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.

Caricatures in Misogyny: Misogynistic Vignettes

Fear not, ladies and gentlemen, I have not stopped fighting the good fight against misogyny. Fear, ladies and gentlemen, because I and women everywhere continue to experience it on a daily basis. For this next installment of Caricatures in Misogyny, I am going to tell not one long story but rather several small but nevertheless damaging-to-society instances that I have unfortunately been party to in the past few weeks.  I'll repeat this at the end, but I want you all whom I know experience this fiasco of a society on a daily basis to submit to me your stories of any length, tone, and style!

*

A diagram I actually had to type out to tell someone because they couldn't seem to understand what I was saying:

“Girls claim they only want to hook up → because they think that is what guys want to hear → therefore they will be accepted → because society trains females to seek acceptance from men → ergo society is fucked up”

*

Actual words from a male:

“Well then why do girls wear no clothing nowadays? Girls simply don't realize how visual guys are. If you understood that if you barely show any cleavage, or wear tight jeans, then we are going to get hard, and then its hard to control ourselves. Women have beautiful bodies. When we see a girl with a good body wearing nothing it takes every fiber of our being not to get transfixed. It's human nature. What if all women dressed modestly, like Amish people? I guarantee you that will help solve the problem.”

I don't think I have to explain the multitudes of fuckedupery contained in this passage to anyone who is reading this, but a short outline just in case:

Women have the right to dress however they please.  Claiming that women should dress so that men have an easier time controlling themselves implies that it is a woman's responsibility to make sure that men are always comfortable and at ease, rather than the fact it is a man's responsibility to learn to control himself because we are all adults.  Using the 'human nature' argument is equally dubious because it takes the fault away from men and blames it either on women or these 'mysterious forces of human nature' and thus doesn't hold men accountable for their actions.  

*

Actual situation I encountered with a male:

A guy tried to convince me to sleep with him after telling me that he and his ex girlfriend have been talking and will probably be getting back together soon. He wanted to 'have fun' before being tied down again, I suppose. I said no because I would feel too guilty doing that to another girl (And I said no because, what? Gross.) and he replied that he didn't get it, she was dating other people too. Sure she was hombre, sure she was. He then continued to text me for 5-7 days after until I told him to stop.

The issue with this, besides the obvious ew, is that although he was being honest about wanting 'casual fun,' (again, ew) is the scenario from this perspective: let's imagine that I did have a casual fling with this guy.  Afterwards, he gets to go back to the comfort of his relationship and have emotional intimacy with someone while having had a last 'single guy hurrah.'  I, on the other hand, would have gone back to being alone and would now be sad.  Sounds pretty lame, and the fact that I actually had to explain this to him - that he couldn't imagine that scenario on his own - is pretty disturbing.  

*

A few weeks ago I was at a bar and a guy was talking to me. I didn't want to talk to him. The reason was that he was creepy, but does there need to be a reason? I politely excused myself and was talking to my friend who was visiting. He very audibly in a loud bar said to my friend, “Why is your friend ignoring me?”

I turned back to him and said “I'm sorry, I'm just trying to catch up with my friend here.”

He replied, “Wow, you're friend isn't even talking to you,” because she was engaged in multiple conversations at the same time, as visitors tend to be.

This horrible man proceeded to stand silently sulking at my friends and I until we moved to a separate part of the bar.

Why did he think he had the right to my attention?  Why did he think it was acceptable to pester me about why I was ignoring him?  Who gave him permission to question my interaction with my friend? The patriarchy, that's who.  

*

I hope you enjoyed, by which I mean were disgusted by, these small samplings of misogyny from the last month of my life. I would love (by which I mean hate but be grateful for) to hear about instances from your own life for future installments of the series. I would love submissions written by you, but if you have a story to tell and aren't the penning type, you can tell me your story in person or on Skype or phone and I can write it. My good friend whose recent misfortunes are the topic of the next installment gave me this great idea. Stay tuned for her story of a horrid cheating man with many twists and turns.   

As always, although I share these stories of misogyny, I am continually grateful for the love and support of my many male feminist friends who make it a hundred times easier to live in this place we call society.  I by no means hate men, I love them, I just want to do my part to illustrate the problems with the way many men are trained to think it is acceptable to act.  

Month Two in My Bed: books read/bought July 2014

Books Read

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

 

Books Bought

This is Running for Your Life by Michelle Orange

Minimalism by Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodermus

Should I go to Grad School? By various

Daring; My Passages by Gail Sheeny

The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara duh

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

MFA vs. NYC edited by Chad Harbach, essays by various

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

Promiscuities by Naomi Wolf

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

Books Unfinished

Minimalism by Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodermus

Probably more but who puts effort into remembering the shitty books they forgot to finish reading?

I spent a portion of last month's entry talking about how maybe I just don't like short story collections and therefore can't finish them. I am now inclined to blame that on specific short story collections I was reading because in a surprising turn of events my first two books this month were both wonderful short story collections that I read and finished quickly.

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol is a new collection chronicling moments in the lives of characters who fall outside of the traditional definitions of Americans. The style and many of the subjects reminded me of both Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, both of whom I love.

The characters have unique lives and yet share impulses that connect them to the reader across gender and nationality and situation. The stories explore situations both seemingly mundane and outwardly tragic, but they are united by a crisp voice that varies with each character who inhabits it and come through with insights that are a huge part of the reason I love reading quality fiction.

A gem -

I used to be the kind of person who could eat a really good sandwich and that would be enough,” Tomer said. “And now I walk around and see people laughing, at the movies or wherever, and it's like I'm a separate species.”

Due to the success of my foray into short stories with that book, I decided to give No One Belongs here More than You by Miranda July a try. (July, a try. Nobody will ever get over rhymes and puns if they are me and my friends.) I read this straight through on the plane from here back home in July (July again) and absolutely loved it. Where The UnAmericans chronicled stories about people who are outside the cultural strata of the US, NoBHMTY seemed to focus on the stories of people who follow outside the accepted norms of social interaction, which is something I have more experience with, compared to the no experience I have with being an ethnic minority.

July's voice was elusive but shifted throughout the stories to cater to the personalities of her characters. I found the stories to be creative in plot, content and form, without being so far from the traditions to distract me, which alas may have been the case with last month's unfinished Lydia Davis volume, who I nevertheless recognize as a genius and will give her a try again sometime soon when I have longer to spend on a volume.

The stories were populated with characters who, like myself, have no idea what is going on and feel like they are somewhat behind the times in terms of relationships and doing normal things like having a job and living in general. This was comforting. And again, it was full of the little gems of lines that are why fiction helps us cross the borders of life and realize that we are all idiots running around and some of us just happen to think the same things, and those are the people I look for.

Gems include:

Inelegantly and without my consent, time passed”

We were excited about getting jobs; we hardly went anywhere without filling out an application. But once we were hired - as furniture sanders - we could not believe this was really what people did all day. Everything we had thought of as The World was actually the result of someone's job. Each line on the sidewalk, each saltine. Everyone had a rotting carpet and a door to pay for. Aghast, we quit. There had to be a more dignified way to live. We needed time to consider ourselves, to come up with a theory about who we were and set it to music. “

I would like to point out that this is my thought process for about 90% of every day. Like, dude it is somebody's job to manufacture the little shower rings that you use to keep the curtain on the rod. Somebody started that company. Also the amount of hours of my life that I spend asking people how they want their eggs. Cry. But like I said, that's why I loved this book, it shared my thought processes.

I proceeded to Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, which, if you pay close attention to my life, you already know is the book I purchased when I met David Sedaris and he told me to work at Hooters. This event is going to be chronicled in a few upcoming blog entries which explore the event itself, men saying things, and my boobs, so I won't say too much about it now.

The book itself was what most David Sedaris books are, which is to say delightful. The way that he speaks of ordinary life with such sass and pizazz and turns everyday things into topics worth discussing is really the goal of great nonfiction writing. He always reminds me that good essays are out there, which alas, spoiler, one of next months books discouraged me from believing. With this volume he included something extra humorous which was making speeches for young forensics competitors and interspersing them in the book. Many of the voices seem very unlike Sedaris himself, which prompted one of my friends who didn't realize what they were to wonder why Sedaris, a gay man, was writing essays against gay marriage. Good times.

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby is actually the book that inspired me to chronicle my reading in a blog post. The book is a compilation of ten years of his writing monthly book columns for the Believer, and thus it is long and took me a while to finish. He was writing the columns because he is famous and for money while I am writing these blog posts so I have less trouble remembering the books I read, but I think those are both equally respectable.

It turns out that my reason for writing this is understood by Hornby himself, who said “I became depressed by the realization that I'd forgotten pretty much everything I've ever read. I have, however, bounced back: I am cheered by the realization that, if I've forgotten everything I've ever read, then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time.” I look forward to the day that I can reread The Secret History or Lit and have forgotten a lot of it. Actually, that happened the most recent time I reread Lit already so great job brain. I do not look forward to it the day that I accidentally pick up a book that I previously didn't finish because it sucked and end up putting myself through the experience again.

Early in the book he reviews Random Family, one of my recent favorites, and he loved it and thought it was just as knowledgable as I did. So here serves your reminder to read Random Family, especially if, as Hornby puts it, you are “attempting to familiarize yourself with what's going down on the street.”

Hornby does a great job of consistently praising literature and fighting for its place in society. Doing this in a magazine that already only literary types read has its obvious drawbacks, but I'm never one to stop someone from fighting the good fight. He brings up a great point that I often felt while in college and trying to talk to people about books and having them continually compared to TV and movies as if they were the same thing:

If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would in pretty much every time.”

To follow up that joyous note, let's hear this sobering statistic that he throws at us: “A survey conducted by WHSmith in 2000 found that 43 percent of adults questioned were unable to name a favorite book, and 45 percent failed to to come up with a favorite author. Forty percent of Britons and 43% of Americans never read any books at all, of any kind.” I don't really know what to do about this, but it greatly depresses me, and I have been quoting that number at people all month. Just, le cry.

Perhaps what I do about this is read too much, hence my tendency to forget a lot of things I read. I say this because Hornby seems to have the problem as well, as evidenced in this quote which I identified with -

I recently discovered that when my friend Mary finishes a book, she won't start another for a couple of days – she wants to give her last reading experience time to breathe so it is not suffocated by the next. This makes sense, and it's an entirely laudable policy, I think. Those of us who read neurotically, however, to ward off boredom, and the fear of our own ignorance, and our own impending deaths – can't afford the time.”

One last interesting thing to note about Ten Years in the Tub is that in the latter half of the book, Hornby becomes very into reading books for youths, which seems to be a big trend right now, championing adults reading books written for children and teenagers. I can't say that I myself am going to be going out and buying any books for children and teenagers soon, especially any that glamorize death or suicide the way that most of the popular ones seem to do, but I do support people being excited to read no matter the book so if you want recommendations of quality literature for youths this book would be a good place to look.

My last book of July was Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, which I also bought last month at the wonderful used bookstore in the Milwaukee airport. I think that a lot of people like to claim that F Wallace was overrated, or at least I'd been hearing a lot of that lately, before I picked up this book, and I'm glad to say that reading it revived my original love for him and confirmed my belief that he was not at all overrated. This was, I believe, his middle collection of essays, and though he's lauded as a genius more for his fiction than his nonfiction, his nonfiction is really what I love most. I think that it's near impossible to find good essayists, not because the form is so difficult, but because most people want to be essayists without actually having a very interesting life or without the skill to write well about other people's lives. F Wallace's nonfiction is primarily reporting on other topics, I actually haven't read any essays by him that I would call a personal essay and from what I read in his introduction to Best American Essays 2007 he kind of disdains the form. Which I understand because I've read so many bad ones. But anyway, I'm sure partially because he had the privilege of being a famous writer who was asked to write about interesting things, all of his essays are about great and deep topics. However his level of deep thought about said topics and the many contingent points he makes on them are due only to his talent.

I feel silly listing my favorite essays of the collection because I liked so many of them, but I'll go with a sentence on each:

Big Red Son is the darkly hilarious story of Wallace's trip to cover the Adult Video Network's awards show, and it exposes the inner side of the porn industry and the complications and expected calamities of porn fans meeting their favorite stars.

Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Have to Think calls out John Updike and a bunch of other male writers for being misogynists and also throws in some great parody.

Authority and American Usage, a review of a language use dictionary, made me want to go out and buy a language use dictionary and read it like it was a novel. So good job Dave.

The View from Mrs. Thompson's because I have a weird love for essays that relate to September 11th and this is one of the best.

How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart is Wallace's negative review of the 'autobiography' (quotes because is it an autobiography when it's ghostwritten?) of a childhood tennis prodigy which goes on to smack talk sports biographies in general.

Consider the Lobster, the title essay, chronicles Wallace's trip to cover the Maine Lobster Festival. In his traditional fashion he turns this into a critique on the way we consume animals which actually made me want to be a vegetarian. I should say here that this is a pretty big deal because I've lived with and been friends with mostly vegetarians for the better part of five years and have never really considered it until reading this essay.

I was lucky to go home to Wisconsin in July, and home of my youth is also home of a lot of my favorite bookstores, most notably A Room of One's Own, which markets itself as a feminist bookstore. Feminism and bookstores! Two of my favorite things. I also hit up Frugal Muse and the aforementioned used book store at the Milwaukee Airport.

Soon I'm going to embark on the journey of doing some serious thinking about grad school, hence the compilation books Should I Go to Grad School and MFA vs. NYC. I have semi-made the maybe-decision to probably-definitely not apply this year, but it is important to begin thinking about it nonetheless and as much as I'd like to avoid it because I hate thinking about the poor state of academia, to begin thinking about the future. The constant question in my life really is how long can I stand to be a waitress at IHOP while also having an academic mind, and ways to enrich my academic mind while working at aforementioned pancake house.

Alas August will probably be lighter on the books bought because I had to pay a deposit on a house and I am poor now, le cry. My main goal for the month is to try to find a San Diego bookstore that has stocked Friendship by Emily Gould, but to do this I will have to go into a lot of bookstores and if I go into a lot of bookstores I will come out with a lot of books. And I have no money. You see the circle.

When I was home buying books, I picked up Minimalism which is about getting rid of your stuff and living a simple life because the two guys who wrote it were going to be at A Room of One's Own the Friday I was back. I read about a chapter and realized that I didn't need two guys to tell me about how money doesn't make you happy, because I already know that and it didn't take me working in sales for seven years to figure it out. Also, in the words of James Greene, “It's pretty easy to talk about living a minimalistic lifestyle when you're getting paid to travel around the country and talk about it.” Touche, James, touche.

Below is a to read list based on the books I want to eventually find after reading about them in Ten Years in the Tub. Perhaps I will keep doing this because it'd be nice to have a list for when I go into bookstores.

To read

Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connoly

something by Tobias Wolff

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman

A Disorder Particular to the Country by Ken Kalfus

essays by Montaigne

Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Please Don't Feed the Millennials

A few words from good old Google auto-fill to begin the day:

Millennials are lazy

Millennials are the worst

Millennials are doomed

Plug in an S and it gets even better:

 

Stupid

Selfish

Spoiled

Screwed

Apart from the occasional humor - “millennials are changing the wine industry” and truth - “millennials are poor,” every letter of the alphabet feeds you another negative thing that millennials are. But of course, this doesn't come as a surprise to anyone under the age of – what is it, 26, 25? What's the age cut off for the generation who haven't stopped hearing about how lazy, entitled, and selfish we are since we graduated high school? Or there's my personal favorite, that millennials are going to ruin the nation.

These statements and words have become such cultural touchstones to be considered the gospel. The dangerous thing about a blanket statement becoming the gospel is that people begin restating it as fact without evidence. And since my graduation from college, when this issue became of particular interest to me, I haven't found any examples or evidence – aside from the occasional mention of an overly-privileged millennial (which is an issue I will come back to) – that support this claim that has pervaded our national rhetoric so far as to be considered the truth.

What I've seen in the most reliable type of evidence, real life observations, is a generation who are fighting to not even swim, but just stay afloat against a tidal wave of societal circumstances seemingly engineered to fight their success, all while being flat out told that they are the ones with the problems.

Let's take an oft-quoted opinion: “Millennials are lazy,” and a few facts: “There are fewer jobs available for recent college graduates than ever before. The economy is the worst. 50% of millennials are unemployed or underemployed.”

It is routine to hear of someone my age applying for 70 jobs before they even hear back for a first interview. That isn't one person I talked to once on the train, numbers in that range are what you're going to hear from most every young person who has been on the job market lately. And that isn't necessarily applying to 70 jobs that someone wants and then eventually getting one. Oftentimes, that is applying to 70 jobs that one may or may not want, eventually beginning to apply for customer service jobs because we have to pay the bills, applying to 50 more of those, and eventually getting a job as a cashier, secretary, or server.

What about applying for upwards of fifty jobs is lazy? The research? The hours obsessively checking job websites, writing and rewriting cover letters, researching companies, and talking all your skills into a tiny box to fit what a random employer might want? This work not only ends in no pay but frequently in no acknowledgment whatsoever from the job postings. When I applied for 'real jobs,' I was happy to get a rejection letter, because at least it meant that someone was reading what I had sent them, instead of the norm, which was hours and weeks of work going into a void that might as well have been an empty computer in a walled off office building.

For some people, those searches pay off. Some get lucky. Many have a connection through a parent or relative, et al. But some of us don't have the funds to support ourselves while spending eight hours a day applying for these so-called 'real' jobs, or a well-connected adult who can shepherd us in to the working world, so we eventually have to start applying for the category of jobs that the news media calls 'underemployed.' These jobs are generally minimum wage or close to it. Most of them are in the customer service industry.

I'd like to find one person in America who has actually worked a customer service job for their livelihood who would apply the word 'lazy' to it. Is lazy running around on your feet all day, catering to demanding and often rude people who have connotated the word 'server' with the word 'slave?' Is lazy cleaning people's houses? Is lazy driving rotating herds of drunk people around for eight hours of a night? Is lazy having to reapply for temp jobs every other month because no one is hiring for long term?

Anyone who has actually done these things can certainly tell you that no, it actually requires a large amount of energy, stamina, and willpower. To spend four years in an intellectually stimulating environment that preps you for a certain kind of life only to graduate and find that that life is not now, and may never be, available to you, and to put this mindset that you were trained to have to work in a placid, negative environment and try to retrain your brain every single day to accept your new circumstances is not lazy. It may be a fact of modern life that we will have to learn to accept, but it is absolutely not lazy.

Another category of millennials is those who work in unpaid internships while holding down a day job. I would have thought it was obvious that the concept of working for no pay inherently makes one not lazy, but I suppose to our elders this is not clear. I'll illustrate it as such: if you aren't getting paid to do something, why would you do it? A few reasons come to mind: dedication, passion, belief that hard work now will pay off later. None of these are even close to synonymous with 'laziness.' If you go to work at a low paying job for forty hours a week, only to use your precious few hours of time off to do more work for which you receive little to no recognition and certainly no pay, then you might be called crazy by some, too optimistic by others, but lazy only by people who have never tried to live a life like yours for even a day, even a second.

I can't speak for millennials who got jobs through their parents, or who work in unpaid internships while being supported by their families. What I can say is this: it seems silly to blame the young people who were given something great when everyone around them has shit. It's hard to blame someone for being entitled when they were brought up to be that way, perhaps by their parents funding their every move. Sure, a few of those millennials may be selfish, but they are in the minority, and shouldn't we question the adults who trained them to act that way?

Speaking of which, aren't those adults of our parents age the ones calling us lazy and selfish and entitled in the first place? (I will note here since this is on my blog and thus I am allowed personal sidenotes that my parents are excellent, have never called me lazy, selfish, or entitled, have expressed great sympathy for my unfortunate employment situation, and raised me to work hard and take responsibility for my situation) It seems that this generation is the primary group of people who are so keen on blaming the end of everything on this new generation that has barely had enough time to gather the materials to begin to make their mark on the world, let alone had enough time to full out wreck it.

I'm not going to suggest that the baby boomers purposefully engineered a societal movement to blame the problems of the United States on the millennials, but I am going to say that it seems pretty convenient for them when some of the problems we are facing now can actually be traced back to choices that they themselves made.

Let's take the problem of not enough jobs. Not enough jobs? Maybe there aren't enough jobs because there are too many people. Thanks to the knowledge of my man Jonathan Franzen as communicated in his novel Freedom and the subsequent research and readings it led me to, overpopulation is indeed one of the if not the greatest problem facing the world today. Of course overpopulation has much more catastrophic consequences than a lack of jobs for young people, but this is certainly one of the tangential effects.

Why is the United States overpopulated? All these millennials who have come of age and thus need jobs didn't just pop out of thin air. Oh yes, we were birthed by a generation who decided that they could have as many kids as they wanted without regard to the future environmental or socioeconomic affects of their actions. What's a word that one can apply to people who do things in their own self interest without regard for the future consequences? Selfish and entitled, two that are ironically often applied to millennials, are the ones that come to mind.

Is it possible that part of the reason that this generation spends so much time bemoaning ours and claiming that we will be the death of society is that they are trying to cover up the fact that the damage we're supposedly inflicting was already done by their own hand?

It's worth thinking about. Why the rush to blame so many things on a group of people who have barely had time to understand the modern world, much less make it 'doomed'? Shouldn't the attitude towards a group of people who despite their high levels of education are more likely to be serving you food than learning from you at work be sympathy, not derision? It seems it would be smarter to support our generation in the hope that we will gain the strength to fight our nations problems, rather than waste time in what is effectively talking shit. Extremely well publicized and funded shit talking, but shit talking none the less.

Honestly though, I'm not that worried about being a millennial, and I'm not going to spend any of my precious non working hours considering how we are doomed or how we are going to be the death of the nation.

Instead, I'm going to use my customer service job to learn how to deal with frustrating humans, befriend people from different backgrounds, and work so hard that no one can ever call me lazy to my face. And in my free time, instead of waiting for someone from the last generation to teach me how to do things their way, I'm going to write essays and stories and create things and ideas and communities that help me find my own branch of what I define as success, instead of going by the arbitrary and clearly ineffective parameters set by those before us. The reason I'm not afraid for my generation is that I know I'm not alone in this.

All around me I see people willing to work for no pay for causes they believe in.  People going to law school to challenge societal inequality, teaching in low income neighborhoods to try and provide better opportunities for the next generation instead of claiming they're screwed from the get go. People drive for Lyft or Sidecar during the night and build websites that help them realize their dreams during the day. I'm a lucky member of a herd of buffalo who got four years training in making something incredible out of bare bones material and challenging the problems with the patriarchy and society. I don't have any fears about my peers in my generation, because we've all already figured out the solution to this 'millennial problem' – our identity is no longer tied to the jobs that we can't get. We work hard at the jobs we can get, and then we go home and apply ourselves doubly to the real work, the work that is going to prove to those who have been wasting time predicting our demise that we're not selfish or lazy, and certainly not doomed. 

 

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.

 

Caricatures in Misogyny - Guest Writer: Lauren Hohle

I'm so pleased to announce my first guest writer here at Caricatures in Misogyny.  Here lie the words of the venerable Lauren Hohle, a fellow Johnston alum and one of the greatest peers I had the pleasure of writing alongside in a workshop.  Two pieces, without further ado...

The Sexual Prowess of Fat Losers

He wagged his gut at me and Janice and asked, “Who wants me?” Neither of us responded, so he licked his lips and tapped an imaginary microphone. “Is this thing on?”

Silence.

We were silent because we were at work and we had to be nice to him, and as the saying goes, we didn’t say anything at all.

His t-shirt said, “I just pooed a little,” and the text jiggled as he tried to flirt. “You going to come sit with me?” he asked, girth jouncing to the rhythm of his words. “Hold my hand during the scary parts?”

He was fat and old and under my uniform was a young body and a person inside of it. A person capable of more than the regulation of butter-bile into fat losers’ corn-sacks.

A short selection from a work in progress titled “Letters”

Dear David, or Ike, or whoever you were,

You were a football type, large and brusque, but a big softy. You were a mentor to me. For at least the week of camp, probably longer. Something you said has stuck with me. You told me, “Never date a guy, no, never talk to, never deal with a guy who doesn’t respect you.” At the time I found it empowering, flattering. But now I realize how privileged an idea it was. One that surely only a football type week-long mentor at a Christian camp could think of. I remembered this when serving Coke Zero to a football type like yourself, a person I couldn’t refuse. It is my job to deal with people who don’t respect me. Who talk down to me, call me Sugar. Did you think I’d never have to work? Be a princess imprisoned in a tall tower waiting for a nice man to marry me before taking my virginity? In your world, a world where disrespectful men exist, what did you imagine I’d be doing?

—Lauren

 

"Fuel to the Fire: the Alchemy of Respect, or the lack thereof" - Caricatures of Misogyny, Episode 1

Episode 1: Fuel to the Fire - the Alchemy of Respect; or the lack thereof

Here lies the tale that sparked this hotbed of thought and criticism – the original caricature of a misogynist, one might say.

I will spare as many details as possible in regards to identifying features of the humans involved in this story – I'm not out for revenge, just awareness. The point of the story isn't my personal life, but rather the hidden ways that people can display disrespect towards women and also how sometimes someone looks like a normal person but is actually the angel of death. (Shoutout to my girl Nora/When Harry Met Sally)

I live in a community type house where a lot of people come over to garden and/or sit around watching other people garden, so naturally this is a great opportunity to meet new acquaintances or friends and show off my sparkling personality. In one's own home, your guard tends to be lower than usual because you're thinking, hey, mutual friends, they must be cool. Much cooler than strangers at a bar, in fact I should trust that they are excellent and I can turn off my idiot radar.

Almost a month ago, I met a guy at one of these gatherings. We had eye contact, introduced ourselves, and then he made a New Girl reference. Le disaster. Ways to make Becca not only like but also trust you in one fell swoop? Reference female based audience media.

Over the course of the day, I spoke to this fellow, who we will call Bartonbe Spleen, for quite a while. Our conversations 'went below surface level.' He was interested in my favorite game of asking strange would you rathers as taught to me by the venerable Gaelan Harmon-Walker. When he got up to look for a cigarette or some other pursuit, he said “I'll be back, this is a great conversation.” Bartonbe S got my number before he left and did that thing people do where they return to hug you more times than is necessary. Just, you know, generally signs that someone is semi cool and interested in you as a person rather than an object.

Being a human with emotions rather than a robot, I thought hey, maybe I like this guy. I then found out that he went to high school with one of my best friends, Natasha. Wow, a random connection, even more trustworthy! Is what someone who has not been raked over the coals by such a person might say.

Two weeks later we were having another gathering at my house and Bartonbe Spleen came back over. This time, Natasha was also there so they had an opportunity to reunite. Everyone was joyous. Bartonbe told us how he has no friends in San Diego and never hangs out with anyone, he only works. Gee, I guess that two awesome girls with a giant social circle would have been really good people to not piss off.

Things happened. To quote that guy who used to be on Everwood on Parks and Rec - “I know what things are.” (Actually I'm 90% sure that wasn't the context of the quote, but you get me.)

The next morning, I did what I do most mornings and drove to my job as a pancake expert at a breakfast institution (re:waitress). I told my lovely coworker all the details that I spared the internet, and she agreed with me that signs were good and Bartonbe seemed to be a stand up guy who had acted kindly. It was a moment straight out of Sex and the City at brunch, except we were the waitresses rolling silverware.

The next day, my friend Amber suggested I invite Bartonbe Spleen to the San Diego institution of Taco Tuesday, which we frequent at Fred's. I thought, great idea! It's casual because it is my friends, and kind to the fellow because he said he had none. So I texted B. Spleen -

“Hey! Natasha and I and some of our college friends are going to taco tuesday tonight. Wanna come with us?”

Now I've sent some dumb texts in my life. But I think we can all agree that this was a perfectly fine, not clingy, friendly text.  Alas, apparently Bartonbe Spleen found some fault in it, because he didn't respond. I am a trusting and optimistic person so I decided to write that one off.

A few days later I friended Bartonbe on Facebook and sent him a message explaining that I was actually the girl he knew, Becca, and not a stranger named Casa. His reply, five hours later, was 'oh hi.' Meh, strange, but could mean anything. However...he didn't accept my friend request. He just left it there – pending. An odd choice for someone you know, ahem, better than most people that send you a request on facebook.

The red flag rose out of the ground and began to inch its way to the sky.

I let the weekend and next week pass without contacting Bartonbe. I had my theories about his weirdness, but just went on living my life. Then the next Sunday I got sick of his weirdness because ya know I'm not really partial to people ignoring me after such instances, so I texted him at work. (Mistake: PSA: texting anyone like this from work is a MISTAKE.) I said:

“Hey, what are you up to today?”

Again, relatively innocuous. Nothing that would invite the torrent that was about to arrive. The next portion of this will be in text message form. Most of it is accurate but I cut out some parts for reasons.

Bartonbe Spleen: “Chillin.”

BS: “I'm sorry, but I'm in a relationshp”

Casa de Schruh : “WOW.”

BS: “It's new, I wasn't when we got together.”

Casa: “If you think that makes you not an asshole you are sorely mistaken. You literally used me then ignored me and started dating someone. If you can't see how fucked up that is I just hope you never do it to someone else.”

BS: “No, I know it. But I didn't pressure you so I'm not a bad guy, maybe selfish. Ironically I've found myself in this situation once before with one of Natasha's friends. Sorry if I led you on, I thought it was pretty obvious*, maybe it was hard for u to see bc u liked me” *for this go back to the beginning and read how we interacted. It was not obvious.

Casa: “Actually you did pressure me, I said I don't want to hook up with you yet and you gave me some bullshit speech about living in the moment and societal standards. And please don't talk about other people's lives like it's the irony in a novel.”

BS: “Wow I'm such a scumbag. [edited out for personal details and crassness]”

BS: “[entire text edited out for extreme level of malicious intent and crassness. If you want to know I'll tell you, don't hesitate to ask, just wanted to keep it out of the internets]

BS: “Also, feel free to despise me. I'm not sensitive”

Casa: “[edited out because it was a response to the edited out text]

BS: “Anyway, I gotta go, great talking to ya”

Casa: “It's great that you think that not being affected by other people's emotions makes you cool. Have fun going through life as yourself.”

I'm not ashamed to say that I was extremely upset by this at first. Not by the 'rejection' of this guy, but of the sheer level of maliciousness in the messages. I had already guessed by the fact he'd ignored me for two weeks that he was going to turn out to be a d-bag, but I had no idea that he was going to be this cruel.

I went home, talked on the phone to a bunch of friends, and one of my great friends, Alyssa, said she was going to come over to my house. This helped immensely. Being around a friend and repeating the story and parsing it got me back into good shape very quickly. My emotions about the situation receded, but my societal anger remained.

Now this is where things get interesting. Remember how Natasha went to high school with Bartonbe? Remember how he was in a 'similar situation' six years ago with one of her friends? We'll call that friend Jessa. Well, he also sends shirtless snapchats of himself and flirts via text with one of her other friends from high school, who we will call Marnie. Uninvited shirtless snapchats and flirtatious texts. Clearly we have a winner right here in Bartonbe.

So naturally Natasha immediately told both of her friends about the incident and the text messages. I have met Jessa, and she sent her solidarity along to me via Natasha. Then Natasha told Marnie. I have never met Marnie, but after this I would quite like to – after hearing the story from Natasha, she was so angered on my behalf, a girl she's never met, that she texted Bartonbe herself to call him out on his actions.

All Marnie said was 'hi,' and Bartonbe immediately called her. She said, “I can't talk now but I've heard you've been wreaking havoc out there.” She hung up and called Natasha, and while they were on the phone Bartonbe texted Natasha -

“Hey I'm really sorry about [hooking up with] Becca. I know uve probably had to deal with it a lot. I just want u to know that this isn't very typical of me. Also I never had intentions of this happening, she was just all over me, and I was [twirly] that day. Haha so basically I just hope you can filter this out.”

This text. This text is the crux of everything I have to say. This text is what inspired this idea, this text summarizes everything that is fucked up about this situation. Everything he said to me? Bad. Don't like it. But this text is what confirms Bartonbe Spleen's status as a misogynist and failure as a human.

Here is why that text message to Natasha is incredibly offensive to me, to her, and to women/humanity in general:

Bartonbe apologized to one of my best friends for having to 'deal with me,' as though I'm an unruly horse, after sending me malicious text messages regarding a situation that he was already cruel in. What does this mean? This indicates that he respects Natasha more for 'dealing with' the emotions of the female sex object in question than he respects me – and shows that he thinks of Natasha as a human deserving of respect while he thinks of me as an object that he can use, abuse, and be absolved of responsibility for.

Just going to repeat myself one more time: Bartonbe Spleen found it acceptable to verbally attack someone that he had been intimate with. When Bartonbe Spleen found out that I had shared this story with one of my best friends, he apologized to my friend for me being hurt by his actions and making her deal with it. He attempted to absolve himself of responsibility by looking for solidarity with someone who I had also apparently caused problems for. Bartonbe believed that as a male, he was entitled to be intimate with someone because he was in the mood for it without consequence, and assumed he would get sympathy from my friend for his extreme hardship.

Unfortunately for Bartonbe, he looked for solidarity with the wrong girls.

Because Natasha, and all of my friends, I hope, are feminists. They believe in equality of the sexes, and they also believe that all humans deserve respect. And they aren't going to sympathize with someone who exhibits clearly sexist and misogynist attitudes.

Natasha hasn't responded to the text yet, but she will. She is taking the time to craft a response that will explain to Bartonbe precisely why she isn't going to sympathize with him, among other things. Will he take it to heart? Probably not. But she's fighting the good fight.

Marnie called Bartonbe back and calmly tried to explain to him why his actions weren't acceptable. He replied that he 'got it' and 'would never do any of it to a girl like her.'

Wait, let's go back to that.

I don't know Marnie, so I can't compare what the difference between girls like her and girls like me are. But here's the thing: it doesn't matter. Marnie could be a business woman or a pole dancer, she could be a mother or a musician or a virgin or a vaulter. She could be a girl who is always in relationships or she could be always single. It. Does. Not. Matter. Bartonbe implied that Marnie is a woman who deserves more respect than another woman. It doesn't matter that it was me. It matters that I'm a person, and whatever flaw in me he chose to see and mark it as a reason that I don't deserve respect is not a reason to use me, ignore me, and then be cruel.

Marnie called out this logic too, and continued to explain the flaws in Bartonbe's thinking. The next morning, Bartonbe sent Marnie another shirtless snapchat.

In her words: “So I woke up this morning to a snap from [Bartonbe Spleen] with his shirt off...what has he learned from this?”

I guess you can't teach an old misogynist new tricks.

Other humorous tidbits from this fiasco:

  • After this, I posted the tumblr straight white boys texting on Natasha's wall. Bartonbe commented on it – "guys r dumb." And then told Marnie via text that 'he hoped he wasn't adding fuel to the fire, but if it was about him he wanted to get in on it.' Fuel to the fire? What fire? The fire of us laughing at other idiots text messages?

  • Bartonbe told Marnie on the phone that I had sent him some 'mean text messages.' lol.

  • So you found a girlfriend on the street in two weeks and then are still sending shirtless snapchats to a girl on the east coast? Sounds real.

  • Some of the texts Bartonbe sent to me, Natasha, and Marnie indicate that he thinks I'm really sad about him, because he is obviously a huge prize in the dating world. Alas, I was sad for approximately one hour, and now am happy to have dodged a smoking bullet.

  • Bartonbe has posted things on facebook such as: reasons women shouldn't wear makeup and should be naturally beautiful, statuses ragging on girls making faces in pictures, AKA, numerous instances that show that he believes women should act in ways he wishes them to act because he is a man.

That's all folks! Hope you enjoyed this first installment in Caricatures of Misogyny. And don't feel too bad for me. Bartonbe's an idiot but I'd rather be screwed over by him than be him. Hopefully this little fiasco will inspire some people out there to think twice about their actions and language.

Caricatures of Misogyny - the Beginning of a Series

I was recently inspired by a series of unfortunate events to chronicle the ways that misogyny sneaks itself into everyday life, and the hidden implications of certain male behaviors. Thus the idea for Caricatures of Misogyny was born – instances of misogyny that are so ridiculous that they become caricatures of themselves. The first episode will commence after a short history of my writing about things that naysayers might call 'airing dirty laundry' but I prefer to refer to as 'calling out the patriarchy.'

I first wrote a piece using my own experiences as a lens for discussing the societal inequalities of sex and gender a little over three years ago. It was a scary but safe experience, because I was writing an essay for a class of my peers several of whom I knew well and all of whom I trusted, as well as a professor who was one of my great champions and mentors. The class went astoundingly well and gave me the impetus to publish the piece I wrote for that class, with a few revisions, the next year in an alternative dialogue magazine created by my good friend Joe Taylor, the Mentone Special. Again, I was met with a huge amount of support and solidarity from those who read the piece. I continued to utilize this lens in my writing throughout the next year at undergrad as well as in my writing today.

Now on to my decision to write this piece and curate this series. I realize that my website is much more widely accessible than a writing class or the Mentone Special but those experiences convinced me that it is more important to talk about the problems we face in society, even if that means revealing personal details of ones life, than to let the stories go untold for fear of embarrassment. My aim isn't to get any sort of revenge, but rather to use my unique position in society to illuminate the ways that gender inequality is still vastly prevalent in human interactions.

As I usually try to disclaim when I am writing anything about gender: I know many wonderful men. I live with two male roommates who are paragons of respect and always willing to sympathize with me. I have countless close male friends who whether they know it or not have worked tirelessly to help me trust men and give me great standards for putting any new men in my life. In short, I don't hate men, I love them, and everything I say is a reflection on how society allows certain men to act rather than anything overtly negative towards the gender.

And...welcome to the series!  The first piece will go live later tonight.  I am always accepting submissions of your tales of misogyny and sexism so ridiculous that they have become caricatures.  You don't have to identify as a woman to submit! Smart and feminist men encouraged to share their tales as well.

In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe - some thoughts, some love

Apparently Katie Roiphe is a pretty controversial figure in the social critique world these days, which I guess shouldn't surprise me when I think about the general reaction to outspoken feminist women who have opinions, and yet it still does because this book was so shockingly on point.

I'm always the first person to jump on a book of essays, because they are few and far between in what's being published now. Alas that does not mean that they are all good. So I always pick up a new one with a mixture of excitement and fear that it will bore me / make me angry that someone stupid managed to get their thoughts in hardcover form. Luckily that was not the case with this gem that I picked up from the library a month or two ago, although it is unlucky that it was from the library so I cannot steal it for my own. Katie Roiphe's essays in this volume range from critique on the media to critique on modern parenting and schooling, to literature and social fads and of course the perennial topic of the modern essayist, Facebook.

A few of the essays revolve around Roiphe's position as an unconventional single mother. She is unapologetic about her lifestyle and parenting choices, and even though I usually find myself tiring quickly of reading anything about parenting, I was actually engaged and defensive of Roiphe in these essays. She describes how people judge her eclectic parenting style and refusal to conform to the hyper safety standards of modern parenting, as well as the language people use when describing single parenthood. In one instance, she describes an acquaintance expressing judgment for her staying out late at parties when she has young children, and says 'She points out furthermore that I have a small child, a fact that I have not, in all of the hullabaloo, forgotten.' This tone of sarcastic indifference to the judgments of the judgmental characterizes her writing and my identification with it. She furthers this with another observation that I love, that of the obsession with people who are married (or in any other socially accepted institution) to cast aspersions on people who are not, and to believe that they, the unmarried, must be unhappy - “One does have to wonder about the prurient hunger for unhappy detail. Is there an imperative for certain married people to believe that anyone existing outside of the institution of marriage must be suffering? Does this imperative, perhaps, have something to do with their own discontents? The happily married couples I know are noticeably less invested in the idea that I am suffering some form of collapse.”

What I love here is how Roiphe manages to critique the attitude of certain married people without condemning married people as a whole. It's something that I struggle to express constantly in my dealings with anyone I know who is in anything 'real' – a real relationship, a real job, any life situation that society has labeled more 'real' than my status of footloose and fancy free – it's not that I have a problem with couples, or professional jobs, or anything of the sort. I just don't want to watch people roll their eyes when I mention any of my escapades with boys or Ihop.

Roiphe fearlessly reports on sex in a variety of forms, beginning with “The Naked and the Conflicted” in which she questions the sex scenes written by the modern male author, picking out incredibly accurate examples to illustrate her hypothesis that the new guard of male writers write sex as innocence and virgin like rather than with the over the top gusto of the previous generation. This generations writing about sex is characterized by guilt and a lack of desire, Roiphe puts forth. Before one can ask why this matters, Roiphe answers: “But the sexism in the work of the heirs apparent is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out. What comes to mind is Franzen's description of one of his female characters in The Corrections: 'Denise at 32 was still beautiful.' To the esteemed ladies of the movement I would suggest this is not how our Great Male Novelists would write in the feminist utopia.”

*Committed readers of Schuh will note that I am a big ole Franzen proponent. Ah well, multiple lenses are important.

The issue Roiphe points out is pervasive not just in literary sex scenes but everywhere in the politically correct white liberal world: they're so afraid not to be offensive that they are timid, but they can't embrace anything so feminist that they will actually surpass the problem entirely. What I'd like to see in this instance is not a male protagonist by a male writer who is afraid of sex, but one who is excited by the idea that his partner is just as capable of sexual desire as he is. A true feminist point for a male writer to take isn't to make his characters inoffensive, it's to take them away from the traditional fear and aversion that men show to a sexually aggressive female.

The essay which inspired the title of the book is the first in the third section, The Way We Live Now. The essay, “The Perverse Allure of Messy Lives,” takes a look at the American fascination with the television show Mad Men. She purports that the show has met such great success because the yoga, juicing, and fidelity obsessed humans of today find a thrill in watching characters drink every day, extramaritally cavort, and generally make a mess of what's going on.

I will insert here that I read this essay from an interesting perspective, because although I do now occasionally go to the gym and have eaten more green things in the past month than probably ever, the rest of my life reflects not the staid demographic that Roiphe is critiquing but the messy life that she is if not outwardly lauding, at least forcing us to reexamine. Thus I have felt both the perverse fascination of people with more organized lives than mine and the intense obsession with 'stable' and 'healthy' lives that pervades society to a point that feels almost regressive. In other words, I'm not even Roiphe's target demographic, I'm alongside her in observations.

I'll get back to that in a minute. Anyway, Roiphe goes from pointing out the fascination with drinking instead of going to therapy to solve our problems and then goes on to directly question it: “But can we be sure our own preferred forms of malaise and alienation are better or more fruitful than theirs? Are we happier than Don and Betty Draper, or are we just doing yoga or Pilates or getting overly involved in our children's homework or 'working' on our relationships?”

Later on in the essay, Roiphe confronts another phenomenon of the modern world, the obsession with productivity. “Of course, people still have hangovers and affairs, but what dominates the wholesome vista is a sense that everything we do should be productive, should be moving toward a sane and balanced end, toward the dubious and fragile illusion of 'healthy.'” I find even myself falling into this trap. When I spend my tips on fancy beer or think about my waitressing job, I find myself phrasing it as how 'it will all do good for me in the long run' or that I'm 'getting it out of my system now.' Both of these ideas share the commonality that it's all for the greater good, rather than the truth, which is that most of the time I'm just doing what I want.

Throughout the essay, it seems that Roiphe is posing random questions that may or may not fall to a cohesive conclusion. Even if that were the case, the essay would still be great, but what really ties her questions together is her final page, when she declares the point that is summed up by these sentences:

[in response to the inevitable question, how did anyone get work done when drinking at lunch / having multiple affairs / living dangerously] “But maybe that's the wrong question, or maybe [work] is not the highest and holiest standard to which we can hold the quality of human life.”

“Can these messy lives tell us something? Is there some adventure out there that we are not having, some vividness, some wild pleasure, that we are not experiencing in our responsible, productive days?”

“We are bequeathed on earth one very short life, and it might be good, one of these days, to make sure that we are living it.”

As I'm sure you've guessed by now, it was refreshing for me to read this essay, because it was a reminder that I'm not the only person out there who is still living a messy life. With my own chaos as a standalone project, I'm happy nearly every day – I love the excitement of my life, the sense that I've cut a few corners and arrived at an adult playground, working less than 30 hours a week and still affording living in a house in one of the nicest cities in America, going out every weekend and sometimes during the week, buying clothes and books and fancy cheese and still putting away money for future adventures. Most days I love being tied only to myself and my own desires, love the ability to call these my selfish years and not having to pay for kids or cats or scheduling my life around a boyfriend. But part of me thought that I wouldn't be so alone in this grand experiment. I thought that your twenties were the time to be footloose and fancy free, not just my time. And yet a startling number of lives that I look at resemble not the casual mess that I thought was the norm, but rather an intense craving for traditional success and stability. Just as I'm beginning and laughing at the absurdity of modern dating, it seems that everyone else has skipped it and passed go, gone straight to commitment. Same with the 'professional' world – I thought it was normal to waste away in a restaurant for a few years, but I'm faced constantly with facebook statuses parading grad school, adult jobs and adult promotions. I understand the allure of this – in many ways, dating and waitressing both suck – but I'm just surprised that it so often feels like I'm the only one who's living through what I thought was a rite of passage rather than an optional detour.

Another interesting note about all this is my own personal fear that someone I know will read this and immediately get angry at me for judging the settled life. To that I'll only say: if someone offered me a bath and then eating in bed, I'd really take it. I'd at least try it out. But I think that this fear has more to say than that. I think that this particular fear of mine shares roots with Roiphe's essays: are we each so sensitive to the outward perception of our lives that we strive for perfection to avoid observation, just in case that observation is judgment?

One of the truest joys of this book of essays is similar to reading a great edition of Best American Essays. (see: 2012) The selections are never one note, rather they explore many of the parts of our social and intellectual lives that we didn't even remember needed exploring. See this selection from “Love Child,” a critique on all of the terms used to describe a child had out of wedlock: “The words we use actually shape the way we think, and not just the other way around. In these casual phrases and headlines we are spreading our attitudes, as ambivalent, confused, and inconsistent as they are; we are propagating our mixed messages, our prurient judgments, our puritan fantasies.” Here Roiphe explores a fundamental idea in the guise of a specific instance: language, and just how important it is how we use and abuse it.

In one of my many diatribes against society, I decided that I don't like how we ask kids to talk about careers they want so early on in life. I'm all for following your dreams, but I'm also for paying attention to reality, and the reality is that for every astronaut, there will be thousands of people working in sales. For every firefighter, there will be hundreds of people punching numbers into a computer behind a desk at a job so mundane that I haven't even heard of it and can't give it a name. Is it really a great idea to tell kids that they'll all become scientists when in reality it's more likely that they'll work for a manufacturer of test tubes? Obviously the idealistic answer here is that we need to make more stimulating jobs, but that doesn't seem to be entirely likely to happen anytime soon.

Roiphe encounters this idea too, in her essay “The Perfect Parent.”

“Someone I know tells me that in the mornings, while making breakfast, packing lunches, and laying out clothes, she organizes an art project for her children. An art project! This sounds impossibly idyllic – imaginative, engaged, laudable. And yet, is it just the slightest bit mad as well? Will the world, with its long lines in the passport office and traffic jams, be able to live up to quite this standard of exquisite stimulation? And can you force or program your child to be creative?”

If it sounds from this like Roiphe is arguing against creativity for children, she isn't, and one gets the sense that her children will be leading more creative and well adjusted lives than the children of most Americans. She is simply pointing out that it's counterproductive for every child in a class to want to be an artist when they grow up, rather than realistically teaching them about how to live as a thinker in the at times stifling world in which we live.

I've talked for a long time now, and I would write an enthusiastic conclusion, but I think every enthusiasm I have has either already been stated or I've erased it to come a bit closer to brevity and it is now hidden as a new gem in the book itself. So, if you like what she has to say, read it. If you hate it, then definitely read it so we can argue. Sometimes I get bored and arguing with people about my new favorite author would be a more interesting way to pass the time than napping / whining.

Other notes of joy:

  • This quote from “Reclaiming the Shrew,” where Roiphe discusses the interpretations of Ann Hathaway (wife of Shakespeare, not actress of Princess, a distinction I wish I didn't have to make) throughout history. “Her observation that 'when her husband died Ann was 60, and free for the first time in a third of a century' evokes another line from an earlier book, The Change: 'To be unwanted is also to be free.' At times, one suspects that Greer is writing more about an idea of freedom than about any historical woman.”

  • When I read Roiphe's short piece about another writer trying to engage her in a twitter fight about her attitude towards motherhood, and I wonder to myself: “Was it Ayelet Waldman?” Indeed, it was. Good moment for me, or me reading too much about too many authors all the damn time.

     

A Summer 2014 Reading List - J Fran, Sustainability, and Feminism

Every summer - oh let's be honest every season/month of every year or every time anything miniscule changes, out there pours a plethora of reading lists to accompany it.  I'm always excited to read these lists, but the excitement is usually followed by disappointment.  Instead of focused reading lists that one might actually want to accomplish in a season accompanied by themes and good reasoning, I end up reading a random list of books the creator likes or has read recently with reasons like 'because it was good.'  Summer is actually the worst in this scenario because the list is oftentimes a rehashing of chick lit beach reads that have probably already been compiled onto 30 similar lists in the past year or two.  (Nothing against beach reads or chick lit - reading anything is good, but I just don't need another list of it.)

* I will say the major exception is any reading list on Flavorwire.  They come up with great lists for most months and many intermittently that focus on specific topics.  That's where I get a huge amount of my new reading nowadays. 

Anyway people ask me for book recommendations a lot, and although I always have a suggestion or two up my sleeve I wanted to create a list while I was next to my goodreads account that focuses on a few select topics and a manageable number of books for the summer, assuming as usual that everyone's taste is different and nobody will want to read the exact same books as me.  I've found that this is what I love in a good reading list - focus on a few topics that intersect with a good sprinkling of new and classics. 

The topics I've chosen for this list are as follows - one author spotlight, on my man Jonathan Franzen.  Many hate him, but I don't care.  His books and essays alike are excellent, promote interesting ideas that you can learn about just from reading his books (or do further research if you so choose) and as an added bonus I've read all three on this list in the past year.  My next focus is on nature/sustainability/mindful living, which as you will see ties into the Jonathan Franzen focus.  Last is books that have a notable feminist streamline, followed up with a few summer classics and books to fit the season. 

In an order that is based not on best to worst but rather an interesting way to hop between topics,

1.) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

This is hands down the greatest book I've read so far in 2014.  ( In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe is giving it a run for it's money, but I'm not done with that one yet so we're holding court.)  Told from the perspective of a Nigerian woman living and working in the United States for over a decade, Americanah focuses on the intersectionality of such complex social issues as race, immigration, gender, and information access in the 21st century.  Told part in narration and part in blog posts, the book is completely engrossing and also serves my favorite function of cultural commentary and an opportunity to learn while reading a great novel with complex and fascinating characters. 

2.) Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen

Anything by Jonathan Franzen is a must for people who love learning and a bit of controversy, which is why I chose him for my author spotlight and put all three of his books that I've read on this list.  I honestly can't pick between Farther Away and Freedom, because I love them in such different ways.  Luckily I don't feel pressure to do that because they are very different books - Farther Away is a collection of essays and speeches from the past few years while Freedom is a novel.  Franzen is the perfect author to venture into in the summer because his work is thought provoking, inspires you to learn more, and - it's long.  Farther Away is definitely the easiest to tackle because you can do the essays slowly without losing your sense of place.  The two greatest gems in the book are Pain Won't Kill You, his commencement address from Kenyon College, which focuses on my topics of sustainability and mindful living as well as creating a life that is more emotionally healthy - and a myriad of other amazing topics.  Farther Away, the title essay in the collection, is a tragic meditation mostly focusing on the author's late friend David Foster Wallace.  A tearjerker for sure but I read it again and again.  To further it's summer appropriateness, the essay tracks Franzen's journey to the island that Robinson Crusoe was purportedly based on - quite the summer adventure. 

3.) The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

The first thing I noticed about this book and that continued to strike me throughout was its unique structure.  It is built as a collection of case notes on the life of a fictional artist as being compiled by an academic.  The artist, Harriet Burden, was the wife of a famous art collector and an artist in her own time who challenged the male dominated art world.  After her husbands death she takes on a social experiment project - she creates the artwork for three individual shows, but then has three male artists pose as the creators.  All shows are received positively and gain more acclaim than her original work, but when she comes out as the real creator, there's controversy as to whether she is telling the truth.  The unique format of the novel keeps you thinking and also makes it a good choice for the long days of summer.  It's arguments on feminism and the male dominated art world make it a great intellectual read and it certainly inspires further research. 

4.) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I read this book while traveling between Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Israel, and finished it while trying to not die in typhoon Haiyan in the Phillippines.  Perhaps that is partially to blame for why it almost made me reevaluate my entire life and the way I view my relationships, but I think most of that credit goes to Franzen and his stunning observations on modern life and the way we interact with the people we love - or don't love.  It's huge, and it makes you think and analyze not just the topics it brings up but also the way you live your life - perfect for the long lazy hours of summer, if you're up to the challenge.  If that weren't enough, Franzen manages to put in a huge information blast on the crazy problems of overpopulation and the hypocrisy of American society in relation to this topic.  It ignited my passion for the cause and serves to not only interest you but also give you real solid information on the topic.  Honestly, if you only pick one book on the list in terms of knowledge, it would definitely be this one. 

5.) Want Not by Jonathan Miles

Jonathan is a really common name.  Although it's not up to the par of Franzen, this book follows in the tradition of a novel that manages to explore current topics while also creating interesting characters.  The interconnected stories in Want Not all focus somehow on consumption and overconsumption, and shed stark light on society today.  It's relatively new, so it gets you up on the current topics while learning and giving great things to think about while outside and consuming in the world.

6.) A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

I recently met a guy who was hiking the PCT and hiked the AT last year and he told me that people who hike the Appalacian Trail tend to scorn Bill Bryson.  What I liked about this book is that Bryson invites that insult and acknowledges that he is not a hiker, that he wasn't prepared to hike the trail, and instead uses it as a passionate argument for environmentalism.  I can't say the same for certain other very famous books about certain other trails on opposite coasts.  If you want to be convinced to not hike the Appalachian Trail until you do about ten years of training and get a great history of environmentalism in America and be inspired to go outside this summer, this is your read. 

7.) A Life in Men by Gina Frangello

I saw this author speak at Warwick's a month or so ago, which was an excellent experience that really inspired me about writing and living.  I did like the book when I read it, but it was seeing the author that really cemented the experience.  There's a lot of spoilers very early on in this book so I'm going to err on the side of caution and say that it's about travel, female friendship, living a life of adventure, and living in the face of tragedy.  And, of course, feminism.  My favorite part of seeing the author speak was her explaining and acknowledging the intentional irony of the title - I love intentional irony!  Perhaps a bit more of a traditional beach read than the others on this list, the book is nonetheless intense and makes you think about everything from how women relate to travel and men to each other to how we want to live our own lives.

8.) Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

Only my favorite lady and my favorite book on mindful living.  This book got me through quitting my summer job last year, got me through Europe, and continues to get me through life.  It could be a summer read just for it being the one year anniversary of me reading it for the first time, but it's a great meditation on how to live a slower and more mindful life, how to handle all the shit that gets thrown at us, and it relaxes whether you're on a stressful train abroad or in bed at home.

9.) The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

This was J Fran's big ole break out book, and it's obvious why.  I personally prefer Freedom, but I blazed through this one nonetheless.  The audience is generally split on which they like better so obviously I suggest reading both during the summer of Franzen. 

10.) Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Nature, the relationship with the self, the relationship to society, all the ways that society is fucked up.  What more could you want?  Of course the risk is always that someone is going to take this one too literally, but what I liked about this book is that it gave me the opportunity to stake my own claim in the debate between consumerist society and complete isolation.  Obviously you probably don't want to go as far as McCandless in terms of isolation, but reading this book provides a variety of ideas for how to be more sustainable and eschew the negative aspects of society while also encouraging you to stick with some of your connections lest you die alone in the woods.

11.) The Best American Essays 2013 by Cheryl Strayed

Full disclaimer, this isn't my favorite edition of Best American Essays.  That award goes to 2012 hands down.  But it's great summer reading because the next years edition always comes out in the fall, so it's great fun to work your way through the amazing essays of one year while eagerly awaiting the next.  I mean I might be overestimating the number of people who get this excited about Best American Essays...but whatever. 

12.) Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

Ah the beloved summer classic of my youth.  What is summer for if not at least one nostalgic read?  I will always love this book for its journey of two friends from youth to teenage to adulthood and the complications of growing up and friendship.  The reason it's best to read it in summer is that moreso than any book I've ever read, the tone Blume writes in makes you feel the true atmosphere of summers away on poor beaches and rickety boats even if you've never lived it, which I obviously have not.  (dirty horses and all girls camp for the win.)  Plus, I saw a random lady reading this at IHop last month and we chatted about it for twenty minutes.  Life is so great.

13.) Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit

My other pick for summer nostalgia. 

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

Enough said? 

The passage of time, how we relate to the world, living life, etc etc.  I'm literally ordering this from the library as I type because I'm so excited to reread it. 

 

I love books!

 

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.