All the Books I've Read Since June

I've fallen behind on the book blogging. Way behind. I don't know when this happened. I'm going to assume around Anna Karenina, because how to put a giant like that in a post that also involves other books?!

And then I was preparing to move, and then I left, and then I was home, and then I moved, and then I was settling in and applying for jobs...et cetera.

Now I am somewhat settled in, although not really because I have to move again by the end of the month and looking for apartments is just like applying for jobs and going on dates, AKA, the worst. But I must get back into book blogging because theoretically I would like to eventually be writing about books for the real internet, and I'd like to have some not nonsense things on my blog about it so I can be like look here, writing, books. (What I am writing right now qualifies as nonsense. This is The Last of the Nonsense.)

Since I feel too guilty to just start writing about books afresh, I'm going to do a summation of all the books I've read in the past six months so they don't go neglected. I think like, a sentence per book. Or less. And after that I'm going to change my format and try to write short posts about every book I read, for the aforementioned reasons, and so that I can remember things better. Yay.

When I am older and all my friends are busy having children, I'm going to use that time to learn math. That's what I decided while reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. I already knew that Nell Zink was a baller from her interview on Lit Up, but it was confirmed by reading Mislaid. My thoughts on not having kids were reaffirmed by Selfish, Shallow, and Self Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to have Kids edited by Meghan Daum. Reading Anna Karenina in the beer room at Hash House on break was hilarious, and oftentimes I'd go back to work confused that I was asking people about how they wanted their eggs instead of trying to understand Russian crop rotation.

I liked the self reflexive / meta nature of Daniel Martin by John Fowles, but I left the book feeling like men, maybe especially British men, get away with a lot in terms of their sentences. Alice Munro is a goddess and Runaway was the first book to inspire my current short story renaissance. Anyone who loves poetry, beautiful language, and books that intersect with current cultural problems (re: racism) should read One with Others by C.D. Wright. Ali Smith's How to Be Both was also self reflexive and meta and British, but I think she surpasses John Fowles because her style rings true instead of overwrought.

If you haven't read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates yet, you're doing it wrong. It's like a hundred pages of bare truth and harsh criticism of our current (and prior) (basically always) state w/r/t race. Nothing I can say can add to the well deserved praise the book is currently receiving. Just read it!

Short Cuts by Raymond Carver was a great, sad intro to a short story writer I'll have to delve more into in the future. New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus, was a great intro palate of awesome weird short story writers working today and recently. Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott made me understand the phrase 'MFA novel' but was enjoyable nonetheless. I then took a turn for the depressing with The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Applications for my next 'depressing environment read' are currently open.

I turned back to some of my old homies with Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace, a posthumous collection of some of his less publicized nonfiction. Then came Purity, and in the words of Emily Gould, if you didn't like it you're a player hater because it was an excellent and enthralling novel. As was Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, which examines the marriage of two eccentric artists in New York. Coincidentally, it is the last book I bought in San Diego, meaning I got it for free with a thing I got from being a frequent buyer at Warwick's, shoutout.

At home I decided to get 'academic' by reading The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine, which taught me that I am a fool for thinking I can understand wine from reading a book. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was precise, poignant, and sad, tracing the lives of four humans after a tragic political incident in India.

I'm just going to call a spade a spade and say that the editors of Best American Essays need to step up their game. The 2015 anthology, edited by Ariel Levy, was fine, but fine is not the word I should be using to describe the BEST American Essays! Everything has been downhill since 2012.

My first novel in New York was The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, also set in New York, the story of a young unnamed artist and motorcycle rider who gets to know the city and the humans and has weird affairs and is generally great. I tried to read this book the first time around when I moved to San Diego and didn't like it, and this time I loved it, symbolism, or something. Next came another regional story, though not of this region – Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is set in the swamps of Florida and tells a sad tale of a family who runs a gator amusement park left behind after their diving mother's death. Begins fantastical but becomes a lovely story of lost innocence and accepting real life.

I happened to read A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway a few weeks before the Paris attacks, which made the news all that much sadder (as well as attacks of tragedy all over the world, yes, I know, I think about them all.) But also – F. Scott Fitzgerald was such a brat when they went to retrieve the car! I loved Hemingway's approach to writing about writing, and his own work challenges.

The Best American Short Stories 2015, edited by T. C. Boyle, contained many more gems than BAE 2015 and thus was not a disappointment. I think about one of the included stories, Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken, literally every day and it is my inspiration in writing life. On with the short story love, Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus was weird and awesome and inspiring, especially after meeting him (well, him signing my book, you know, one day I'll meet them for real) at a Pushcart Prize reading. Mary Karr was supposed to be at said reading but was sick, which was tragic but I understand, and I next read her new book The Art of Memoir, which was excellent as always and I'm sure I'll return to it many times in the coming months.

Another disappointing British dude – Norman Rush's Subtle Bodies contained very little emotional nuance for being about death and friendship, and even by the end of the book I didn't understand the differences between several of the main characters. I appreciated the shit out of the collection of Flannery O'Connor short stories I read next, but I don't think she's actually my style. Like I value it so much as literature, but probably not my personal favorite.

Yesterday I finished Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender, another weird and wonderful collection by a currently working writer. Currently I am reading Oblivion, a DFW collection, but I don't think that will be the first book I individually review because I started it in February and am picking up in the middle, so I will count that as my last one here and begin the single entries with whatever I start next. Yay.

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.

 

 

 

 

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