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.   

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