let myself near anything by Emily Gould or Jonathan Franzen.

It would be interesting for me to have someone else read this book, because I'd like to know if the bits of knowledge and wisdom she drops about waiting tables are as interesting to the average reader as they are to me. A few of these gems -

“I didn't understand how to be a wife or mother. But there were rules to being a waitress. The main one was don't fuck up. Another was whatever you skip in your prep will be the one thing you need when you're buried.”

“You may think you'll be waiting tables but really your job is to walk fast in a circle for six to eight hours every day.” Truer words never spoken.

“To do a good job at a table you have to care. Whatever show you're doing, wherever else your mind is, you have to put a twist of real on the very end of it. The people are waiting for that and if you don't pull it out they know and they don't like it.”

“This is the thing about the service industry, you can get trained to be slick and hospitable in any situation and it serves you well the rest of your life. Once you figure out that everything is performance and you bow to that, learn to modulate, you can dissociate from the mothership of yourself like an astronaut floating in space.”

I love how Tierce elevated the very working class job of waiting tables to high art through her prose.  She took the truths of a profession that so many Americans do without any real representation in art and spun them into literary gold, inspiring to people like me who are continually trying to make our lives into art when our lives look from the outside like the opposite of art.  It's also so rare to find a female narrator who is in control of her sexual self and makes the choice to go against the culturally accepted chaste woman paradigm.  Additionally, the book is funny.  Again, I'd love for someone I know to read it who isn't a server so I can see how well the customer service humor translates to those who have not spent any time in our lovely little hell.  But I think it would translate well, because everything that Tierce describes in the book translates well, things I understand and things I've never known, brought to life by her electric prose.  

 

Books in Prone Yoga: September 2014

 

Books Read

Daring: My Passages by Gail Sheehy

And the Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Books Bought

And The Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould

Creative Block various

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I read below my average number of books/month in September, and I'm also writing this entry 19 days into October. Schmeh....I also got a new job! So we're going to concentrate on how proud we are of me for that instead of fewer wpm (word per month in this case) than average. September was full of crying in bed because of depression at current job and anxiety at searching for new one. In case you have not searched for a new job in a while or a restaurant job ever, it involves a lot of walking to places uninvited and handing them something they get far too many of and generally being an unfortunate human which leads you afterwards to crawling into bed out of anxiety from so many awkward human interactions in one day.

Luckily, all this trauma led to some job interviews which led to a fabulous new job. And none too soon, I'm in my final week at old job and literally screamed multiple times at work today, one of which was because the cooks were yelling at me to carry some food out as my pants were literally falling off my body...memories which I will no doubt cherish as I transition away from the horrible pot of horror that is my current job.

Anyway, the books. I read two rather lengthy books and one rather short one. One of the lengthy ones took me a few weeks and the other one a few days. The short one I finished very quickly because I'm obsessed with the author. I actually am not trying to set up a weird logic guessing game here, although I can see why that would seem like what I am doing.

The long book that took me a while to read was Daring: My Passages by Gail Sheehy. I generally enjoy biographies, but they take me a while to read because they are long and don't always chug along at the same speed as a novel. The main exception in my life being the Steve Jobs biography which stands as one of the best books I read in 2013.

Daring: My Passages was alas no Steve Jobs, but it was a fascinating document of the life of a pioneer of womanhood and feminist, Gail Sheehy. I had not heard of Sheehy before picking up the book at Frugal Muse when I was home, but as I read I learned that she is a prodigious reporter and what one might call pop-cultural-anthropologist, pop here meaning literally making cultural studies popular, not influenced by pop music. The title refers to a book she wrote, Passages, defining and categorizing the passages that many adults seem to go through and identify with which apparently was previously unreported.

Reading book length works by reporters is always interesting because they write in such a different way than essayists or novelists. I'm not going to skirt around the fact that my preference is for literary writing, says the student of creative nonfiction who has carried novels everywhere she goes from age 10, but I think it's important for any writer to observe the nuances which separate the forms and acknowledge all of their merits.

Reporters are obviously trained to be the most concerned with communicating information, and I find that this can make their sentences take on a quality of explaining that one might do in a research paper. The greatest reporters (Nora Ephron, pour one out) manage to avoid this, but that's pretty rare. I don't think that Sheehy reached that level, but I don't mean that as a disparagement. Her life contained so many feminist milestones that I wouldn't feel right faulting her for anything. That's why I bought the book in the first place, to assist in my ongoing primer on Women Who Owned Shit in the writing world.

The evidence of Sheehy's feminism lies not only in her own achievements, but in the reverence for the women she describes, such as her grandmother:

[After her grandfather died] “Grandma Gladys had no money and no skills. She had never gone anywhere except in the backseat of a car or a horse-drawn carriage. But she remained true to the self-reliance of her forebears. She promptly learned how to drive, bought a typewriter, taught herself to type, and marched out to get herself a full time job as a real estate agent. For the next forty years she went to work from nine to five every day. She moved in with us when I as a baby, still working. I never heard her complain.”

It's always refreshing when reading about the life of a writer to read about all their setbacks, especially when one's life feels like it is one giant setback peppered with humorous times of pants falling off at work and misogynistic men. Many of Sheehy's books were poorly reviewed or didn't sell, for reasons ranging from being before their cultural time to just not finding an audience. Understanding that the creative life is a battle for everyone, young and an idiot or successful and a real person is endlessly helpful for me to remember.

As inspiring as it is to read about early feminists, it's also crazy to read statements that still hold so true about how men regard liberated women and think to oneself, how are we still here? Read Sheehy describing how many men prefer a prostitute to a sexually liberated woman:

“All these young girls who said yes-yes, but on their own terms, were, well, scary. A paid girl relinquishes all rights to make emotional or sexual demands. She would never call his office the next morning and leave an embarrassing message.”

My thoughts on men's fears of a sexually liberated woman are destined for another section of my website, but glad to know it's a real phenomena.

Someone who I'm sure has lots of thoughts on liberated women is my current favorite writer/obsession, Emily Gould, whose book of essays, And the Heart Says Whatever, I had the immense pleasure of reading in September. I can (and have) (and will) write blog entries entirely devoted to why I am so enthralled by Emily Gould, but most specifically here, ATHSW helped me define one of the characteristics of what I love in contemporary writing: energy. Good words are dime a dozen. Writing well can be learned, and even if you debate that, I think we can all acknowledge that many more people can string words together than people who speak with creative energy and joy, people whose writing makes you want to go out and live.

I would teach And the Heart Says Whatever in a seminar called Books that Make you Want to Live. It made me not hate being young and lost so much. It made it seem like it's all going somewhere, even if somewhere is just another place down the line. It gave me confidence that you can write with grace about the everyday, instead of what the internet tells me these days, which is that I have to go out and have something traumatic happen to me if I ever want to be heard. (Not a great message to send, internet.)

The introduction of the book told me I would love it, because it ended with this paragraph:

“I can look back and recognize the things I've done and said that were wrong: unethical, gratuitously hurtful, golden rule breaking, et cetera. Sometimes the wrongness was even clear at the time, though not as clear as it is now. But I did these things because I felt the pull of a trajectory, a sense of experience piling up the way it does as you turn the pages of a novel. I would be lying if I said I was a different person now. I am the same person. I would do it all again.”

Life.

That sense of unapologetic living, barreling forward towards an unknown future spot, is one of the overarching themes of my life. As always, reading the tenets by which you live in print is endlessly comforting. Another great snippet of that, here on the topic of somehow sensing that you are destined for...something:

“I just knew that I was really good at something, or I could be, if I could figure out what. Free floating ambition is toxic because it means that anyone who has accomplished anything in any realm of human endeavor is the enemy because she might be your competition.”

And I thought I was the only one who resented anyone who has done anything ever!

In a move that will shock approximately no one, I also loved Gould's book because she recounts working as a waitress. I'm obviously partial to stories of writers I admire working as waitresses because I'm like hey sup please be my future life, but also because of the nuances that are so similar across different restaurants and ages and places of waiting tables:

“But large groups of single men were her favorite. Well, they are every waitress's favorite. You could develop a little relationship with them over the course of the evening, figure out who was paying, have some banter with him, make eye contact. As long as you didn't then run into him in the unattended hallway on the way back from the bathroom, everything would be fine.”

Lest you think that there's an unattended hallway on the way to the bathroom at IHOP, (the past six months of my life would have been so much more interesting if there were) I'm speaking here to finding comfort in the ways that waitresses learn to interact with humans, and knowing that the ladies I most admire have been through the same thing.

Another grand one: “The performance, of course, was for the benefit of dragon-shirts friends, and if I would collude with him in it, he'd reward me. This was what always happened to me, with small variations. I think this is what always happens. The waitress's role is always the same: she's a receptive audience for witticisms like 'I'd like an order of you.' It's a ritual that has almost nothing to do with sex and everything to do with dominance, the dude asserting his place at the head of a pack. It's gross, but what are you supposed to do, give every man who walks into the bar a lecture?”

Amen, sister. I'm sure that Emily Gould, like me, is a person who would usually give a gender talk to anyone who did this in average, non employment life. But it's hard for me to listen to people comment on this who haven't lived it, because not lecturing strangers on being misogynists is how you pay rent. It's not a thing I like about society but neither is nepotism and nobody has picked me up off the street and paid me to be myself yet so I'll continue to laugh at horrible jokes and flirt with strangers to get better tips.

A great line that I do not feel like explaining why it is important to me: “The past is not a place you can visit.”

On aging: “This is one of the most painful things about getting older, especially getting older in the same place where you were young: the constant realizations that you could have been doing everything better all along, if only you'd known how to read the map more accurately.” Again I choose not to explain. Both obviously have to do with the place I loved and lived for four years which I choose to only speak about in writing if I am devoting entire passages to it.

As I put down And the Heart Says Whatever I went to check up on Emily Gould's latest tweets and replied to one of them like a true creep. Whatever one day I will make friends on the internet.

Alas, I had to return The Circle to the library so I can't do my usual go back through my dog eared pages (I know I'm rude it was from the library. But isn't that an okay thing? The average person deserves my dog ears because I like good things) and list out the shining moments. So here are some recollections:

  1. I have been a not-huge Dave Eggers fan since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I thought that not much happened. Name of novel non-withstanding, I continually got the impression that he was too big for his britches.

  2. I found The Circle at the library and decided to give it a chance because I'm interested (when I'm not busy being vaguely jealous of) in the tech world/start ups, and thought that maybe a futuristic one wouldn't make me too jealous to read it. Plus I only like reading contemporary literary fiction (whatever judge me my purchases keep the books alive and yours could too) and it's pretty rare to find a good one at the library.

  3. I loved it. I guess maybe Eggers britches are an okay size. Plus I never hated on 826 or McSweenys, both venerable organizations.

  4. I am usually not a fan of anything futuristic, but the fact that it wasn't straight out dystopian and still imaginable helped.

  5. Created a community and a world, which I always forget usually makes for a great book.

  6. As Jasmine said, who read it right before me, “It wasn't great literature but it was an interesting concept and moved quickly and was engaging.” Pretty apt descriptions.

  7. And a great commentary on the future of social media! All the vaguely recognizable actions of the internet made it just the right level of creepy.

  8. A few too many moments of Hi I'm 1984 for the millennial generation. Like A. we get it and B. really think highly of yourself for that comparison that you obviously carved out.

  9. Narrator was unlikeable in just the right way. I'm saying this as a good thing. You sympathize with her in the beginning, but her eventual descent into suckiness was actually a great aspect of the novel.

  10. All my more specific notes got lost on the notecard that I wrote them on when I returned this to the library and tried to write them down then promptly lost the notes. Alas.

You may notice that I went from buying almost no books in August, back to buying way too many in September. I did not get my new job until October so I can't even use that as an excuse. My excuse is this: I don't care. Books are the most important thing. I can't read them as fast as I buy them, but I will continue to buy them. What better thing could my money go to? I can't think of a single one.

Buying Freedom may seem gratuitous because I've obviously already read it from how much I reference it, but listen: I found the copy I read in a hostel in Croatia. It was a falling-apart godsend. It was just the novel to read to throw myself into a traveling/art induced paranoia about how I interact with the world that I came out better on the other side of. But it was falling apart, and I didn't have space for it when I was done, so I left it with my friends who I was visiting in Palau. But it's such an incredible book and had such an influence on me that I need to have it on hand for reference or lending, so when I saw it at Bluestocking Books I was just like c'mon you need to be in my possession. And here it is.

Next month (aka very soon because October is almost over) features the really incredible Not that Kind of Girl (I note the irony but love them both too much to comment) and me buying literally so many books people are going to start questioning my financial state.

 

Month in My New Fancy Bed: Books of August 2014

Books read

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

Books gifted 

Friendship by Emily Gould

Books bought 

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.

One Month in My Bed: Books read/bought/unfinished June 2014

Books Bought:

  • 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

Books Read:

  • 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”

Proverbs

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.

 

How I Met Your Mother Finale Review

As is a danger when you’re already an overly emotional person, I grew overly emotionally attached to How I Met Your Mother in this final season.  I’ve always liked the show, but in the past few years I’d fallen away from it, mainly due to having a much more exciting than television real life to pay attention to.  When I got back from my three month world-jaunt this fall, I caught up on the last season and a half of the show in a jet lag fueled binge and became devoted to the season and alas, the fates of the characters. 

A few weeks ago when it was hinted that the mother might be dead, I was noticeably upset and spent a few days coming up with all the reasons it couldn’t be possible.  The kids were too flip about the story throughout the show.  The producers would never want to alienate new fans that way.  I even had a dream that explained away the episode in question, which involved the mother going on an axe-spree at my old summer camp and thus going to jail and missing her daughters wedding.  Perhaps a little too attached?  Sure.  But in my defense, it’s my first year out of college, and in my secondary defense, the show’s creators wanted us to become attached.  With every emotionally charged turn or inside joke the show took us on, it asked us as fans to care more about Ted and Marshall than we do about Hannah and Adam or Phil and Claire. 

That attachment did not fare me well in this final episode.  In the last five minutes of the show, the creators killed (killed how?  What disease? Hypochondriac and medical knowledge hoarder reporting here) the mother we’d waited so long to meet and set Ted back up with Robin, the woman who he had what amounts to at best a schoolgirl crush and at worst a creepy obsession with over the past nine seasons.  I knew pretty much immediately that I hated it.  I tried to see the good in the episode, I really did.  I tried to use all the clichés about it being just a show and the creators can do what they want.  Alas, I was still upset, and then I veered away from emotions and into evaluating it artistically and that, my friends, is where our real troubles begin. 

As most people who have ever created anything that has a vague semblance of a plot know, characters and events take on lives of their own.  I’m not saying that the characters run away and do things completely independent of the creator’s intent (although some people do say this,) but rather that lives begin to take shape within a fictional universe and choices that you as the creator set out to make in the beginning become implausible as the characters lives move forward.  It’s why Ann Patchett tells you not to write the drowning scene that’s ¾ of the way through the novel until you’ve already written that first ¾.  Even if you know how amazing the scene will be and think your passion will be best if you write it first, don’t do it, because then you’ll go back and write the beginning, and nine times out of ten the road of the story won’t match up with the scene you already wrote.

This is almost to a T what happened to the creators of HIMYM.  They wrote themselves a scene before the show even had a chance to gain its ground, and the characters grew to a wonderful and mature place that didn’t match with the original intent.  Instead of using, oh I don’t know, any of the modern technology available to them, they insisted on using the original scene and thus negating all the growth on the path their characters had made. Taken as a whole, the creators rendered every plot point from 8 seasons of the show moot by sticking to a resolution they thought of back before the characters grew at all. 

It’s a silly decision that one would think you could trust seasoned writers not to make, and because of that it undermines the artistic integrity of the entire show.  I know the argument here:  is the show art?  Did the show intend to be art?  I would argue that since they spend at least four episodes of every season reminding us via Ted’s snobby idiosyncrasies that they went to a prestigious college the answer would be yes, but maybe not.  In that case – if the show’s creators intended it to be purely entertainment but not art, the problem doesn’t go away.  In fact, it complicates the finale further.   

Serious art can extract itself from making its decisions based on the viewers perception.  This is what separates it from something whose success is based on the average consumer’s opinion of it.  To quote Jonathan Franzen, “[Consumer products are] designed to be immensely likeable.  This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it.  I’m thinking here of jet engines, lab equipment, serious art and literature.”  Here is the problem that HIMYM ran into: the creators couldn’t decide if they wanted it to be serious art or if they wanted it to be a consumer product.  By all outside perceptions, the show is a consumer product.  Most television shows are, but add in the ridiculous gimmicks and cultural references that characterized it and the answer is clear.  But if the show’s creators were content with this, then they would have remembered the most important facet of the consumer product: it owes something to the viewer.  And with an ending like that, the creators basically said fuck you to the viewer and insisted on their own artistic vision – which if you agree with the previous paragraph, was not a sound artistic vision at all.

What I’m left with here is a mishmash of artistic or non-artistic choices that left me wondering if the creators thought at all about what their ending meant or if instead they were focused on two things: their contrived ending they thought of eight years ago and their misguided desire to shock viewers with a  cheap trick of a finale that basically made fun of the legions of loyal fans they’d worked so hard to gain. 

Let’s move now to the cheap trick.  I get the desire for a shock in television.  There’s pressure in the world of narratives to do something new, something different, something that will surprise people.  Putting aside the fact that this ending surprised approximately no one given how much the theory had been thrown around the internet, I’m going to throw out here that shock value is even at its base incredibly overrated.  It’s been said a million ways by theorists and modern artists alike:  everything has been done already.  A shock feels exciting for about two seconds, and then the smoke goes away and you’re left with the mangled remains of the explosion.  A shock replaces genuine feeling and emotion.  Worse in my book, shocks aimed at loyal fans are downright rude.  What are the creators trying to get out of it? Cool, we tricked the people who actually cared enough to watch our show? Really nice to the people who stuck with a program that had notable down times over the past nine years. 

And then there’s the fact that the finale itself, issues of shock and art aside, was poorly constructed.  This has been hashed over on the internet numerous times, so I’ll make it short: why dedicate an entire season to Robin and Barney’s wedding, and more seasons to their courtship, only to destroy it with a ten minute divorce?  Worse, destroy nine seasons of waiting for the mother and an entire season of growing to love her with a five minute death that doesn’t even give us a crying Ted scene or her character the honor of knowing what she died of.  If they knew this was going to happen the whole time (And that is one thing that’s been beaten over our heads) then why not dedicate an episode or two of the season to Robin and Barney and the rest to the next years of the gang?  Show us episodes of the mother and Ted’s courtship in her getting sick, not minutes.  It would have been untraditional, sure, but the entire season, nee, the entire series, was untraditional.  I would have taken that any day over what happened, a season that was negated by a poorly constructed finale. 

One of the things I always loved about How I Met Your Mother was that the show doled out such good life lessons that rang true in this often traumatic modern era.  I think that a huge part of the integrity of the show was its ability to have true emotional resonance that reflected the (perceived, obviously) ideals of the creators.  Regardless of if that was the intent or not, there’s a certain degree to which any narrative should be an argument for the way the creator wishes for others to see the world.  For many years in HIMYM the message was one I could subscribe to, of positivity and waiting for the right people to come into your life and whatever that nice thing Stella said to Ted was about the love of his life coming as fast as she could. 

In the finale the creators certainly still made an argument for the type of life choices they stand by, but it was one that was very different from the first eight seasons of the show.  What we’re left with is the message that childish unrequited love/obsession will prevail in the end.  Not one that I want to subscribe to if we’re trying to talk about living fulfilling, mature lives.  It validates Ted’s nine seasons of being pathetic.  In addition, it sends the message that in the end you’ll probably end up with someone who was there all along.  Which is good and fine for those people out there who have secret romantic ardor for a good friend or have someone in their group of friends that they happen to be in love with.  But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who have many incredibly fulfilling friendships, but don’t secretly love any of those friends?  Or those of us who don’t have any secret romantic spark with our circles of humans? What is the message for us?  That our romantic relationships will never be as fulfilling because they aren’t with someone who is ‘in’ on the group? 

Perhaps the creators of HIMYM didn’t think this deeply about any of their decisions for the finale.  But they should have.  It’s a big responsibility to have a show that so many people watch.  And they’re certainly making a lot of money to do it.  To not think about all these factors is a disgrace to both the fans who have put so much time into the show and to every struggling writer out there who would give a leg to have the ability to dedicate so much depth of emotion to a their own story.