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

Books Read

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

 

Books Bought

This is Running for Your Life by Michelle Orange

Minimalism by Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodermus

Should I go to Grad School? By various

Daring; My Passages by Gail Sheeny

The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara duh

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

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

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

Promiscuities by Naomi Wolf

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

Books Unfinished

Minimalism by Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodermus

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

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

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

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

A gem -

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

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

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

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

Gems include:

Inelegantly and without my consent, time passed”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read

Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connoly

something by Tobias Wolff

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman

A Disorder Particular to the Country by Ken Kalfus

essays by Montaigne

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

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

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

Books Bought:

  • Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

  • An Untamed State – Roxane Gay

  • The Best American Essays 2009

  • A Library of Literary Criticism

  • After Visiting Friends – Michael Hainey

  • No One Belongs Here More than You – Miranda July

  • The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

  • Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose

  • Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls – David Sedaris

  • The Empathy Exams – Leslie Jamison

Books Read:

  • An Untamed State – Roxane Gay

  • White Girls – Hilton Als

  • Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

  • In Praise of Messy Lives – Katie Roiphe

  • Fidelity – Grace Paley

Books Not Finished

  • Praying Drunk – Kyle Minor

  • The Faraway Nearby – Rebecca Solint

  • Almost No Memory – Lydia Davis

  • The Ten Year Nap – Meg Wolitzer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a person should be in love most of

the time this is the last proverb

and may be learned by all the organs

capable of bodily response”

Proverbs

I don't know what exact order this was in because I read this next one at the gym, but sometime around the time I finished White Girls I also finished An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I normally don't say that everyone should read a book because I think that there's no accounting for taste slash mainly I think that people usually say this about stupid books slash usually these lists are fifteen hundred books long and there's no way that anyone can let alone MUST read that many books, but I'm about to say it about two books this month so there I go contradicting myself.

I am going to say it about both An Untamed State and Random Family, for relatively similar reasons. Both books contain perspectives of marginalized groups (women and those in poverty, respectively) which everyone who is not in either marginalized group should really read to try and better understand the lives of those in such group.

Roxane Gay took a very specific and horrifying experience of a Haitian-American woman kidnapped from outside her wealthy Haitian family's estate and held in captivity for days, and spoke incredible volumes to the universal experiences of violence against women and how a man's damage can change the way a woman thinks and lives her life. I think this book could help a man better understand the terror of sexual assault than anything I've ever read. It even at times showcases how little men understand of it by showing sections from the narrator's husbands perspective. I'm not trying to shit talk men here. But I am saying that this book would be a very useful perspective for someone who has never feared being raped, whether they be man or woman.

Aside from perspectives, it's also an amazing book in terms of the things that generally make books great, such as being well written, plotted, and voiced. The action is hard to swallow at times but the book moves quickly and shifts between the terrifying scenes and flashbacks enough that I didn't feel trapped by the action. Except, of course, in the way that you want to feel trapped by the action, because you want to be able to feel a smidgen of the sense of entrapment that the narrator feels.

Random Family follows four youths in the Bronx from late teenagehood to adulthood, and the incredible part of the book's inception is that LeBlanc actually spent ten years with her subjects, not just interviewing them, but becoming a friend and confidant in their lives as they went through drugs, childbirth, motherhood, dealing, jail, etc etc etc. It's an amazing piece of investigative reporting that slices open a whole sector of American life that most Americans are completely blind to. That's why everyone needs to read this book. Obviously reading one more book can only do so much, but it's so illuminating to get to know and empathize with these people who lead just as dynamic lives as our own but with struggles most of us won't ever come close to knowing.

Speaking of gender, as I was earlier, Random Family also brings in a wide angle on what it means to be female in poverty and how it changes one's relationship to sexuality. In a world where men deal drugs and have money, women become trained by society to use their bodies as currency to get what they need from those men. This put men in a further escalated position of power than they already are in society as well as pitting girls against each other, again, more than they already are, in places where it's not uncommon for a man to have one main girlfriend and four on the side who the first one knows about and grudgingly accepts.

The book also explores the dynamics of prison in the United States as three of the main characters end up there for drug offenses. I highly suggest this book for anyone who watches Orange is the New Black, which I know is most of you! I read the memoir that the show is based on, and although the memoir acknowledges that the narrator was in prison in a very different way than most of the women that she met – for many of them, prison was relatively inevitable and only a different type of horror than the lives they faced outside, while for Piper it was a jarring year out of a privileged life that she got to return to after her sentence. The memoir explores the political and social implications of this extensively and the narrator acknowledges her privilege, but the show is lacking in this area. Random Family really explores it in depth and gives insight to many women who are probably similar to ones that Piper spent time with.

The skyrocketing number of women in prison was the unintended consequence of a drug policy that snagged legions of small-timers in the attempt to bring their kingpins down.” Although arguably this is the same thing that got Piper in prison, RF shows the scope it took on families in poverty.

Random Family continues as a study exploring the intersectionality of poverty, race, gender, and drugs in the ghetto. When describing trying to make a legal case of Jessica ending up pregnant in prison from an affair with a guard, LeBlanc writes

The legal challenge was a lot like the challenge of demonstrating the impact of racism or poverty or substandard housing: How could you untangle the structural injustices from the self-inflicted damage? How could you separate neglect from malice, the intended from the unintended harms?”

LeBlanc also demonstrates this when writing about Coco, one of the main focuses of the book: “Every opportunity Coco seized on improved her life, but sustaining the improvements proved impossible against the backslide of poverty.” She explores the debate of maintaining a minimum wage job versus subsisting on welfare, and the challenges of even keeping a minimum wage job when caring for 3 plus children.

As usual, the people who probably need to read a book like this the most (re: Republicans, anyone who asks why women in poverty have so many children, anyone who says the phrase 'why don't they just get a job') probably won't ever pick it up, but perhaps if those of us who already know some of the knowledge read it and gain a firmer and deeper understanding the empathy will still be spread.

And now on to books I didn't finish: I try to like short stories, but sometimes I just don't. Sometimes I don't like the stories or the writing themselves, other times I just can't get into that much disjointed-ness. I didn't finish two books of short stories this month, Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor and Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis. The former I have heard pimped and hyped a lot in various cultural publications this year, citing words like honest and brash and young talent, and well maybe it was those things but I just didn't like it. The prose seemed overdramatic to me and perhaps a little bit of angry white man playing it off as artsy. I'm sure it's good if it's what you're looking for, but I wasn't. On the other hand, Lydia Davis is great, I really loved her stories, but I think I'm going to have to buy one of her books because I can't commit to finishing something from the library that has so many separate narratives.

The Faraway Nearby was also great, I really love Rebecca Solint, especially the word mansplaining, but I did a bad job of putting it down in the wrong place and accidentally picking up Random Family more often. I may be able to finish it this month if the library doesn't shank me first.

Re: The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. I thought when I picked up this book, hm, I wonder if it will bug me too much to read about women who took time off from life to have children muse about it for four hundred pages. Lo and behold, I was correct. I don't care about these particular musings at this point in my life. Perhaps one day I will. Or perhaps I will have no children and continue to live my rock and roll lifestyle. Whatever, at least I know my tastes.

Re: Sister Mother Husband Dog etc. by Delia Ephron. Reading someone related to Nora Ephron: good idea. Reading someone related to Nora Ephron write many sentences about how Nora stole a lot of her lines and express vague jealousy: meh. The wound is still too fresh.

This was fun! And hopefully now I will start to remember what I read.