It's hard to figure out how to be a person: the first half of June in books

Books read since last entry (This shall be my new format)

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

After Birth by Elisa Albert

The Metamorphasis, In the Penal Colony, and other stories by Franz Kafka

Books purchased since last entry

The Innovaters by Walter Isaacson

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (wait...) (yeah, I bought it for ANOTHER person as a present.  You're next...)

Mislaid by Nell Zink

The Metamorphasis, In the Penal Colony, and other stories by Franz Kafka

Here I am, attempting to write about books more often so that my entries are shorter. I am trying to keep up with the times. Keeping up with the times is a difficult thing to do when you have little to no interest in any kind of new media, and I'm defining new as television up till now. This is probably the least hip thing I could do as a person and cultural consumer, but alas it is who I am. 

I began June (and just wrote May, thanks to several factors including but not limited to the lack of seasons in Southern California, the lack of a schedule at my job, and the lack of people in my life who take time seriously, I no longer understand calendar time,) with two books that come from what is probably my largest 'genre' group, relatively current, relatively literary books by women that deal in the intersections of daily feminist life, culture, and strong narrative. Extra points for books written by women who have a slight academic flare. This includes fiction, nonfiction, essays, memoir, anything good. It excludes overly plotted bullshit and poorly written airport fodder. (Sorry, I'm getting older and thus have less time for crap.)

Favorites in this 'genre' that I am probably making up include: The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, anything by Zadie Smith, Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum, In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, How Should a Person Be? By Sheila Heti, and of course, anything by the goddess Mary Karr.

Joining the ranks is Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey, a much buzzed about book from the past year or so (really, I don't know time anymore,) which follows the mental trajectory of Elyria, who abdicates her marriage to plod around New Zealand in a state of mad mental times. Earlier in life her sister committed suicide, and she married the professor who is the last person who saw her sister, and she seems to have never fully recovered from either of these incidences. One of the great things about this book is that those sentences pretty much describes what happens, event wise, but the book is so much more thanks to the mental narration and inner anxiety of the narrator. And of course, the excellent writing. As anyone who speaks to me knows by now, I'm so over placing dramatic content above excellence of writing. I'll take a well written story where nothing happens over something dramatic, fiction or nonfiction, any day of the year.

The unfortunate thing about the book, is that it also made me want to abdicate my life (for another city or country, not for death.) This is a feeling that I have often, not just while reading books that feature life-abdicating characters. The problem is, I know that if I abdicate this life I'll have to put in all the effort to build a new one that I will eventually then want to abdicate again, and the whole time I'll need to keep making money. It's not that I mind working, I just mind the circumstances of finding work and how long you have to spend being a new person at work before you are comfortable. Those hours add up quickly to a frustrated life.

Several times in the book, the narrator expresses her desire for her life to become 'small and manageable.' I understand this totally, as one of the perks of my life now is that it is small and manageable, versus the life plan that I am somewhat saving money for (somewhat because I keep having to buy things like food and work shoes and other inescapable expenses) which is large and messy and not manageable at all.

“What's between people is more important than anything in the physical world. This is God, Elyria. Anytime two people can look at each other and talk honestly, that is God.” This quote comes from a dubious hippie character that Elyria meets on her travels, (I have met many of these myself,) but I do think it contains some truth. At least when it's really happening. My question is though, how often do people speak and this is NOT happening? How often are people talking and just not really saying anything, talking and nothing true is there? Probably most of the time, and that is depressing.

Example A – this sentence Elyria speaks (thinks?) about her relationship with her husband - “I wondered whether we were who we thought we were, if we were actually married or just in a continuous situation with each other.”

And there is evidence that the first quote is not just hippie bullshit, rather that it is an eternal truth that the book may hope to expose, when Elyria speaks (thinks?) this later - “what matters is that sometimes sense is made between two people and I don't know if it's random or there is any kind of order to it”

As I was saying about the quality of writing over big dramatic events, most of this book was just really quality insights and paragraphs that eloquently captured life. Such as - “After some time my husband reached over to hold my hand, which reminded me that at least there was this, at least we still had hands that remembered how to love each other, two bone and flesh flaps that hadn't complicated their simple love by speaking or thinking or being disappointed or having memories. They just held and were held and that is all. Oh, to be a hand.” Oh to be a hand! What a sentence.

The book does deal quite significantly in death, not only the sister's death but also the husband's mother's suicide, and how those deaths interplay in the marriage. “I am or we were (or still are) the kind of people who can never quite get away from our losses, the kind of people who don't know that magic trick that other people seem to know – how to dissolve a sense of loss, how to unbraid it from a brain.” Unbraid it from a brain!

But the book also talks about how these upheavals of sorrow aren't all the worst, which I'm going to interpret as an argument for what I also believe, which is that everyone is mostly too focused on life being 'good' and the pursuit of contentment at all costs when really there's a lot of value to feeling the full range of emotions and letting oneself be ravaged once in a while - “because being occasionally destroyed is, I think, a necessary part of the human experience.”

“and in that moment I could think of all kinds of things I would rather be: a string bean plant or a possum who just wanted to crawl and eat, instead of being a person who can't seem to find a way to comfortably live or be in this world.” Same, same.

My next semi hip literary book about womanhood by a woman was After Birth by Elisa Albert, discussing a topic which which I have much less familiarity and interest than the topic of being alone and mental anguish, aka, motherhood and babies. I am giving myself a lot of points just for reading this because I am trying to learn to be less judgmental about the U.S. Culture's obsession with motherhood....even though I am the one who is shamed for not being interested in children. Whatever.

After Birth follows a mother, Ari, who is not adjusting well to life after baby. (Not-well adjusted women, there's a theme.) She is not following the traditional paths of joy and acclimation to motherhood, and finds herself obsessed with the ways in which she doesn't fit into the mother paradigm. Her husband is supportive but can be a dingus (isn't that all men?) and she falls into an obsession-turned friendship with a female poet in residence at the college where her husband teaches, who also has a baby.

I read a fair amount about this book before buying it, not even on purpose (you can probably gather from above sentences that I don't actively seek out reviews on books about motherhood) and I think the reviewer caution should be employed here: no matter how much you love a book, be careful about talking about how intense and dramatic it is as a selling point, because many times it will not live up to that level of intensity and drama. That's not to say a negative thing about the book, the book is what it is, rather, it's difficult for the reader to divorce the 'it didn't live up to the hype' thing, even though the hype is inherently separate of the book.

Re: writing style: After Birth was on point with the narrative details, one of the strongest aspects of the book. However...where is this choppy sentence thing in vogue? Is it supposed to be mimicking thoughts? Whose thoughts? I think in pretty extensive sentences. I'm all for non traditional sentence structure, but the ones that take out necessary words for the sake of it elude me.

“Will's a smart guy. Not smart as in advanced degree; smart as in knows how to be.” Well, that certainly is an important type of smart, one that I am increasingly believing I do not possess.

“It's not until you really talk to someone that you realize how infrequently you actually talk to anyone.” Le fucking sigh.

The book talks a lot about the female body and our relationship to it, which of course I love. It's still so ignored and slighted as a petty topic, which is so frustrating because it's the least petty of topics! These bodies that we LIVE in are still subject to so much objectification and shame, and yet when people try to talk about that it's like snore, women's interest, white feminism -

“Oh-ho, the second wave police are out. Heaven forbid it might be true that female bodies are different. Heaven forbid we admit that living in these female bodies is different. More terrible and more wonderful.”

Some good old technology hating never hurt anyone: “On the train down I'm sitting next to some fifteen year old texting texting texting the whole way. Hate these little girls because they never have to be alone with themselves. Life is going to be so fucking cruel to you, you prissy little bitch.” Ah, to be alone with yourself. How challenging, but how good even in its continual anxiety. And also, the inadvertent theme of maybe every book I ever read, life is going to be so cruel to everyone.

There were so many excellent snippets of the frustrations of womanhood in this book: “I am a female he can't immediately classify.” Right!? Men have such a hard time with me sometimes because I'm not a person who falls into the constant female categories, sex object, caring figure, nice girl. It's like if we're not an accepted concept we don't exist. “Call it low-grade misogyny. It's not extreme-porno misogyny, not I'm gonna rape and kill you misogyny, just plain old run of the mill semi conscious women-are-to-fuck-or-mother misogyny. Fear of the female. Menstrual cycle as mysterious sinister secret, et cetera. Women as doormats and/or commodities and/or hookers, the end. Intuition an absurdity. Life only and always about what we can touch/articulate/own. And me with my insistence on eye contact, my opinions! My candor! My always! Feeling! So! Much!” Word, Elisa, word.  

My next book was not at all in the same category as those books. Kafka is not a woman or current and is maybe hip in the way that people like to make reading old things hip, but not in the same way. There was one similar factor though, the people not knowing how to go about the world in the normal way. It's many of us, apparently.

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories is the first Kafka I've read since reading The Metamorphosis as a sole story in high school. It is my classic for the month, since I am continually embarrassed by how few of the old great writers I've read. As with last month, I was not disappointed, so I'm forced to believe that I may be becoming better at reading difficult things. Which is good, I think.

Anne Rice did the introduction to this bad boy, and even that contained a few pearls. Of Kafka - “a writer who could teach sheer nerve.” I could use some of that. “One could write from the heart in the most outrageous way....only in one's personal language can the crucial tales of a writer be told. Don't bend, don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion.”

Perhaps the best part of any great piece of writing is individual great sentences, they can represent a great idea but in the purest form it's just a sentence whose words are so wonderfully strung together that you internally gasp. i.e.: “We ran our heads full tilt into the evening.” So simple! So beautiful!

It was interesting rereading The Metamorphosis, because even though I read it probably what, eight years ago? I still remembered a lot of details, which is strange considering that often I can't remember things I read six months ago. It's funny because when I read it in high school, I'm sure that I was looking for some larger allegory or metaphor, because I thought that's what you were supposed to look for in great works of fiction, but luckily over the years I've learned that while that is sometimes true, other times it is not, and that reading things for the pleasure of a story and the quality of the writing and narration is more important than getting all term papery about it.

But really talk about dislocation of the mind and not knowing how to be a person! When you are no longer a person and are instead a bug!

I quite enjoyed the mini stories within stories, which represents more progress because usually when I read flash fiction I'm like whatever. Even comparing the two (Kafka's shorts and flash fiction) feels icky to me so clearly I need to accept that new things are fine and just more visible manifestations of things that have always been done. Anyway, favorites included Before the Law, Eleven Sons, and First Sorrow.  

Sometimes I wonder if things are really phrased humorously or if I just laugh at the strangest things, like this, the first sentence in A Hunger Artist. “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished.” Is that funny? Why did I laugh??

I found A Hunger Artist to be an apt allegory for the life of an artist in general, though since I just dissed allegories I don't know how much to trust myself. “But why shouldn't we admire it?' 'Because I have to fast, I can't help it.' said the hunger artist. 'What a fellow you are,' said the overseer, 'and why can't you help it?' 'Because,' said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer's ear, so that no syllable might be lost, 'because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” Sometimes I think this about art and writing. People are like why do you want to do something that is so difficult to make money in and I'm like well I can't do anything else besides walk in circles handing people food, so.

And speaking once more to the difficulty of living in the world, this gem from Josephine the Singer: “Josephine's thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people's precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.”

After finishing the Kafka, I moved onto The Innovators, Walter Isaacson's new book which tells the long and complex story of how collaboration created computers. I was going to start talking about it in this entry, but it's quite a large book and thus it will probably take me at least a week to read, thus by the time that my next entry rolls around most of it will be dedicated to the monster. What I will say now: I understand very little technical language, women are awesome and overlooked in history, and I don't think that a machine can replicate a human brain but my human brain can certainly not do math.

In other cultural news, I have converted to podcasts...but the only ones I like are about books. i.e., still a luddite. But if anyone wants to listen to some great podcasts, I am a huge fan of Lit Up with Emily Gould and Angela Ledgerwood and a rotating author every week, and Two Book Minimum with Dan Wilbur and a rotating author and comedian. Also, Inside the New York Times Book Review. I've listened to a few others but alas none of them are quite up to my intellectual standards. Whoops, there it is again.

I'm also trying to stay up on the reading articles game, and here are a few that the people I know might find interesting:

W/r/t After Birth and the children debate, this article discusses the shame around women who choose not to procreate and Meghan Daum's anthology on childlessness, which is currently sitting on my bed.

Shoutout to my favorite book of last month / possibly forever:

My (fake facebook) employer the pope lays it down on climate change:

This short story by Sheila Heti in The New Yorker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le cry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything but an abundance of nails!

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

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





May Books, part 1 of 2: Not shockingly, I love nontraditional narratives

Books Read:

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Spinster: Making a Life on One's Own by Kate Bolick

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

This is Running for Your Life: Essays by Michelle Orange

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Books Bought:

Spinster: Making a Life on One's Own by Kate Bolick

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits

After Birth by Elisa Albert

Selfish, Shallow, and Self Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision to Not Have Kids; edited by Meghan Daum

I have said it before, (once, in January) and I'll say it again, (but luckily for different reasons): it's entirely possible to read too many books - to fit into one blog post. Which brings me to a tentative statement: (announcement feels like too important of a word for what basically amounts to a personal log) I think for the sake of my observations I will shift from posting this monthly to bi-weekly, and ideally then also including tidbits from my varieties of internet reading and how it all relates to my efforts in the creative endeavors. Reasons abound, but as stated above – nine is too many books to fit into a concise post. (And I couldn't. After four books I was at over four thousand words. Post one of two for May it is!)

The other problem with waiting until the end of the month is that my room is very messy and my brain can only fit so many observations about books before they leak out in unfortunate favor of things like how to use the espresso machine at work and trying to finagle schedule changes...for work. There's the rub: all I do is work and read/write. And run, I also run. But that's pretty much it.

On the bright side, you will notice from that sentence the conspicuous absence of 'spend hours of time being unbearably anxious,' and I am glad to report that although I am under no impression that I am completely out of the woods of panic, (because anxiety is a lifelong problem that one must learn to manage effectively rather than eradicate completely, et cetera et cetera) I have made many strides in said panic management in the past month, without having to expel anyone from my life on a permanent hiatus! I will attribute this to the general ability of humans (in this case, myself) to adapt to their circumstances and habituate to things that once made them panic. AKA, everyone and everything that has stressed me out (people, work) is effectively the same, but I am learning to be different in regards to negative reactions to poor stimuli, which is probably the goal of adulthood?

Back up two paragraphs: re: my room being messy. Once again I have temporarily misplaced a book I read this month, and thus cannot go back and refer to my assiduous notes in its margins. This book is the first book I read this month, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. On the bright side, while looking for this book, I found the book I lost in March, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, so that leads me to believe that Joan is not far afield.

What I recall: that I felt like a jerk, because while reading about Joan's inescapable misery upon the death of her husband, I was really taken in by the images of her fancy intellectual life with her husband, pre-death. To be fair, I'm sure that she was also very enamored with her fancy intellectual life pre-her husbands death, but I doubt that was supposed to be the primary takeaway.

Perhaps it's for the best that I have temporarily misplaced this book, because I feel a little ridiculous having a commentary on Joan Didion. It's like, what do you, young writer of perhaps some unharnessed talent but no success or acclaim, think of one of the greatest living nonfiction writers? Inquiring minds are super curious! Not. I mean, this has never stopped me from having an opinion on literally anything in the cultural canon before, including several writers who I will go on to write about this month (I'm looking at you, Zadie) but given that this book was a prolonged meditation on grief, I'm not that party to be like 'meh here were the problems.' I think she's earned herself the right to an entire book on grief, given the fact that currently sitting on my desk is an anthology of her work, i.e. if you are still alive and have an anthology and your life partner can do whatever you want.  Plus, it was beautiful.

Or, I will remember to write things down before I lose any more books.

It turns out that in the cultural chaparral of San Diego, I am not the only person who reads books. Neither is the person of whom I have said 'But I must keep speaking with him because no one else in this city reads books.' There is a third, and it is one of my coworkers, who lent me The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera once she heard that I am the resident bookworm of the restaurant.

I am naturally wary of both recommendations and classics, the former because I fear not liking something that someone lent me due to my pretentious tastes so I often avoid the issue entirely by just not reading the book, and the latter because I live in the constant fear that my general inclination towards contemporary literature is hiding a secret intellectual disability regarding great old works. Luckily, in this case, neither of these was a problem, which will hopefully open the door to an exciting future of reading book recommendations and enjoying classic literature.

I recently read some n + 1 commentary on The Unbearable Lightness as literary porn, which I don't particularly agree with because although it is certainly a novel about the complications of erotic entanglements, it doesn't actually contain that many graphic passages about sex. To dismiss that as literary porn seems a sad designation, because complicated erotic entanglements written in an artistic manner are not only more interesting than reading about traditional domestic relationships, (sorry, but not really, because everyone already cares about domestic life as they're living it, why does it have to be interesting to people who have chosen to eschew it? Anyway) they help bring to the forefront the fact that real lives exist out of the traditional paradigms of love and marriage.

And of course, there's the fact that the novel is just about much more than the complicated sexual relationship between the two main characters. The central conflict, from which the novel takes its name, is how to live every day when life is so inherently meaningless, how to carry the weight of the knowledge that everything is such a chance occurrence.

“We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the 'es muss sein' to our own great love. Tomas often thought of Tereza's remark about his friend and came to the conclusion that the love story of his life exemplified not 'es muss sein' (it must be so) but rather 'es konnte auch anders sein' (it could just as well be otherwise).”

Are things the way they are for a reason, because they were destined, or could life just as easily have taken another path? Who knows! And the book doesn't ask you to know! It lets us wonder along with the characters the whole time, and welcomes us to live freely in the uncertainty.

I'll include one more tidbit of interest, from toward the end of the novel. Kundera is discussing the ways in which we desire to be 'known' by those around us, and creates a very interesting categorization of how we interact with the social world.

In his first category, is people who desire to be known by 'an infinite number of anonymous onlookers.' For example, actors. The second is people for whom it is 'vital to be looked at by many known eyes.' Such as social butterflies, hosts of cocktail parties, etc. The third is 'before the eyes of the person they love,' and the fourth 'live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.' I loved this description because it's so rare to read a true analysis of how people interact with each other and socialize that isn't cast aside for being silly in the shadow of identity politics. It really speaks to the ways that we choose to live our lives as a result of our social needs, even ones that we don't cognizantly think about.

Even more interesting is that Kundera claims that the third category, valuing the gaze of the person you love before all else, is the most dangerous. (The reasoning being that said person can, you know, leave you or die.) I found it interesting because at least from my vantage point, it seems like most people fall into that third category, and the most common category being the most dangerous is quite a social concept. Then again, it's also possible that more people actually fall into the whole spectrum of categories, but they just prioritize the gaze of their signif other because that is the cultural norm.

Pause, clear your mind, and now pay attention to this if it is the only sentence you remember from this entire litany of words:

Read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

I'm not going to be able to state this enough.This is the book. Of the month, of the year, of maybe the decade? Okay, I really can't speak for the decade. But it's reams of paper beyond every other book I've read lately, and certainly in the highest circle of books that I've read ever, and maybe deserves a monument or something. Definitely I'll go on a rampage if it doesn't win some major prizes this year. (But it'll be up against the new J Franz so it's going to be a big old conflict in my head)

A Little Life follows four college friends through their adult and professional lives in New York City circling in on Jude, who has a nearly unspeakably dark past. The first overarching thing (of many things) that I absolutely adored about this novel is that beyond that basic sentence I just wrote, nothing about the characters lives is traditional. The novel rarely focuses on what so many novels are obsessed with: domestic life, traditional relationships, children, basically all the things that normal people elevate to godly importance, this novel ignores in favor of lives and passions that are not often glorified or discussed. The characters do reach startling professional success, but none without many years of struggle and the details are so finely wrought that they are extremely believable.

Foremost of the unglorified passions that the novel sheds light on is the lifeblood of long term, intense friendships. The replacement of a traditional domestic family with a group of friends is at the core of the narrative, and with that is brought a whole plethora of singular moments that illustrate how great friends operate on a day to day basis, from the smallest moments of entertainment:

“When they told JB and Malcolm this, however, they made it into a comedy; the apartment floor became tattooed with mouse droppings, the man across the way had almost exposed himself, the agent was upset because she had been flirting with Willem and he hadn't reciprocated.”

to small gems of intense truth - “Friendship, companionship, it so often defied logic, so often eluded the deserving, so often settled itself on the odd, the bad, the peculiar, the damaged.”

to the (many) mentions of the guilt inducing benefits of intense friendships that exclude others as much as they include the participants: “One night it was just the four of them. This was early in their third year, and was unusual enough for them to all feel cozy and a little sentimental about the clique they had made. And they were a clique, and to his surprise, he was part of it: the building they lived in was called Hood Hall, and they were known around campus as the Boys in the Hood. All of them had other friends (JB and Willem had the most), but it was known (or at least assumed, which was just as good) that their first loyalties were to one another. None of them had ever discussed this explicitly, but they all knew they liked this assumption, that they liked this code of friendship that had been imposed upon them.”

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the friendship portion of the book, though, was how well it portrayed the singular moments in the day to day that make our best friendships what they are. The silliness, the goofing off and saying of ridiculous things that you really can't do with anyone else. The tangents that turn into games that you play for years, the conversations in the car that leave you laughing so hard you're not sure if you're capable of driving. I know these exchanges so well, because they're one of the most cherished things in my life, but I've never read a writer capture them so acutely and meaningfully, while keeping the silliness, that Yanagihara does.

And of course - “After all, where else would they get to use their semaphores, that language that had only two speakers in the whole world?”

The book narrates each stage of life that the characters go through so intuitively that I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Yanagihara had been writing the book for her entire adult life, focusing on each age as she lived it herself. (This is not true, because like a baller she wrote the 700+ page book in 18 months.) This passage, in particular, struck me about being the age and place in life that I am now:

“'I better be fucking up there, or this whole thing has been a fucking waste, just like everything else,' everything else meaning, variously, grad school, moving back to New York, the hair series, or life in general, depending on how nihilistic he felt that day.”

Or this one, illustrating how the smallest things can feel like giant accomplishments to those of us for whom even having a stable and independent adult life is a dream realized:

“he would enter the apartment with a feeling of accomplishment. Only to him and Jude would Lispenard Street be considered an achievement – for as much work as he had done to it, and as much as Jude had cleaned it, it was still sad, somehow, and furtive, as if the place was embarrassed to call itself a real apartment – but in those moments he would find himself thinking, This is enough. This is more than I hoped. To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people's words! - it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.”

Without going into the particulars of what makes my life an absurd not life, I identify so much with the conflicting feelings of absurdity and pride, of a life that you work so hard to maintain even though to so many people it isn't much at all.

As if a 700 page long book with friendship as a main pillar weren't enough, Yanagihara also made the living of life outside of traditional domesticity a tenet of the book.

After one of the characters parents suggests they stop being so attached to their friends and couple up - “But how was one to be an adult? Was couplehood truly the only appropriate option? (But then, a sole option was no option at all.) Thousands of years of evolutionary and social development and this is our only choice?”

Um, WORD. I think it's a little odd how so many writers are championing the portrayal of domesticity in books when...that is literally the only common feature in most books. If there's a big trove of current serious literature that doesn't involve marriage / children that is getting all the awards that people are pissed about...can someone tell me where it is?

One of the great pleasures of reading is when a book puts voice, eloquently and universally, to an idea that you've been mulling over in your own head in not so eloquent terms. I've been thinking lately about how complex the discussion of privilege is, given that everyone feels negative emotions and struggles, regardless of the money or privilege in their life. Do not mistake, I still spend a few hours a week bemoaning people who have fancy connections after attending Ivy League colleges, but I spend a lot less time than I used to rolling my eyes at white men, because hey, shitty things happen to all of us, and being peeved at privileged people sometimes amounts to a waste of time.

“'What does Malcolm have to worry about?' JB would ask them when Malcolm was anxious about something, but he knew: he was worried because to be alive was to worry. Life was scary, it was unknowable. Even Malcolm's money wouldn't immunize him completely. Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them.”

I don't think I can talk about the book without mentioning how incredibly tragic it is. I don't want to transcribe passages in this case, because most of my favorite tragic passages are too revealing of the events of the novel, and one of the great joys of reading this book is how carefully and slowly the details of Jude's life unfold. For that you have to read it, except you have to read it anyway because it is the best book in the world. In probably one week I'm going to just break down and start buying it and anonymously sending it to people because I so badly want someone to discuss this novel with!

Both A Little Life and the next book I read, Spinster by Kate Bolick, are books that I pretty much knew I had to purchase as soon as I heard about them because the subject matter was so inherently appealing to me. Spinster keeps the theme from A Little Life of nontraditional lifestyles, but instead of describing friendships, it focuses on another favorite theme of my life, being an independent woman.

Spinster is a mixture of memoir and social history, describing Bolick's journey in realizing that she doesn't crave traditional partnership in the way that women are expected to, and researching five artistic women throughout history who behaved out of the traditional female as dependent spouse and mother paradigm. Bolick discusses the centuries long stigmatization of the single woman and the many forms it has taken throughout history, as well as the still current practice of placing negative connotations on women who own their sexuality.

This book really instigated a thought process for me about how society regards the single woman. Ever since reading it, I've been taking notes and thinking thoughts for ideally, future articles about how those who thrive in the patriarchal society use the negative image of the single woman as a form of oppression. Before the wolves descend, I know that the oppression of the single woman is not anything like the oppression of the extremely impoverished or racial minorities, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. So more on that later.

Bolick speaks, early in the book, to the idea which I fully support that to evolve as an artist, you need to spend a lot of your life growing not-alongside another person. This relates to an idea that probably many people have said but I most recently read in the voice of Meghan Daum, that people who are in intensely serious relationships when they're very young tend to grow together, and develop interests and lifestyles that are entangled. What Bolick asks, is if this way of living is conductive to being an artist? She seems to think that no, it isn't, and I agree: “But also because we were both trying to be artists, and as we neared the end of college, I began to sense a friction between the intimacy we shared and the autonomy required to become the people we wanted to be.”

This is emphasized by a passage later in the book: “Being single is like being an artist, not because creating a functional single life is an art form, but because it requires the same close attention to one's singular needs, as well as the will and focus to fulfill them. Just as the artist arranges her life around her creativity, sacrificing conventional comforts and even social acceptance, sleeping and eating according to her own rhythms, so that her talent thrives above all a single person has to think hard to decipher what makes her happiest and most fulfilled.”

Through Bolick's own experiences, she communicates without explicitly stating a central aspect of living an independent life as a woman (or anyone, actually): unless you have an extremely low sex drive or are asexual (or really, really okay with having one night stands all the time) part of this lifestyle is finding people who are as independent as you are and willing to make intimacy a part of your lives without following the traditional path that implies: eventually moving in together, getting married, and having children. Sometimes you fall into this naturally and maybe other times it happens with more careful planning, but Bolick never states or implies that she wants to not have men in her life at all, rather that she wants to enjoy relationships that don't bind her to a long term contract. And I'm like, same.

Bolick also discusses the flaws in the logic that govern couplehood as the ultimate goal, the primary desired status. “But one aspect that hasn't changed at all is [marriage's] fantasy of certainty. It's true that the per capita divorce rate has dropped from its all-time peak in 1981 of about 53 divorces per 1000 people – but even so, today nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. It's amazing, really, how deftly we hold in our collective consciousness this disconnect between what we want marriage to be and how so many marriages actually turn out.”

This could be seen, from a romantic's point of view, as an endless faith in love, that our story will be the one to defy the odds. Or, it could be seen as a crippling fantasy. Viewing marriage as certainty is about as good an idea as viewing anything in life as certain, which is to say, not very.

I don't want this to turn into a shit storm session on couples, since approximately 90% of people I interact with are in serious relationships so I'd be offending like, everyone. But then again, why am I so worried about offending people who get the everyday affirmation of doing something that society approves of? What's so wrong with hailing authors who discuss the pros of alternative ways of living? It's not like Yanagihara or Bolick are saying that doing the accepted thing is bad, just that other ways of life are also okay. As Amy Poehler said last month: good for her, not for me.

To those wondering about me saying all this when I also spent an amount of time quite anxious about these very things: sometimes, anxiety stems from feeling that your life falls outside social norms, and once you realize that you're truly free of them, you settle into it.

Maybe I'm full of shit, and I'll meet some guy who I want to spend every second of the day with and have a bunch of kids and whatever, but as time goes on and I learn more about myself, the world, and the people that I like best, I find it increasingly likely that the people I'll have the most satisfying interactions with (be that friendships or intimate partnerships) with are people who need space, who do their own thing, who probably have as many inner debates about their conflicting desires for companionship and solitude as I do.  Slash, with each passing day I am more convinced that I will never want children.  

And anyway, look how long just writing about four books was! Hence, here I end, and post, and will now write about the next five books, giving my three readers a convenient break.   

In Which I Return to Reading Many Books but Hate Most of them: April 2015

Books Read

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Read Harder by various

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Books Bought

*I didn't do books bought for March because I was too...something, but it deserves to be noted that I ordered approximately 15 books of poetry online in March.

*I believe March was also the month where I took two trips to Barnes and Noble in one weekend and the damage was what you'd imagine it to be. Don't hate me for going to Barnes and Noble, hate San Diego for having one independent bookstore that I already frequent.

*I didn't buy any books in April. I had all the ones from March that I was/not reading. But I'm back on the train now.

The good news – I have recovered my lost ability to read. The bad news – I hate everyone and my life is a yoke. You take what you can get though, and I'm glad to have books back in my life even if everything else feels like the worst prank the university ever played.

I've been doing this new thing, in the name of having plans and projects because sometimes those things aid in one's general happiness, where I try to read books by writers about the craft of writing and take notes on them. I do this because although I do think that I have some form of talent in writing, I know that I have a lot of practicing to do and also perhaps learning about actual form and grammar and style.

Some of the books are more worthwhile than others. I have no problem believing that they are all worthwhile for the right demographic, but the right demographic is not always me.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose had a lot of useful advice, but was also told in a rather pretentious tone literally the whole time. And I'm pretty pretentious myself, so I get it, but also, if something is pretentious enough to bother me I think that means it's crossed some kind of pretention line.

I understand why a writing guide borrows liberally from other books to point out techniques, but there comes a time when the book is 75% excerpts from other books and I'm like well I'm just not going to copy Isaac Babel's exact technique, so instead of reading a million excerpts can you spend more time talking about what they're doing in the grander context? Instead of like, 'Ah, look at that.' Also, I don't know about everyone else, but reading excerpts out of context just isn't THAT helpful.

There was definitely some great advice in this book, mostly on sentence structure and word choice, but I felt like the good stuff could have been put into perhaps an essay, rather than hiding it in the mires of an entire book. Also, the main thesis of the book was this: “Here's a bunch of rules, but really great writing breaks these rules all the time, but you probably aren't that good, so follow the rules.” First, I don't really care for any book that can be boiled down into a paragraph, and second, what useless advice! 'Some people can break these rules but you probably aren't one of them so suck it.'

I wish that I had liked Yes Please by Amy Poehler a bit more. That's not to say I didn't like it – I would say I felt...lukewarm towards it. First, I don't think that there's a ton of value in at least 1/8 of a book being about how hard it is to write a book. That's a pretty commonly accepted fact, and also, you're a famous person who probably got a large advance and a lot of support, so I don't have a whole lot of sympathy, and it's not really what I bought your book to hear about.

In addition, I feel that for all the complaining about the difficulty of writing, the book itself wasn't particularly well written. This is not to say that Amy Poehler is a bad writer. I think that she's very good at her particular brand of writing, which is humor writing for television. This does not always translate well to book form. I think there's still plenty of value in writing the book, but I'm at a loss as to why the editors didn't clean it up a bit more. Old man harumph.

Of course I still think the book has great value, such as the advice that one should spend some of their thirties married without children. Sounds great! Much better than in tenuous discussion with challenging people at a physically demanding job in your twenties! Most of what she said about growing up in general made me feel better and that there is hope, which is alas, rare for me. Also a great credo for feminist advice: Good for her! Not for me. Six words to cut down on the comparing that women so constantly engage in.

I liked all the parts about her becoming a comedian in New York with other energetic young people, but it really made me sad that instead of moving to the same city to follow our dreams, all my awesome smart energetic creative friends and I are living in different cities faking being adults. But alas there is nothing one can do but change one's own life, and I'm doing that by moving to said city when I save the dollars. And hope to make fun energetic smart friends when I get there. Which seems unlikely. But better than here.

Of course I liked her parts about waitressing, duh. And I agree that 'waitressing takes a certain gusto.' It's always comforting for me to read about successful females waiting tables, but then I am reminded of the millions of waitresses who wait tables forever and don't go on to become famous tv writers or write books etc etc. And I wonder which camp I will fall into, as I imagine my knees giving out in a few years / tomorrow.

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan seemed promising, as it's a collection of essays by a well respected essayist and this year's editor of Best American Essays. It started out great, with him regaling the tale of attending a Christian Rock festival and the ensuing absurdity, but quickly became a long journey down a river of a middle aged white guy writing about various not entirely interesting aspects of American culture. And please understand – I don't lay down the middle aged white guy (or white thing in general) very often because I think for the most part it's reductive, but here I found it apt, because who else would be interested in such esoteric aspects of American culture that have so little relevance when there is always so much going on that IS relevant? Apparently the author and the readers of his articles which all seemed to first be placed in GQ magazine.

I did enjoy Sullivan's voice in most of the essays, his humorous asides gave him a unique style and kept my interest. This reminds me that voice is one of the most important factors in a piece of writing for me, which I will file alongside the fact that boring subject matter is one of my mood killers.

He did have some astute observations hidden within the wanderings of a privileged white man - “I don't know if he was gay or bisexual or pansexual. Those distinctions are clumsy terms with which to address the mysteries of sexuality.”

I found it patently odd that he devoted less than seven pages to an essay about the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, but seventeen pages to an essay about the television show The Real World. Maybe the original assignments were just that long, but homie, this is YOUR book. I assume there was more going on after hurricane Katrina than with some lame ex reality star! Aside from my intense aesthetic aversion to trashy reality tv (I literally felt physically uncomfortable reading The Real World essay) I just did not feel any value in learning about the highs and lows of former reality tv stars. You made your bed! Lie down!

Lots of essays about musicians that I didn't care about and that, more importantly, he didn't make me care about. Lots of essays about very obscure historical happenings, that again, he did not make me care about. I'm a passionate and generally interested person, I can be made to care about pretty much anything, but the writer has to do some work to make things accessible and not just pet projects. The fact that the last essay in the book was about Sullivan and his wife and child living for several years in a home that was a set piece on One Tree Hill led me to believe that he probably needs to get out more.

I have always liked Anne Lamott, so this pains me to say, but I did not like Bird by Bird. Perhaps this is my own fault – I should have read it when I was younger, instead of when I'd been through four years worth of writing workshops taught by unsentimental badasses, or before I already considered myself a serious writer despite my lack of credentials.

Many books I read about writing do this thing where they tell you that you have to write just for the sake of writing and have no eye whatsoever on any kind of success. I get it, I do, but I think it's a pretty silly thing for a successful writer to say. Like oh, ignore the fact that I make my living off of this, you definitely never will so think about other things instead. I wouldn't even say that for me personally the goal is to make a living off of writing – I really have no idea how to make a living other than the thing I do now, the waiting of the tables, and I don't particularly know what my ideal is, I just write because I'm a person who writes. It's not a particularly complex thing in my mind, I'm not going to stop writing regardless of what happens to what I write.

Anyway, point of that is, don't tell me what I want or don't want, humans!

Qualms: pretty much everyone who thinks of themselves as a serious writer knows that you just have to keep writing. It's not rocket science. Thus, I don't need three chapters of a book I read to be dedicated to that. Again, maybe I just came to this book too late, but I don't think there's a ton of value in repeating that particular piece of advice. If people don't get it when you say it once, they probably aren't going to for a while.

Oh, I already forgot! My biggest qualm with Anne Lamott writing a book instructing people how to write novels is that Anne Lamott does not write good novels. Anne Lamott writes great memoirs, she puts an incredible spin on religion and spirituality for people who have issues with said things generally, but her novels are not great. So all of her advice on that front felt tainted.

I guess this is all my own fault, because I want to read more advanced books on craft, and this was not that. Alas. I tried.

I have this thing where some of my favorite books are anthologies of literary magazines, because I'm probably not going to read every issue of a literary magazine, but I generally like what they produce, so the best ofs are some of my favorite things. Alas, Read Harder, a Believer anthology, was not one of my favorites. I mean, it was still better than reading a random book, but compared to my heavyweights (the n + 1 anthology mostly) it was just not le same. I didn't realize until later that Believer is part of the Dave Eggers multiplex, but that could be part of the problem. I sense this weird unwarranted superiority coming from anything he touches, and I don't like it! And I know it isn't because of the in-group mentality that I'm not a part of, because n + 1 exhales that in-group mentality like nobody's business but I'm still obsessed with n + 1!

I guess I just felt that, if this was really the BEST of The didn't seem like the best. There were certainly a few gems, but also a lot of meh, and if this is the BEST, then shouldn't they all be gems? I really don't think I'm that picky about essays. I can get into pretty much anything if it's written in an engaging and exciting manner, evidenced by my obsession with the entirety of Best American Essays 2012.

Gems in this volume include Travels with My Ex by Susan Straight....which I have already read in a volume of BAE, but had no problem rereading because it's excellent. Racism on the road, an ever present topic. Virginia Mountain Scream Queen by Rebecca Taylor, detailing her years as the lover/assistant to a B horror movie director. Dark Family by Sarah Gran and Megan Abbott, researching V.C. Andrews – amazing! Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah's essay about Dave Chapelle.

I suppose a common theme in this curmudgeonly entry is that some things people write I just do not find interesting. I don't want to read an entire essay on erasure! Or about the anatomy of a beaver! But I feel the need to stress again the point: I am vastly capable of interest in stupid topics. Probably moreso than the average person. See above, where I get excited about B horror movies and V.C. Andrews. I think it's the writer's responsibility more than the reader's to make a topic interesting. If you have the go ahead from the Believer or GQ to play out one of your stupid pet projects, you should see that as a privilege and make your writing a joy to read.

Of course, they sneak some killers in at the end. An essay by Francisco Goldman about the writing of Say Her Name that is both tragic and a discussion of genre? Kill me! (With joy.) That crown of glory does not belong in the same volume as crap about beavers! Yeesh.

Curmudgeon is back for a moment: I skipped over the Leslie Jamison essay because I hated it the first time I read it in her book and I don't care to make myself repeat the experience. If anyone would like to explain the current fascination with her and her writing, I'm all ears, because I find it useless.

The last essay, Nick Hornby telling of his years as an 'Asian company man,' was funny and also inspiring for a writer who needs the gentle reminder that he future arrives in strange ways.

Then I read No Country For Old Men, which was 90x better than any of these other works of tomfoolery. Lest you think I'm just throwing around that sentence, I'll point out each way it trumped all the other books – it broke all the rules, looking at you Francine Prose, it was well written and did not feel the need to complain about the challenges of being a book, looking at you Amy Poehler, it was a great novel that I would be interested to hear from the author of, looking at you Anne Lamott, it was about America and random esoteric topics but I was still interested, looking at you John Jeremiah Sullivan, and it took material that could have been boring but made me be interested, all you Believer fools.

I won't bother describing the book, because I'm apparently the last one on the Cormac McCarthy train so everyone already knows. I would only like to note that the book fucked with plot, style, and character, and was kind of confusing, but it totally worked and that may just be the mark of a great writer. Who knows.  

alas: my super half assed books from March

Books Read

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

MFA vs. NYC by various

Shopgirl by Steve Martin

Books Bought

a shit ton. I can't get myself out of my chair to list them all.

I had a great books post planned for March, where I talked all about the amazing insights on racism from Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and then I worked every day in April, and then I finally went to gather my books and realized that I literally cannot find Citizen, which was kind of the lynchpin of my month in reading. Now, I know that I'm messy, but I actually keep very good track of my books so this is odd and embarrassing, much like the rest of my life right now.

Citizen was a truly incredible book, an inspiration in mixed genre, a stark look at the ways in which everyday racism exists in our country. I think that everyone should read it, which I don't usually say because my tastes are pretty highbrow and esoteric for taking any claims on this 'everyone' thing. But Citizen is an exception, because it's great art but also accessible art that takes an issue that is so incredibly vital to the nation and delivers it in digestible well formed thoughts. Read it.

As I write this, I find that even the two books I can find, I don't really have any desire to go grab and take notes from onto here as I usually do. MFA vs. NYC because I have already decided that I am going to move to New York and to take notes on it in a books post feels cross referency and superfluous in ways that I don't care about. And Shopgirl was great, but to make a long story into a sentence, it was given to me by a lady in my now defunct writing group which depresses me because it was one of the only things I liked about my life, and the story itself hit too close to home in several ways, one of which I will half assedly quote from memory and it should explain.

“Slowly it began to damage Mirabelle, that he took from her only the parts that he wanted and not all of her.”

I love books by the editors of n + 1, and I thank them for helping me in my decision to move to New York, although it wasn't really that book at all, it was more my life here imploding in on me, leaving me with an obvious option that I kind of always wanted but was trying to pretend I didn't want in an effort to make my life here work. And Steve Martin is a surprisingly great writer, but next time someone says that writing on the life of a working class girl is overdone or boring, I'm going to say If Steve Martin, a famous white man, can do it, why can't I, an actual literal working class girl?

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

February 2015

Books Read

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Good Prose by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd

Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss

Lillian on Life by Allison Jean Lester

Books Bought

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss

Lillian on Life by Allison Jean Lester

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, the constant truth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must be nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moral of January: It's entirely possible to read too many books

January 2014

Books Read

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

10:04 by Ben Lerner

What We Should have Known various humans associated with n + 1

No Regrets various humans associated with n + 1

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Books Bought

Light in August by William Faulkner

Postmodern American Fiction anthology by various

Event Factory by Renee Gladman

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Great Books anthology

American Literature anthology

American Isis A Sylvia Plath biography by some guy

Fates Worse than Death by Kurt Vonnegut

Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

Philosophies of Art and Beauty various old school philosophers

Kant's Critique of Judgment

Imagination and Interpretation in Kant

What we Should have Known n + 1 humans

No Regrets n + 1 humans

subscription to n + 1

Michel Foucault biography by some guy

As you can see, I both read and bought a lot of books this month. Let's blame this on not working a lot, and a more intense need than usual to be distracted, which of course are intertwined.

The first book I finished this month took me quite a while to read, not because it was super long (which it was) but because it changed everything I thought I knew about the earth and the rest of my life and all our lives and society and civilization. Of course, that was This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.

I knew that the environment was very messed up. But I kind of had this thought that there must be people figuring it out, because there are so many environmental studies majors out there and there are also those rich people who care about the environment so probably it would be taken care of relatively soon. In all this I was obviously completely wrong! I was sobbing and having panic attacks before I finished the introduction to This Changes Everything because of just how far off the mark I was by my thoughts.

I don't know how much scientific paraphrasing is appropriate for a blog post about books, especially when everyone probably knows more than I do, but in a nutshell: carbon takes ten years to be released into the atmosphere/cause warming, much like HIV takes ten years to cause AIDS. So although it seems now to the stupid eye that not many changes have taken place, (even though you know there are hurricanes and typhoons and tidal waves and droughts in California....) the truth is that the huge ass even worse destroying changes are not only coming in the future, they are actually pretty much impossible to stop because THE CARBON IS ALREADY RELEASED! And worse, we are continually pumping MORE AND MORE CARBON INTO THE ATMOSPHERE so by the time anyone gets their shit together (aka never,) it will already be too late.

To make matters's basically impossible to stop any of it because no matter the efforts any one or even many civilians make, big oil is the main culprit of everything, and that's all tied up in money and the stock market and white men, and even 'good green' countries like whatever in Scandinavia have shit tons of money in oil, and even the 'good green' billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson also have shit tons of money in oil. And the way the stock market works, the companies need to have like double or triple or something of the product to ensure their investors for the future, which means that the oil companies are drilling everywhere all the time! And there's no way to stop them because of lots of things involving trade agreements and bullshit and mostly....the patriarchy.

So there's my layman's explanation, and the upshot of all this is that civilization as we know it is going to be radically changed within our lifetimes. When I say radically changed, I mean like, collapsed. And that's what made me cry a whole lot in my Christmas hotel while looking out the window and thinking about how much I love the world.

Obviously, there is a lot more to all this, which is why it filled a five hundred page book. A giant factor I haven't even mentioned yet is how tied up capitalism is in all of this – because capitalism requires all of us to be huge consumers of not just meaningless items that are made in factories that produce environmental toxins, but also of money and capital in general, hence the big oil stock problem.

One thing that I cannot let myself forget about This Changes Everything is that one of Klein's main points is that since the people who are in power are clearly going to do nothing to help the environment, the only way anything is ever going to get saved is by the people on the ground.

“Apartheid wasn't a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one. In the very same way, if enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when elite interests are in peril.”

Klein really addressed every possible aspect of climate change one can think of in this book, delving into each of them with power and depth. She says many things about climate change deniers, but perhaps nothing is more true than: “They deny reality, in other words, because the implications of that reality are, quite simply, unthinkable.”

Of course, on the subject of climate change deniers, I could either make a long list or say that a good portion of my annotations on the book were two words in capital letters: “FUCK THAT.”

This is not to say that Klein's book is entirely pessimistic. Well, it is entirely depressing, but it does discuss how sustainable solutions and ways to semi-reverse (not wholly, obviously) the horror are possible – but only if we find a way to overthrown the current system as entrenched as it is in consumerism, oil, and let's be real, the rich white man. Klein reminds us that it is entirely possible to switch to 100% renewables. But, only if we can get past the red tape. Which is more like giant red piles of money laden with coal and oil and death and poop. She is enthusiastic about divestment, while acknowledging its limits and challenges.

Klein does discuss the people who are on the ground today fighting climate change, and it is with reserved optimism, but the conclusion that I drew and that I hope most people draw from it is that they are not going to save us either unless literally everyone gets involved. I don't know how that is possible when most people are....I'm not going to say stupid, I'm going to say, have not been given access to knowledge and/or are too focused on their childrearing to think about anything else, but it's clear that we need to focus on getting real and unfiltered knowledge out there and being willing to talk about the hard issues.

Okay, there's a lot of information in this book. A little too much to be disseminated into one blog post that also says its going to cover 7 other books. So I will write on it again, not once but many times, because this isn't something I/anyone can just forget about. Or I mean we could, but then cool good luck when civilization collapses. Because the main undeniable fact from the book is that if we keep living the way we are living, disaster will come. And within the next few years a point will come where even if we did make an effort, it would be too late. So great, sit on that, cry, and read This Changes Everything.

(In case anyone was wondering, my plans are: 1. get internet famous and then start yelling about the environment because we all know how good I am at dropping a dramatic bomb then running away, and 2. save money from waiting tables to buy a farm in a safe-r part of the country and invite all my friends there when the world goes to shit.)

After that fireball of a book, I relaxed a little bit with a psychological thriller about two families involved in a violent secret. You can see from that fact that I don't really know how to relax. This book was The Dinner by Herman Koch, which my mom told me not to read because it was too creepy, which naturally means that when I saw it at a used bookstore I picked it up immediately.

The present action of the novel all takes place at a dinner between two couples, although it contains many flashes back to prior events. I described it after I read it to my aunt and mom as 'uppercrust Mary Higgins Clark,' which if you are unfamiliar with the goddess herself means nothing, but basically MHC is a suspense writer whose entire library I read between the ages of 12 and 14, which probably made me way too afraid of men and catastrophe but was pretty fun. The novels are pretty formulaic, but I have a lot of respect for them (and so did David Foster Wallace, because he taught one of her novels in his fiction classes.) Anyway, by that I mean that it was definitely a suspense novel, but it was well crafted and written and had more structural independence than, say, MHC. Also because the characters are all clearly pretty bougie from the narration and their opinions on movies and culture and politics.

The two couples at the dinner are patriarch-ed by men who are brothers, one of whom is a prime minestorial candidate and the other who is...well, we find out later. He's the narrator. They both have sons who are teenagers and friends, and from the beginning its clear that the teenagers have been causing some problemas. It slowly unfolds just how intense and intertwined these problemas are, and as those problemas unfold we are also introduced to the complicated and troubled mind of the narrator.

I mean, at the end of the day what can you really say about a suspense novel without ruining the suspense? It was a good book, and if uppercrust suspense is your thing, or if you're generally uppercrust and need a break from all the hard hitting nonfiction and brain hurting fiction, The Dinner is the way to go. The only other thing I'll mention is that the restaurant commentary, given that the entire novel takes place in a restaurant, was spot on. The narrator also had a good level of hating on hipster nonsense, which is funny because it took place in The Netherlands, and who knew that hipster nonsense was such a thing there? But bravo!

Speaking of novels, I went next to The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Speaking of novels, I haven't really been into them lately. I still read them more than the average human because they are good at the engaging and distracting from life's problems, but I find myself continually frustrated that they are too plot driven and heavy handed.

I want to say first that for a novel, The Paying Guests was obviously very good. It's been lauded by a lot of people I like this year, and I've known about Sarah Waters for a long time and known she was very good. So I don't mean to say I didn't like it when I say that it was a bit plotty and heavy handed, but it was just a novel.

It starts out with Frances Wray and her mother, a widow, who live in a big old house that used to be fancy but is now dilapidated. They have to take in boarders, which is a big social no no but alas they must because money is tight post-war. Lilian and Leonard Barber move in, and naturally (it being a novel,) drama ensues. First they're just a bit loud and uncouth, and're like oh, Frances has the hots for Lilian.

Which I obviously saw coming because even though I've never read Sarah Waters before, I'm not stupid. I try to explain this to everyone all the time, but being well read isn't about having read all the books, it's about having a basic knowledge of the important authors. Like, SW = the lesbians and the historical times.

Of course, I know, that's very simplistic, but it's good when you're getting a general knowledge of things. Now we will talk about all the non-simplistic things that Sarah Waters does. Such as, a wonderful feminist commentary.

In a conversation between the aforementioned Frances and Lilian: “But then, men never do want women to do the things they want to do themselves, have you noticed?” when discussing how Lilian's husband doesn't want her smoking. On point!

Further: excellent descriptions of humans: “She put an elbow on the table and leaned with her chin on her hand, the flesh of her arm looking rounded, solid, smooth. There were no angles to her at all, thought Frances with envy. She was all warm colour and curve. How well she filled her own skin! She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle.”

Further: the characters get the real side of life: “But his parents and his brothers – Oh, they've no sense of art, or life, or anything! If you so much as open a book in front of them you get called grand.”

Excellent lines: for example: “Some things are so frightful that a bit of madness is the only sane response.”

And of course, the thing that most convinces me that my dear best friend would love this book, the constant questioning of socially accepted gender roles. “If they were a man and a girl, it would be different. There would be less confusion and blur. She would seize Lilian's hand and Lilian would know what it meant. She herself would know what it meant! Lilian would or would not allow herself to be led to a patch of shadow; she might or might not put up her mouth for a kiss. But they were not a man and a girl, they were two women, with clipping heels, and one of them was in a white dress which the moon set glowing like a beacon.”

The other thing about novels is when discussing them, you can't talk about a lot of things in the ending even if they are relevant to the entire theme of the book. Boo. Basically, there's a lot of shit going down in the end and Frances pretty much considers throwing herself under the bus just to fuck with societal norms, which although reckless...would not shock me if I saw any of my friends doing it.

I next read 10:04 by Ben Lerner, which, purely in terms of the type of books I want/need to be reading (versus most important / most fulfilling of my stalker tendencies of n + 1) was definitely the book of the month. Set in a New York of the somewhat now / somewhat future, it chronicles several similar but different tales that are either true or somewhat true or imaginary in the life of the narrator who is very similar to the author.

It retells different versions of several key events; narrator's best friend trying to in-vitro a baby with his sperm and his various fertility tests, storms that are just slightly more serious than the ones we know today hitting the city, grappling with his next novel and how others will receive it. I think of it as a 'writer's book,' as they say there are 'actor's movies' and 'musician's musicians.' And I just misspelled musicians twice.

Personally I really enjoyed it not only for the original voice and on point insight, but because it represents a genre that I am hoping to not only watch develop but contribute to: books that toe the line between fiction and nonfiction, that play with form and style, that do not necessarily chronicle giant plot events but instead focus on voice and craft and the everyday life of ordinary people.

I assume that a criticism of this book would be that 'not that much happened,' but you know what? I'm over a lot of stuff happening. I'm done reading essays or articles where something huge happened to a person but they aren't taking the time to actually learn the skills to write about it well. In this click-bait day and age, craft is getting sacrificed for big deal content and I think it's a huge detriment to the art of writing.

One of the main ongoing gems of 10:04 was the way the author played with words to create interesting sentences that communicated universal (or, well, universal for young idiots) feelings:

“She said thanks, but she doubted shed need help; her tone implied my offer presumed a greater degree of intimacy than our exchange of fluids warranted.”

And ugh cry why can't this be my life: “Bernard and Natali were always working and never working, that is, they were always reading and writing when they weren't hosting receptions for other writers; there was no division between labor and leisure; their days were not structured conventionally; the house was not subject to quotidian rhythms but to the strange duration of the literary.”

Also truly amazing portrayal of social anxiety: “His problem was that the coffee required two hands, or at least he had taken it with two hands, one on cup and one on saucer, so as not to spill coffee or upset foam; he couldn't return her wave. He felt himself scowling at this situation, realizing too late she'd think he was scowling at her. His solution was to look at the cup with exaggerated intensity, in the hope that she would understand his dilemma.”

So this one was a must read for my writer friends, and I don't know if other people would like it or not. Try it and see?

I was very excited about the arrival of What We Should Have Known and No Regrets, two transcribed discussions of books and life by people associated with n + 1, because I am a huge fangirl of n + 1, and possibly the only person to say that phrase in the history of ever. And I was right to be excited, because it turns out that smart people discussing books they loved / should have read earlier / which changed their lives is indeed as awesome as it sounds.

What We Should Have Known came first, and it is a compilation of transcriptions of three panels of writers associated with n + 1 discussing the books they should have read in college as well as how books affected ones life more broadly.

As usually happens when I read things by the n + 1 people, I became thankful for my knockaround alternative education within the first few pages of the book. Many of these dudes went to Harvard, which I'm working on lessening my eye rolls at, but it's not like they were all that positive about it. See:

“The place where I went to college [Harvard] was highly specialized. I don't think there was an idea of humanistic education, of forming people. There was an idea, as exemplified by the core curriculum, that there are certain approaches to knowledge, and we will expose you to them one by one, but we will not try to form a self out of you.”

And I read that, and it's not like Keith Gessen is talking about Johnston or alternative education in general as an alternative to Harvard, but it feels like that's what he's saying because so much of that closely describes what we got.

They also made me grateful that I finally took theory classes at the end of college. I don't think it was too late, but I think that if I hadn't done it senior year I certainly wouldn't have ever and theory has been a truly invaluable addition to my reading life, not just in the theorists and essays themselves but in the ways that it's changed how I think as a reader and how I relate to both the canon and sociology.

From Kate Bolick, here's this gem of an idea, who wants to start this club with me? “I think there should be a little periodicals club, where you meet each month and discuss how people are talking and thinking about stuff in the world you live in.” Sounds great! Sign me up!

At the end of the first discussion they all agree that college is like summer camp, and duh, but then some of them turn around and say that this is bad, to which I say....summer camp is never a bad thing!

Everything from Chad Harbach in the second discussion is on point, not the least because he appears to be the only sane literary adult in the world who not only understands how fucked the climate is but actually writes about it. Still doing no good, but what are you gonna do? And he's from Wisconsin. Go Chad!

Marco Roth is a good one too, and he had this little snippet that makes me forgive them all for going to Harvard and all their connections: “I was drawn to the mystery of what's inside the ivory tower, because of course I thought I'd been inoculated or was different and exceptional – and then I realized, the further I went, that almost everyone in academia feels like an outsider, nobody knows what's going on. Academia's an empty vessel, but the ones who don't realize it end up going all the way and end up in charge.”

And then the last line, from Caleb Crain, nails it in its simplicity: “But I think that a young person should keep a journal, and read seriously, and, you know, think about everything that happens.”

I quickly moved on to No Regrets, which is the same premise but with books in early twenties life and is all female panelists. Amazing! Including Emily Gould, naturally.

We start out right away with the wonderful intersections of literary life and feminism: “Another was that the word should has a special place in the lives of women, as it's been a tool of their subjection through social strictures (“women should be X”) and their emancipation through feminism (“women should reject the authority of anyone who says they should be X, or Y, or Z, or anything else”). Should, in other words, gives us both The Rules and the injunction to break them.”

In the neverending Emily Gould loving from me, I got to hear about how she read The Time Traveler's Wife instead of Middlemarch at a snowed in cabin one weekend. Same with me in Ghana, except it was rereading The Time Traveler's Wife four times instead of reading literally anything else.

I've read a couple of things lately where straight women who are obviously very feminist minded describe ways of thinking to make space for the fact that so much of heterosexuality is fucked while also acknowledging that they still want to sleep with and make relationships with men. First with Meghan Daum, now in here with Emily Gould, who is also recommending Chris Krause. “I Love Dick was the first work of fiction I'd ever read that acknowledged that women who were attracted to men and wanted to have relationships with them were not going to somehow create relationships that existed outside of all existing economic and social structures; that women who love men are going to have to come to terms with their complicity in their own repression and subjugation, and find ways to address it.”

In further Emily Gould excellence, they talk about how literary groups of people all have a secret canon that everyone is somehow referring to, and she says “I like the secret canon idea so much. Establishing your group of friends is about establishing a canon among you.” I totally think that my Johnston friends and I have this. Half the time Naomi and I realize that we are reading the same books at almost the same time and it's amazing!

And then Elif Bautman kills it with this line that questions the entire premise of both discussions: “College is so short, whatever collection of stuff you read just seems super arbitrary.” Right?! I always felt like I was missing so much in college, and in life, and yet people consistently tell me that I'm well-read. And I think I am, but I also think that being well-read has more to do with having a general working knowledge of books and authors and making the effort to be seriously reading consistently rather than having read a chunk of books by every single famous or influential writer. Because there just isn't enough time. Especially if you also like other things (writing included) or have a job that doesn't involve books, you just aren't going to have read everything by everyone. But you can get to a good working knowledge of the important people and what they mean to the canon, and I think this method is better because it also allows you to explore your own taste in more depth rather than just getting the survey of everything.

And then I read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and you may have noticed that I don't read classics often, but somebody gave it to me. And I wanted to read the book the person gave me.

As said person and I discussed, when a poet writes one novel it's usually pretty good. I loved the richness of the language, and how it had an almost frantic quality at times. It lent itself well to the passages about art that I found to be the strongest in the book, such as: “Ordinary people waited till life disclosed to them its secrets, but to the few, to the elect, the mysteries of life were revealed before the veil was drawn away. Sometimes this was the effect of art, and chiefly of the art of literature, which dealt immediately with the passions and the intellect. But now and then a complex personality took the place and assumed the office of art; was indeed, in its way, a real work of art, Life having its elaborate masterpieces, just as poetry has, or sculpture or painting."

Obviously I love this idea of life as art because that's kind of the whole thing I'm working with right now.

Also thumbs up Oscar for throwing us lots of solid opinions about how to live life in there: “I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life. We are not sent into the world to air our moral prejudices. I never take any notice of what common people say, and I never interfere with what charming people do.”

Perhaps the most consistent thread that I found communion with in the book was the importance of aesthetics but the different ways to approach that, some of them clearly resulting in horror and others appreciating without falling prey. Even little gems like this: “And how horribly real ugliness made things!” gave me much to think about. Oh, another gem right away:

“I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.”

“Ah, you have discovered that?” murmured Lord Henry. (AKA Lord Henry throwing it DOWN.)

The theme of life / art continued throughout the novel - “And, certainly, to him Life itself was the first, the greatest of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation.” Is it that, or is it the other way around? Who knows? Is it up to each of us? I'm just glad that I'm a person who even cares about art, because so many people don't. Shudder.

And that's where I'll end, even though of course there is much more to discuss in D. Gray, because this has gotten very long thanks to all the science talk of This Changes Everything and the fact that I read eight books this month like a true – oh my god I completely forgot a book. Jesus Christ.

I also read Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut. It was an array of essays and speeches. I honestly don't think that I have room to discuss it in here. This is already eight pages long. Nobody is going to read this as it is. I promise I'll give you some screen time later Kurt. Let the message of this be: it is definitely possible to read too many books.  

Books I read in December, or I'm Bougie and only like 'collections'

Books Read

The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Happiness: Ten Years of n plus one selected by the editors of n plus one

Redeployment by Phil Klay

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

Books Bought

Redeployment by Phil Klay

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

It by Alexa Chung

10:04 by Ben Lerner

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The David Foster Wallace Reader

The books I read this month prompted me to say, on more than one occasion, phrases such as: “Other than contemporary literary fiction I mostly read anthologies” “I'm really into anthologies from literary magazines,” and “A good essay collection is just so hard to find these days.” It was also the month of a lot of jovial arguments with a guy who only reads classics with me trying to defend the state of contemporary writing and why it's important for writers to be in close cultural touch with it. In other words, it was a month where I was insufferably bougie.

But really, who isn't? The finer things in life are a gift to carry us through the monotony of adulthood. And what is adult life but figuring out which things you like? And I know what I like. I like essay collections. Luckily December began with a momentous event: my reading of The Best American Essays 2014.

For those who have not spent any time in my presence: I am infinitely more excited about the release of BAE every year than I am about Christmas. Because, fuck Christmas. But also because BAE is my chance to read all the good essays in one place instead of having to search the internet for twelve hours. It's a learning experience – with the exception of 2013 (Sorry Cheryl) I always read essays about topics that I've never encountered before and come away feeling much more informed. It's an introduction to new voices to watch throughout the coming year. It's always such a joy.

BAE 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, is, I would say, a pretty average addition to the canon of Best American Essays. This means that it is of course exceptional, but within the ranks of exceptional, it wasn't the best one I've read. That will go to 2012 until someone else comes in and slam dunks it like a champion. I'd say 2014 was far better than 2013 (by virtue of not having to listen to thirteen essays about motherhood when I just wanted to LEARN) but about on par with 2011.

The first essay, A Matter of Life and Death, in which Timothy Aubry does what essayists who are great do best and talks about a topic while talking about other things and magically telling you about life. In this case, how the challenges of marriage represent the challenge of life – doing something that is the same for a very long time and not self destructing. “Marriage gives you someone to blame for just about everything. Before you get married, when you feel depressed, you think to yourself, is this it? And by it, you mean life. Is this all life has to offer? Just one day followed by another? The same dreary routine?”

Strange Beads was luminescent in its simplicity, The Final Day in Rome was stoicly heart shattering. Letter from Williamsberg by Kristin Dombek wins the year's award for writer I want to become obsessed with in 2015.

The inclusion of Dave Eggers, was, as usual, good but made me think that Dave Eggers thinks that everything he does is not just good but great, that he's some kind of prophet. And by virtue of that feeling of masculine deity emanating from everything he writes, I start to like it less and less. I did not read Leslie Jamison's contribution because I have already read the specific essay and disliked it once in this year and felt no need to put myself through that again. This month also included a heavy amount of bewilderment at her inclusion on any Best of 2014 book list, when I found her collection – something I should have liked, given that it was an essay collection by a woman, whiny, insufferable, and grasping at straws for topics to write about because she wanted to be considered a literary writer but had nothing to say. Alas, it seems the institution has granted her access. Whatever, I'll stop carping now, the old curmudgeon said.

I've started to think that no Best American collection is complete without Zadie, and as usual, she delivered in plumes. She talks about popsicles in the third paragraph! And how she looks forward to eating all day! Amazing! I think we would be great friends.

The Old Man at Burning Man by Wells Tower was so spectacular that I immediately went on the internet and started googling how to contact Wells Tower so I could charm him into being my mentor. I figured that he was famous but not famous enough to be uncontactable on the internet. Turns out this is not the case. I found no way to contact him. Why does the adult world make it so hard for me to charm people? Where is the secret button that will allow me to send letters to people I know I would get along with? Geez.

Inkeeping with one theme of the year: everything is fucked about race in America, we have Jerald Walker's searing How to Make a Slave. I've tried many times to find a net copy so I could post it on facebook, but alas one seems to not exist. I don't want to ruin it but I do want everyone to know how badly they need to get their hands on this book so they can read it, so I'll say: analogies and metaphors of elementary school education of history and growing into a person who wants to teach their children about the world they are inheriting and also being beat down by the system the whole damn time. God it's just so good.

After my lovely BAE I moved on to Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, which fulfilled normalcy because it is a book of essays by a woman that I did like, which is how the world is supposed to work. It was immensely readable and fun, if a bit 'feminism 101.' I, like everyone else, follow Gay pretty closely in the news so there were moments when I wanted a little bit more theory and analysis from her, given her background and commentating ability. Then again, the masses do need to be educated on feminism 101, so I really shouldn't complain.

Kind of like Lena Dunham's book, the introduction to Gay's book absolutely killed it and then this trend was sometimes held up with some essays and let down by others.

One of my favorite things about the book was Gay's candor: “On my more difficult days I'm not sure what's more of a pain in my ass – being black or being a woman. I'm happy to be both of these things, but the world keeps intervening.” On this note, Gay does a great job of explaining in about one sentence what privileged people all over the world need to learn: that you can acknowledge your privilege while also acknowledging your struggles. In fact I'm just going to quote that whole paragraph because the more it is out there on the internet the more people will read it, even if it's just on my lowly blog.

“We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone. Of course we resent these accusations. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive, (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It's not my fault I am a white man,” or “I'm [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges that others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”

Boom. Nailed it.

More to love about Gay: her honesty about the little things in life. Example: “I go drinking with...the guy I go drinking with.” So simple, but so amazing! How else to describe our various social dalliances?

“How to be Friends with Another Woman” was hilarious and contained gems such as:

3A. If you feel like it's hard to be friends with women, consider that maybe women aren't the problem, maybe it's just you.

5D. Everybody gossips, so if you are going to gossip about your friends, at least make it fun and interesting. As a corollary, never say “I never lie,” or “I never gossip” because you are lying.

6A. Don't be totally rude about truth telling, and consider how much truth is actually needed to get the job done. Finesse goes a long way. (Side note: This is what I want to say to certain people in my life pretty consistently)


11. If four people are dining, split the check evenly four ways. We are adults now. We don't need to add up what each person had anymore. If you're high rolling, just treat everyone and rotate who treats. If you're still in the broke stage, do what you have to do.

[Further side note: I have literally one million stories I could tell about this, but I'll go with this one. Three women with babies were eating at a large table. Ordered pancake, a scramble, some kids juices, etc. Gave me three cards. Three ways? I asked. They looked at me like I was the idiot, even though they had not written anything on their ticket. No, by what we got. They said. I'm going to need you to label the bill for me then...since I don't know what your names are.  I told them. Their individual bills added up to something like 13 dollars, 17 dollars, and 14 dollars. If you are responsible enough to have a CHILD, you split the bill three ways and throw each other a couple of bucks. It. Isn't. That. Hard.]

Sry for the rant. But come on.

One of Gay's strongest moments was this commentary on 'likeability' that brings her up with Franzen. As you should all know by now, the concept of liking is my enemy.

“In many ways, likeability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don't follow this code become unlikeable. Critics who criticize a character's unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.”

I'm so over social acceptability.

“Perhaps, then, unlikeable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don't dare be so alive.”

Other topics on which Gay and I agree: that trigger warnings are, overall, a bad idea. A fierce love of the blend of high and low culture.

One time when I do not exactly agree with her: when talking about women's fiction (I do agree with her that it's a stupid designation and it's just fiction) she talks about how Jonathan Franzen's novels about suburbia are about society and Meg Wolitzer's novels about suburbia are about women.

Well. Jonathan Franzen is a better writer than Meg Wolitzer. Not because he is a man. Because his books are masterpieces. I couldn't get through The Ten Year Nap by Wolitzer (probably one of the books Gay was referencing) because so many pages were dedicated to moaning about children.

Freedom tore my mind apart because it talked about how environmental destruction and overpopulation have become structurally embedded in our society in ways that we don't even see. Because it made me question how I relate to people and society and even my friends. Women can talk about these things too, they are not 'manly topics.' I'm 23, childless, and will probably stay that way throughout my whole life. I don't think that it's fair to ask me to care about how dull parenthood can be when I'm consciously making the choice that it's not a lifestyle I desire.

And, as I said, Jonathan Franzen is a better writer than Meg Wolitzer. But Zadie Smith is on par with or better than Jonathan Franzen. If we're going to compare female and male writers, we need to pick people who are in the same league so that the arguments can't be torn down by simple facts about ability.

I think it's important to be able to agree with and find fault with an argument. I agree with Gay that Tosh making rape jokes isn't funny. I would agree with the statement that rape jokes usually aren't funny. I guess I would say that men making rape jokes at the expense of women is never funny. But, I don't agree with Gay's blanket dismissal of any and all humor regarding rape.

Dangerous what I just said, I know, but hear me out.

Some people go to therapy. Some people don't. Some people talk to their friends. Some people write and make art. I do all these things to try and find my way through the complexities of being a sexual woman, and the challenges of life in general. But I also, as many people do, use humor to deal with the shit.

Nobody would ever tell you can't go to therapy. But for some people, humor is therapy. It costs less and it's more fun. And if a woman needs to use humor to deal with being raped, I'm not going to question it. I'm going to say you do you girl, because some things are so awful that we don't know what to do but make something out of them. Nobody should deny somebody else the right to get through the shit the only way they know how.

As I said, men making rape jokes at the expense of women is not funny. But to blanket statement all rape jokes doesn't take into account female comedians and social critique.

I'm going to save a lot of time in the future because when people ask me about why Fifty Shades of Grey is the worst I can just refer them to Gay's essay about it instead of explaining, and instead I can move on to the hilarious story of Victoria and I drunkenly burning it.

Some people are fan girls of musicians. I am a fan girl of n plus one. I am not at all embarrassed by this, I just wish I knew where the other fan girls of n plus one were so I could befriend them.

Almost every essay in Happiness, the n plus one anthology, floored me in the same way that Freedom did. I kept wanting to send them to everyone anywhere so I'd have someone to talk to.

In the grand tradition (also Freedom) of writings that lay out a perfectly doable plan for a world I'd want to live in and then depress me because I know that the majority of Americans (and all Republicans) are too stupid to let them happen, we have “Gut Level Legislation, or Redistribution” by Mark Grief, which gives a great argument for how a lot of our problems would be solved with an income cap. He goes into it pretty complexly, but I can sum it up with: does anyone really need five cars?

[Answer: no.]

Chad Harbach brings us An Interruption, about the climate, my new favorite read least favorite I am crying every day topic.

If you don't want to read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, which is life ruining but necessary, you can pretty much grasp the shit storm by reading this paragraph from Harbach's essay:

“Now we know what we've done. Or we should. The fuel-burning binge (and the beef eating binge and the forest clearing binge) we've been on for the past hundred and fifty years, and especially the last sixty, and increasingly and accelerantly, has brought into view the most dangerous threat in the brief history of our civilization. It's become possible to glimpse the disappearance of so many things, not just glaciers and species but ideas and institutions too. Things may never be so easy or orderly again. Our way of life that used to seem so durable takes on a sad, valedictory aspect, the way life does for any nineteenth century protagonist on his way to a duel that began as a petty misunderstanding. The sunrise looks like fire, the flowers bloom, the morning air dances against his cheeks. It's so incongruous, so unfair! He's healthy, he's young, he's alive – but he's passing from the world. And so are we, healthy and alive – but our world is passing from us.”

Emily Witt talking about porn stars and coupling just made me want to talk about the weirdness of society all day every day. Wesley Yang intermixing young male shooters and ugliness and desire was again, mind bending. Keith Gessen telling us about money and writing of course killed it, not least of all because of the line of the month:

“I don't know any writers who wait tables but probably some exist.”

It's like a little hello from the future.

And then we got a gem from my new favorite from BAE, Kristin Dombek! About youth and sex and cities and drugs and hangovers all the good things. And then the book ended and I was sad.

And then I went Christmas shopping for myself because I couldn't go home and I bought all the books. It was amazing. I have never been happier. False. I was happier when I was surrounded by my friends. But now that I am pretty much always alone books are my friends so it was almost the same.

My first read of the loot was Redeployment by Phil Klay. I was very curious because it beat out my favorite book of the year, Station Eleven, for the National Book Award. I somehow left the book still liking Station Eleven more but totally agreeing with the National Book Award committee for giving it to Redeployment.

Saying that I personally liked Station Eleven More was not at all a commentary on Redeployment, because Redeployment was incredible. I don't usually like short stories or war stories but I loved these war stories so much it hurt. Everything about them was great, but I just need to say before I go and do some gems: the voice! The voice! The voice!

I love the moment when it's recognized that a certain way of speaking and acting that has been attributed to a generation being lazy and or dumb is finally recognized as great art when it's done well, and that's what this book getting the National Book Award accomplished.

See: “It was zero dark and cold, and half of us were rocking the first hangover we'd had in months, which at that point was a kind of shitty that felt pretty fucking good.”

It immediately made me feel like an asshole for ever being rude about soldiers – not about the military, because the book is critical of the military in its own way, but about assuming things about people who have served in the armed forces. But nobody has ever described with such clarity the struggles of returning. That is probably Klay's greatest magic.

“Here's what orange is. You don't see or hear like you used to. Your brain chemistry changes. You take in every piece of the environment, everything. I could spot a dime in the street twenty yards away. I had antennae out that stretched down the block. It's hard to even remember exactly what it felt like. I think you take in too much information to store so you just forget, free up brain space to take in everything about the next moment that might keep you alive. And then you forget that moment too, and focus on the next. And the next. And the next. For seven months.

So that's orange. And then you go shopping in Wilmington, unarmed, and you think you can get back down to white? It'll be a long fucking time before you get down to white.”

Word I wrote down at the end of that story: searing.

At times, probably all of the times, Klay was playing off what I just said about judging the military. He clearly knows the general liberal social critique and turns it on its head by having his characters show that they know what you're thinking and they know that you're wrong.

Another note: “best weird intimacy times.” I was really on it with the annotations for this guy. But what I meant by that was I loved how Klay gave his characters similar anxieties about intimacy to mine, which really goes to show that we're all freaks about how to get close to other people.

Many of the stories also touched on how much bullshit is present in the parts of the military that Klay experienced. Instead of judging the military (more) off of this, though, I saw it more as a reflection of pretty much any business / job / facet of American life. It seems so serious on the outside but so much is for show, so much really is bullshit. People who don't know what they're doing, people who think they're important because they've been told they're important but really do nothing.

We knew I was going to like Meghan Daum's new book of essays, The Unspeakable, when in the introduction (what is it this year with ladies and baller introductions) she said: “When I teach writing students, I often tell them that nobody will love their work if some people don't also hate it.” because that is pretty much my M.O in writing and in life.

I was not the biggest fan of Daum's first book of essays, My Misspent Youth, not least because it has a sarcastically disparaging reference to a member of my family. (true story.) I though it was a little too fake Joan Didion, a little too grasping at straws for topics. But it seems that now in middle age Daum's wisdom has overcome all that and let her be a great cultural and societal critic.

The Best Possible Experience recounts her many years of dating, some ridiculous individuals included, and the ways in which it perfectly led up to meeting her now husband, by societal standards late in their lives. But it was also about many other things, like this quote:

“I spent most of it with absolutely no eye toward making a permanent commitment. What I was in it for, what I was about, was the field work aspect.” Amazing! I wrote in the margins. Especially because, even before reading that, I was already working on an essay about dating that I'm calling 'Field Notes.'

In this essay she also greatly deploys the word fascinating as a way to describe the type of people she wanted to be around and I will say that I wholeheartedly agree. Most people are not fascinating enough, and on the same vein she goes on to talk about how she (and I and all the fascinating people) are different from normal people who want normal things.

Moving on: “On the subject of growing up, or feeling that you have succeeded in doing so, I'm pretty sure the consensus is that it's an illusion.” These essays are all about so many things that I'm going to stop trying to summarize and just say the nice things and tell you to read the book. Daum talks about how you shouldn't listen to songs from periods of your life for a variety of reasons, the best of which being this quote: “They will be unbearable not because they will sound dated and trite but because they will sound like the lining of your soul.”

Yeah. Yeah. Nights that I've tried to go to bed to playlists I made senior year and woke up from almost sleep to slam the pause button on the phone because for a second I felt it again and it hurt to much to listen to for even one more second. And then I stopped, because I got afraid that if I keep listening to those songs they won't sound like Redlands to me anymore, but lonely adulthood.

This is not a Meghan Daum quote, but it is Meghan Daum quoting Audre Lorde in the most genius thing a human has ever said: “The true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women.”

More true words: “It's hard enough to get adults to commit to a social activity until they're sure they're not getting a better offer elsewhere.”

You know, there was so much more greatness in Daum's book, but I can't do it anymore. I have been anxious all day and writing an eight page book review has not helped, and neither have napping and doing laundry and any other activity I have attempted to engage with. I'm sure that going to work at 5 pm will help, wait for it, not at all, but at least it is something I have to do. If anyone has ideas for how to interact with humans without getting as panicky as I am right now please do let me know.


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

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

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

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

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

Book read November 2014

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Satire, Woebegone Youths, and a Terrible Flu - my month in books, October 2014

Books read

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Books Bought

Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

Women in Clothes edited by Sheila Heiti, Heidi Julavantis, Leanne Shapton

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Happiness, an anthology by the editors of n+1

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

The Anatomy of Influence by Harold Bloom

October was a grand month for the relationship between books and me, which coincidentally is the only relationship in my life right now. I don't pick books by topic, I just grab whatever I want to read next, or what I've just had signed by the author while practically crying in the case of Lena Dunham, but this month had a lot of youths in various stages of romantic and other discontent, which is probably not a coincidence since that is my life.

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn did not fall into that category, it was a satire about a British literary contest and the skirmishes between the judges and the contestants. This was a book that I could tell was an artfully and well done book, but I was not very engaged by it. It brought up a lot of interesting conflicts, but at times it was so satirical that I couldn't take it seriously or find a personal stake in it.

Which interestingly enough brings me to the next book I read, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman. I also considered this book to be a satire, but in a less overt way, and I doubt that it was read as such by all consumers. It seemed to me to be a social satire on modern dating, which, for better or worse, is a topic which saturates my life.

It seemed to also serve as a portrait of a cultural subset – this particular one is a few strata above me, privilege and economy wise, and yet their concerns and anxieties seem to be pretty universal across smart young people who socialize. They're discussing the same topics, trying to figure out if what they say is considered racist, evaluating the intelligence of their potential mates while also being insecure about their own.

The way I found it most to be a well played satire was the writer of the book is a woman, and her character fully inhabits a common stereotype of a modern man – one who dates women semi frivolously, watching blithely as they become attached to him and all the while debating if he is attached to them at all, but continuing with them nonetheless. What I really liked about Waldman's approach is how she brought us into Nathaniel P's mind without making us sympathize with him, but also without portraying him as evil or sadistic. She just made his character fully, believably ambivalent about his prospects, if a bit pretentious in regards to his value towards women. As I read it, I saw this character's traits in so many men I've met, and wondered how Waldman pinned it down so accurately.

A favorite snippet from the book was an observation from the character named Aurit - “I hate the way men treat dating as a frivolous concept, it's bone headed” which I loved because it's true – men act like dating is a throwaway thing, and laugh at the women who take it seriously, but finding a companion is not a frivolous thing – men just take it for granted because in our modern society, they will have no trouble finding a girlfriend if they want one because women have been so trained to want their attention and please them.

Obviously Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham is all about idiot youths, even if her idiot youthness landed her a television show and mine is mostly me sitting on the couch reading all day wondering if I will ever not spend most of the hours of my day alone. I'll confess, I was worried that Dunham's book would be disappointing, that she wouldn't be as good a writer as she seems to be or that her stories would seem privileged and flat.

I got my first inkling that the book would be great when I met Dunham at her signing in LA. I'm going to write about that in another entry entirely, but suffice it to say she was so kind, genuinely interested in, and gracious to every person in line that by the time I got up there I was shaking and almost crying. An absolute goddess compared to the male authors I've met of late. But again, another entry for all that.

There were a few essays in Not That Kind of Girl that suffered from what I think is 'famous person syndrome,' which is if anyone wrote it who wasn't famous no one would care or the writing could have used some polishing to make it complete, which it probably would have gotten if the person weren't famous. But that small criticism aside, I absolutely loved Dunham's book.

The introduction hooked me in immediately, I was floored by this line: “I'm already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or thinking that it was your fault when the person you are dating suddenly backs away, intimidated by the clarity of your personal mission here on earth.”

I complain constantly about dating. I blog about it, I try to analyze it, I talk to all my friends about it and try to figure out just what is wrong. Then Lena Dunham told me in one sentence, the answer I hadn't known I was looking for. 

This was already evident from Girls, but I love Dunham's descriptions of her early attitudes towards romance and men because she describes so well what so many of us have gone through: “I was lonely as hell and didn't hate kissing him.” Dunham lets us know that these thoughts are normal, if the type that you hope to not have as you meet better men.

Another great Dunham-ism is her constant ability to point out casual misogyny in men's actions: when describing a man she had a complicated relationship with - “Rather than admit that he didn't want to waste two hours watching a woman's interior life unfold, he would tell me these films 'lack structure.'” Classic observation! And so true!

There were so many that I loved that I don't think it even makes sense to take stock of them all, but some snippets. Finding Jack, talking about her mother painting herself nude, how you can't let yourself be treated like nothing because you'll start to think it too, how open she is about her body, of course, the constant homages to Nora Ephron, her beautiful love of womanhood - “But I also consider being female such a unique gift, such a sacred joy, in ways that run so deep I can't articulate them. It's a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.”

One thing that made me sad, as it did in the next book I read, is that Dunham hated college and education in general. This is something I will never know, because I was blessed to attend a small program and community that I fell in love with, where I met my greatest friends and artistic peers. Sometimes I am afraid that it was the only lovely thing I got. But mostly when I read things about people who didn't have that, I am just so sad, because loving a place that much and throwing your heart into it for so long changed me in ways that I would never want to take back.

I thought it was a bit unself aware how she didn't acknowledge that not any three girls who made a ridiculous short moving about artists would end up hosting a fabulous party at a museum, but I'm working to forgive the privileged.

Oh but now we are on to All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen, which opens with a character ostensibly based on the author because they are both named Keith, hating Harvard. And I got sad, (but less sad because boo hoo Harvard,) and then I thought to myself, I'm sure that going to Harvard got him pretty well connected going out, since he was the book critic for some big old magazine at age 25, but I still can't imagine going through life without all the loving that Johnston taught me. I think it would take as many years to make up for that as it'll take me to figure out how to do anything in the arts, at least. (Check back with me on this in five.)

The book follows three separate narrators through either university, graduate school, or post university time, through various follies and finding faults in life and being generally dissatisfied. Which I get, but.

I don't want to say anything too negative about Gessen's book because he's married to the person I am most obsessed with in the world, Emily Gould, but I will say that I got over hearing about privileged white men's problems pretty quickly, especially because some of it was essentially privileged white men whining about aspects of their privilege and general lack of direction in life. To which I wanted to say, well I have no direction in life either PLUS I don't have any fancy degrees or fancy jobs and make 25 cents less an hour on average than you do.

I think that Keith Gessen is probably a really intelligent intellectual. I think this book would appeal to men who are also that, but I would like to read something of his that is intellectual rather than fictional because I think I would identify more with his intelligence than his state in life.

And there were some great lines - “Life is of course very long, and as I said we all have several lives. But that doesn't make it one long party.”

Also: “Misanthropes should not marry. At least not each other.”

The last book I read this month, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, was absolutely fabulous. It deserves to win not just the National Book but every award out there. It sparkled, it exploded, it was an entire world wrapped up in one perfectly sized box that I wish I could read over and over for the first time. I will no longer talk shit on post apocalyptic novels. 

The book opens with a performance of Hamlet being cut short by the main actor suffering a heart attack. Even though the actor dies within the first pages of the book, he will reappear again and again throughout the novel. That night, a very infectious flu becomes a pandemic, quickly obliterating every city in the world in a way that's just realistic enough to be absolutely terrifying. The novel then follows a theater troupe who travels between small settlements in the post apocalyptic world, a man who was the actor's best friend, and flashbacks to several of the character's lives.

This is a book that wasn't great because of a device it employed or one specific voice or how it dealt with a certain societal problem, it was just an excellent book. The morals and the voice and everything about it were good, and the story was great, but most of all it just shone. Everything about the world it created was on point and excellent.

One of the specific excellencies was how the book traces the ways that humans stay the same or change after disaster. Obviously nobody can know how we will act if the world goes to shit, but I think that I agree with the conclusions that Mandel drew – of some of the frustrations of human interaction following us through disaster, but love shining in nonetheless.

Of course the true theme of the novel, what you can gleam from simply knowing that there's a theater troupe after the apocalypse, is the vital importance of art to both the individual and to society. Art functions in the novel as both a personal salve and a saving grace to humankind, which is of course how I think of it constantly.

The gemiest of the gems -

“Hell is the absence of people you long for.”

“And considered the poverty of the room. Not poverty in the economic sense, but the sense of not being enough for the gravity of the moment, an insufficient setting.”

And that was October, truly a great month for books, all things considered. I will probably read just as much or more in November, because I spent 80% of my time not at work alone and if I don't read books I will go insane.   

Books in Prone Yoga: September 2014


Books Read

Daring: My Passages by Gail Sheehy

And the Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Books Bought

And The Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould

Creative Block various

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Month in My New Fancy Bed: Books of August 2014

Books read

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Friendship by Emily Gould

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Scarecrone by Melissa Broder

The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang

Books gifted 

Friendship by Emily Gould

Books bought 

The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang

I managed to get a lot of reading done in August, despite moving – or perhaps because of moving, because I didn't have internet for the entire month. I was also poor due to paying a deposit, so I only bought one book, the other acquisition of the month having been a gift from my mother because I mentioned wanting it and she is a nice lady. It's good that my mom picked it up at the good old University Book Store back in good old Wisconsin, because after checking Warwicks and browsing the bookstores around Hillcrest, I couldn't find Friendship anywhere. This is disconcerting regarding my opinion of San Diego bookstores considering that it is a new and famous book by a famous in literary circles if not street famous author. I am keeping an eye on all of you.

It's probably the first month I've only bought one book in since the days when my life was filled with kegs and social experiment parties instead of hours alone with books, but the money calls.

The month began with a true gem of a book, as everyone probably knows because I'm sure I'm the last one on the block to read it – Blue Nights. Similar to every other young person who somehow fashions themselves to be a writer, I have loved Joan Didion since my first days of being assigned her work in my wee years as a student in Nonfiction I. Perhaps my most intense (re: embarrassing) connection with her work is the numerous times I read Goodbye to All That and cried a lot during my months preparing to leave college. I'm pretty sure I had it permanently open in a tab on my old computer. Cool, Becca.

Blue Nights is somewhat of a memoir about her life after the death of her daughter, Quintana, but one of the things I loved about it was that it didn't have the traditional structure of a memoir. The chapters were each musings from a different perspective or time frame about her daughter, and the displacement helped shape the tone of the novel and put us in Didion's shaky, to say the least, mindset after her daughter's death.

Didion's writing has a quality of excavation, as if she is examining every detail of her life as an anthropologist would an ancient site, and it is visible even down to the individual sentence. She also, in this book, has an incredible grasp of the passage of time and living in the present moment: after listing off a variety of objects that elicited depressing responses re the passage of time, comes this line:

“In fact they serve only to make it clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”

There was only one moment in the book, isolated on one page, where I took issue with Joanie (I feel like she'd hate me referring to her as Joanie,) In discussing the idea that her daughter's life was privileged, she writes

“Privilege is a accusation. Privilege remains an area to which – when I think of what she endured – when I consider what came later – I will not easily crop.”

I get that what she's saying is that since her daughter died at a young age of a horrible malady, she shouldn't be accused of having led a privileged life. I feel...that is problematic. (Another liberal arts college word, much like privilege.) The way in which Quintana died was truly horrid, but that is separate of her privilege growing up. The day to day life of growing up privileged is arguably easy, and adult life in the professional world I imagine to be far easier than becoming an adult without connections, which Quintana presumably had. Bad things can still happen to people with privilege, but bad things don't happen less to people who aren't privileged. Horrible incidents and growing up with privilege are two separate realms of life.

In other words, poor people's children die young from horrible diseases too. Unimaginable tragedy strikes most people at some point, regardless of if they grew up with a silver spoon.

So basically I just don't think it's something she needed to mention in the book. In talking with one of my friends about this passage, he guessed that it might have been a response to how some people reacted to The Year of Magical Thinking, which I haven't read, but I don't think that the response to people calling you privileged after a tragedy is to say that you aren't privileged because horrible things happened to you. The people who aren't privileged can easily just fire back at you all the horrible things that have happened to them, and the whose life is worse contest isn't one I ever like engaging in.

Anyway, I loved the book, that was just a small but interesting hiccup I had. Gem: “We still counted health and happiness and love and luck and beautiful children as 'ordinary blessings.'”

Alas, I did not love the next book I finished, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. I had been reading it on and off for a few months because it was on my kindle app (which I never use anymore thanks to Emily Books created by Emily Gould...what nobody is obsessed) which I read at the gym, and because it kept annoying me so I had to keep leaving it behind.

Here is the thing: as a writer of personal essays myself, I'm always very excited about essay collections. Unfortunately, this often ends in disappointment because some people want to write essays but don't actually have enough to say to write a whole book of them. Thus I end up bored and wondering how this person got an MFA, got essays published in journals, got an entire book published, of their self-absorbed chatter.

The reason I'm working at IHOP (etc) instead of applying for MFAs in nonfiction is because I want to experience more of life before I go to school to get a graduate degree in writing about my life. This is different than it is for people getting MFAs in poetry or fiction because you can create at any age, but it takes more life experience to write about your life experience. All my professors told me this and I agreed with them, so I'm wondering why there aren't more professors or graduate program advisors giving their students this great advice. Everyone pretty much knows that a writing program can only teach you so much. It's hard to teach creativity, but you definitely can't teach interesting things happening to you.

Not very many interesting things happened to Leslie Jamison, nor did she talk about them in the interesting way that makes personal essays a form that I love so much. I actually believe that a talented writer can take even a humdrum experience and in the telling make it applicable to universal truths as well as make it exciting to read. Again, Jamison didn't do that. She took small pithy experiences and didn't make me have this so called empathy for her at all in the telling, because she related to how they made her feel and how they affected her life and how hard everything was for her. And nothing else. When she wrote about abortion, she didn't relate it to any greater struggle or how women are treated in society, she just talked about how it kind of sucked but not really. If that were enough, I'd have a lot of essays to read because a lot of women get abortions. But that isn't enough. Enough is to make us laugh and cry at the same time, to make us ask questions and wonder and think about the stories that comprise our lives in new ways. Instead, I just wanted it to end so I could leave the gym.

I honestly don't remember half the essays, even though I'm looking at a copy of the title page right now, but I'll surmise what I do remember: medical actor sounds like someone who wants to be a writer said, what will be an interesting side job that nobody has written about before so I can write an essay about it? The could have been interesting essay about a weird disease where people think things are growing in their bodies was tedious and made me annoyed with even the most sympathetic characters. In Defense of Saccharine was an essay defending liking sweet things, to which I say, if you like something, you'll make more of a statement by liking it unabashedly than by penning an entire essay trying to defend yourself for liking it.

But nothing, nothing could have prepared me for the last essay in the collection, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain. My female pain is that I wanted to stab myself after reading a THIRTEEN SECTION LONG essay about some mysterious sadness that some females feel and trying to get everyone to feel bad about it.

I have a lot of things to say about this.

Most of them are angry.

Perhaps I will write a separate blog entry detailing them all.

I don't want to write more than a short paragraph ranting here, so I will pare it down: a great way to make men and women who hate on women think its okay to hate on women is to talk about how weak and in pain we all are. Especially in vague, non descriptive language that leaves the reader wondering what exactly you are talking about in the first place. I'm characteristically an easily saddened person, but I don't need to go around writing long boring essays about it. Instead I try to figure out the things that make me sad and figure out how to be less sad about them so I can go on living my life. If I do write about them, I explore the specific issues rather than making up, well, a 'grand unified theory of female pain,' which, and this will be my last word on the topic, isn't even a theory because after reading the entire thing I could not gleam even the beginning of a weak hypothesis.

I'm moving on.

Gave some current fiction a chance with Astonish Me, always a scary prospect because so much fiction is bad. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead wasn't....bad. I don't know if I will bestow good on it either, though. I really liked most of the book, actually. I was engaged in the story of a former dancer who helped a very famous dancer defect from Russia. I wanted to keep reading. I was bored by her woes of being a parent as I usually am when reading books that involve parents, because the only thing going through my head is 'you did this to yourself, you did this to yourself, you did this to yourself.' I loved the protagonist's other dancer friend, who was a baller and lived a life dedicated to art instead of having children, I actually often think of this character now when trying to explain my desire for my life to people. The plot thickened, I was happy, the language was nice, the way the story jumped in time was effective.

Then the end came and I wanted to throw the book against the wall because for what seems like the millionth time in a book, it resolved itself with an improbable coupling of two characters who would never be together in real life and demeaned the value of one of the female characters with the choice. I won't go into more detail but is it really that hard to create an ending that isn't a complete cliché? Honestly it marred the whole book for me.

Thankfully, I had my new favorite, Friendship, to turn to after these disasters. I have developed a bit of a writer-crush on Emily Gould over the past few months, from some things I've read of hers online and her quippy twitter presence that reminds me of myself and Naomi enough that I think we should just all be friends. She also seems to be a nice real life human because when I made a funny joke responding to something she said on twitter, she favorited it and replied back, which was probably the most exciting thing to happen to me in July.

Friendship proved to be just as good as I anticipated it to be. It follows two best friends who have reached their late twenties with not much to show for it and are trying to navigate lives that seem to be spinning out of control. Just my jam since I am in my early twenties and my life is showing no signs of ever being in control in the first place. It's funny, well written, and so, so, relatable.

I think it was especially relatable for me because of the specific type of best friendship it describes. I think many people have a best friend, but few people have found or put in the effort to have a true life companion best friend. A friendship like that is a relationship. It takes on a life of it's own. You may shower together, fight in ways that could break anybody else up, think in the same patterns, create keg race tournaments, people will ask if you're having a party tonight when they mean at your best friends house. It helps when the people in it aren't dedicating their time to actual relationships, ha. Anyway, Emily Gould clearly gets it – I instagrammed this passage on the instagram that my best friend and I both use:

“I meant 'happened to either of us,' but we are a couple, in a way. I mean, we're life partners. All these people' – Amy gestured at the couples walking by them at the outdoor flea market, eating grilled corncobs and tacos, grinning at each other in Ray-Bans – 'are obviously going to break up once their sexual chemistry peters out. But we'll be together forever.'”

The characters are also the same type of people that my friends and I are. Trying to make it in creative professions but working other jobs, consistently trying to toe the line between being a good employee and showing the true snob colors. Believing in idealistic things but also liking nice things like new clothes -

“And there was Sam's charming Marxist thing of thinking that restaurants, new clothes, et cetera, were frivolities that only served to keep workers addicted and enslaved by the capital. Amy agreed with him about this, in theory, but she loved wearing a new outfit for the first time, ideally to a restaurant.”

Another one that resonated with me personally was this sense that even though we're all liberated and feminism and great, there is this kind of pull back to domesticity that I can see everywhere from the media to my friends. I sometimes worried that I was the only one who was experiencing discomfort with this, but of course not – Emily Gould to the rescue.

“I guess I'm talking about this weird vapidity that women seem to aspire to,” Amy said. “This kind of US Magazine editorial voice that infects people's conversations and lives. Just fetishizing...children and domesticity and making it seem like they are the goals of women's lives, the only legitimate goals women's lives can have.”

The most life changing book of the month award goes to Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, because I am a vegetarian now. I have not fully made the transition yet, AKA when the new IHOP specials included a waffle with BACON AND CHEDDAR CHEESE baked into it I had to try it, but I am in the process. It really isn't that hard, except for eating out. Anyway, this lovely work of nonfiction by one of my favorite writers who oh snap, I get to meet next week back at Redlands.

I am going to save my main reviews of the book for an entire different blog about my choice to become a vegetarian, but suffice to say the book laid out the reasons why not consuming meat is a great choice in well written and very clear prose. It covers everything from factory farms, to how the animals are mistreated – a light word, tortured would be better, to the environmental concerns, to the concerns for our bodies. Safran Foer makes a fair argument, interviewing both factory farm workers and owners of farms which only use sustainable agriculture and kinder slaughter methods.

Stay tuned for my full review once I meet him next week EEP and write the review. Yay.

Scarecrone by Melissa Broder was a lovely book of poems from the monthly Emily Books reader which I read while on my breaks at IHOP. A lovely image, I know, the poor waitress reading poetry to sustain her dying brain on her breaks. Cliche but alas it is true.

I picked up The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang at Warwick's when I was about halfway through Friendship and realized that if I didn't go buy a new book before it was over that I would be depressed when I finished. Alas the selection at Warwick's was not up to its usual standards. I found this little book, which follows a family and one of the son's fiance's through a day (the sixteenth of June, obviously) on which many events transpire, including a funeral, and, you guessed it, a Bloomsday party. Okay you probably didn't guess it unless you are James.

Anyway, I bought it because of the basis in Ulysses nerdism. For that purpose the book was good, it had enough in jokes and references to keep a Bloom fan sustained, although they were mostly surface level things that could've been figured out from looking up the book on Wikipedia. I was hoping for some episode alignment with chapters but alas. Anyway beyond that the book was...fine. I was kept entertained for the most part. It was well written in the way that people who were trained for a while in how to write well write things, without much creativity or energy. The characters circumstances were interesting enough, and even though the plot was a bit contrived it was still entertaining.

My main beef with the book was that the protagonist was mostly the worst. The book jacket said it described people who fell out of the societal standards of happiness, and while that may be true, it basically was about privileged people with privileged people's problems. Yeah the main character grew up in a 'normal suburban house,' but growing up in a normal suburban house and then going to Harvard still qualifies as privilege. She has an anxiety disorder that involves pulling out her hair – but then ditches the therapy someone else is paying for to try and doesn't make any effort to work on it. Not making an effort doesn't constitute a lack of privilege.

It was enjoyable enough, with some moments of insight. But for the most part Lang's book served to deepen my mistrust of current fiction.

On to the next month, where I've already read a big ole memoir of a big ole feminist journalist, Gail Sheehy, and and am started on the amaaaaazing And the Heart Says Whatever by my obsession Emily Gould. After that I'll be embarking on NW by Zadie Smith in a cross country book club with some fellow Johnston alums, and perhaps some theory. Other than that, only my too many books overcrowding my two bookshelves will tell.

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

Books Bought:

  • Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

  • An Untamed State – Roxane Gay

  • The Best American Essays 2009

  • A Library of Literary Criticism

  • After Visiting Friends – Michael Hainey

  • No One Belongs Here More than You – Miranda July

  • The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

  • Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose

  • Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls – David Sedaris

  • The Empathy Exams – Leslie Jamison

Books Read:

  • An Untamed State – Roxane Gay

  • White Girls – Hilton Als

  • Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

  • In Praise of Messy Lives – Katie Roiphe

  • Fidelity – Grace Paley

Books Not Finished

  • Praying Drunk – Kyle Minor

  • The Faraway Nearby – Rebecca Solint

  • Almost No Memory – Lydia Davis

  • The Ten Year Nap – Meg Wolitzer

  • Sister, Mother, Husband, dog, etc – Delia Ephron

Ello. I am currently reading a compilation of Nick Hornby's book columns for the Believer magazine over the past ten years, and while it is fun to read, as it often happens when I read things, they make me want to write about the same things. He organizes the beginning of each column by books bought and read every month, and I also read and buy books every month. And love lists.  I'm not Nick Hornby, or famous, but I do think it's good to record my thoughts and musings about books I read because I've been reading enough post college that I have actually started to forget things about books I read in like, last November. Embarrassing. So here I go.

Also, Nick Hornby wasn't allowed to talk shit on books not finished, because of some agreement with the Believer because they don't want to shit talk anyone, to which I say: schmeh. (From his comments on the topic in the column, Hornby also says schmeh. But he was getting paid and I'm writing for my own website which I pay for, so I guess there are some perks to not being famous.)

Onward. As you probably know if you know me or have heard me speak, I buy a lot of books. I go back and forth on whether this is a good or bad things. I generally say good because it is important to buy books when so many people don't. (Apparently 43% of Americans don't read books of any kind. Kill me. Oh wait don't because then there would be one less American reading books.) I want to support the literary industry as much as I can on my Ihop salary, and I also think it is important to buy books because I hope to publish one someday so not buying them would seem a bit hypocritical if I'm ever going to complain about no books getting published. (I have never tried to publish a book so I don't know if this warrants complaints yet, but this is what I have heard.) Additionally, I've been trying the whole library thing, and it is not working out. I don't have time to read all the books I'm so excited to check out, and then they end up overdue, and it turns out that the San Diego Public Library system is not as liberal as the Madison library system about late fines. And then I get depressed about the books I haven't read and the fines I have to pay, so on and so forth, le sigh.

Plus, if I ever own a house (looking doubtful, see my burgeoning career at Ihop) I want to have enough books for my in-home library. This is really an investment for the future.

My books bought this month are from four separate occasions – one trip to the used bookstore a couple blocks down from my house where I meant to donate two books (and did) and ended up leaving with five more. Whoops. But I can't turn down an old edition of Best American Essays, especially what with fall coming up and thus the 2014 edition. 2013 was such a disappointment that I need an old one on hand to read to prepare me for 2014. It's important to me to beef up my academic section of my in home library, thus A Library of Literary Criticism. Although it is happening sluggishly, I am determined to read some classics that I should within my lifetime read, i.e. The Magic Mountain, plus both Ann Patchett and Bill McDonald love it and if you can't trust them who can you trust? Rounding out this trip was Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose, because it's always good to have some books of poems on hand.

Do you see now what I was saying about the library? I would literally never finish all these books within two weeks, but I want them on hand and will certainly read them eventually and would like to be able to browse them, especially the literary criticism and the poetry, at a moment's notice.

Three were purchased while I was waiting for a lunch date in a Barnes and Noble and spotted the buy two get one free table. I love the buy two get one free table! That's where I procured Random Family, No One Belongs Here More than You, and After Visiting Friends. A note on Barnes and Noble: I prefer independent bookstores, but everyone is suffering these days, so no apologies/no regrets. An Untamed State and The Empathy Exams were both kindle purchases, which means I read them at the gym. I haven't finished The Empathy Exams because a lot of times I just go to the gym for yoga classes and I can only read when I'm doing speed walking or the elliptical. So probably this month.

The experience of purchasing Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is going to get its own entry because it involves me getting told by a famous author that I should work at a specific institution which values physical attributes of mine not at all related to my writing or art or anything I generally value. Stay tuned!

I wrote a lengthy review of In Praise of Messy Lives which can also be found on this here blog, so I won't repeat myself. After finishing that I jumped into another collection of essays and criticism, White Girls. I first read Hilton Als in Best American Essays 2011 or 2012 and that particular essay struck me in tone in a way that has stayed with me. I'd heard a lot about White Girls over the past year and I'm always looking to improve my knowledge and perspective on race, and I can't turn it down from a more creative lens.

Als style is something I enjoy but that I'm not always sure I completely understand. The elevated tone and language sometimes leads me to believe that I'm intuiting things about the essays that aren't actually taking place, or vice versa, so I'm going to try not to say too much that I could be misinterpreting.

I loved Tristes Tropiques, the first piece and the lengthiest in the book. Many of the insights reminded me of intense friendships, of course one in particular, that I've had, and that is my favorite thing. The entire essay reiterates the concept of twinning, and relationships that are so much more than friendships but aren't romantically intimate.

“Perhaps SL will leave me for one reason or another, but he will never go away: I see myself in him and he in me, except that for him our twinship is essentially private and silent. So how do I justify putting our we-ness out in the world by writing about it? I can't. It's something I've always done; SL accepts this in me: half living life so I can get don to really living it by writing about it.”

One of the most interesting things about White Girls is that although it is mostly a commentary on race, it is also in large part about the intersectionality of race and gender and some of its best moments were the tiniest observations on this: “She was as conscious of her body as she was fearful of it; in short, she as a woman.”

Speaking of gender, there is an entire amazing essay about Truman Capote's gender identity, which based on some google searches hasn't actually been particularly documented. I highly suggest it for fans of Capote or fans of gender studies.

My personal favorite essay in the collection was obviously the one about Eminem. Nothing like academic geniuses analyzing the race and gender politics of pop culture. A note on that – I think that engaging with popular culture on a critical level is one of the best ways to actually change things in society. Pure academia is great for those of us who like it but how are we ever going to actually influence the general public unless we engage with what they like? i.e., pop culture. The essay, White Noise, is phenomenal and somehow manages to both critically engage with Eminem, praise him, and explore his emotional side.

“Mathers can't quite believe the world is the world. Nor can he believe there's not enough love in it – especially for him.” That first line – 'can't quite believe the world is the world' – mirrors how I and I'm pretty sure most of my close friends feel walking out of the house on a daily basis.

The other library book I managed to finish in the past month or so was Fidelity by Grace Paley. And it was a book of poems. Maybe I can only allow myself to get books of poems from the library because under duress I can read them faster and copy down the poems I want to re study later. A gem from Fideltiy :

a person should be in love most of

the time this is the last proverb

and may be learned by all the organs

capable of bodily response”


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.