Tag Archive | reading

Feminist on a Road Trip

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Every time we passed a sign for Des Moines I said it over and over in my head so many times that it started to sound like “Desdemona.” This pleased me.  Thinking about a Shakespearian heroine proved I was smart. A goddman woman of letters.

I suspected that at some point I would write about this word-morphing and “forget” to mention that I had to Google Desdemona to confirm that she was, indeed, Othello’s wife. I wasn’t 100% sure.  When I Googled her, I was disappointed to read that she was not black, as I had remembered her. She was described by Wikipedia as a “Venetian beauty.” Her husband, the Moor, was believed to be black.

These are the thoughts of a well-read person, Google or no, I thought.

We drove past Iowa City.  I waved to Jane Smiley and whatever remains of Ann Patchett’s essence after her graduate school stint at the famed writing program.

Look at me! I’m an enthusiastic celebrant of all things literary! Supporter of women in the arts!

Once Des Moines was in the rear view mirror, I succumbed to uncharitable thoughts about the Iowa State Fair goers who feasted on hunks of livestock impaled on sticks. I myself ate corn kernels with a fork and a roasted turkey wrap on a gluten-free tortilla, ThankYouVeryMuch.  Like a total asshole– I mean, who eats like that at a state fair?  When Jeff asked the pimple-faced vendor for the gluten-free turkey wrap, she stared blankly.  “Do we serve that?” she asked her shift supervisor.  We pointed to the menu; they both looked surprised.

On the final long stretch of the road trip, I fell in love with a book of essays. The pieces were well-written, darkly humorous, and made me feel smart for enjoying them. No beach reads for this woman of the world traveling through exotic Nebraska while a grating narration of Ramona and Beezus filled the mini-van.

By the time I was half way done with the book, I had a definite picture of the author in my head. She’d mentioned that she was blonde three times, so I started there. My imagination gave her blonde-but-stringy hair, an ample bosom, and a no-make-up earthiness that I assumed from her hobbies: antiquing and summering in Maine. I also assumed she was older than me by at least a generation.

Basically, I made her a funky, lovably eccentric Kathy Bates with longer, more Nordic hair.

Jeff exited near Altoona. “Can you drive?” His eye lids sagged; he’d be asleep before I merged back onto the highway. As he put the car in park, I Googled the author of the essays.

Big mistake.

She was most certainly not Kathy fucking Bates. She was Gwyneth Paltrow, but—worse—she was way less vanilla. Her face was more angular; her glasses had that “I live in Manhattan” cool that felt (and was) thousands of miles away. She looked younger than me.  Oh great– she was also a professor at a fancy New York college. She definitely knows all about Desdemona; I doubt this author ever vacationed at the Iowa State Fair.

I hated her. I hated the essays. I hated myself for enjoying them. Why couldn’t she at least be portly? Or old? Or mean? Or not funny? I was so totally jealous of her that it consumed me for miles, across the borders of the flattest states, isolated and hostile to me now, though before the Googling, I thought they were majestic and soul-stirring.

I seethed across Iowa. I seethed into Illinois. I stared at the horizon and begged myself to be, not undone by her beauty, talent, wit, and success, but inspired! vivified! energized!  I prayed for the ability to stuff the image of the real author back through the wireless airwaves so I could have my original back.

Back home, I forced myself to finish the book.  It’s not her fault she’s beautiful and friends with David Eggers.  It’s certainly not her fault my heart is shriveled by jealousy and impotent rage.

It was a really good book.

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Withdrawal Is Hell

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I’ve done this before. Sugar. Purging. Alcohol. Caffeine. Bad boyfriends. Withdrawal is no fucking joke, but it always passes, and in its place are hard-won insights and the giddy, breathless relief that the hairy, incontinent monkey is finally off my back.

 

You’d think those past experiences would be shining, hopeful beacons on the horizon, proof plucked from my own timeline that I can do hard things. Hell, I can the hardest thing of all: I can change.

 

But that’s the thing about withdrawal: while it’s the gateway to hope, its path is pitch-black, stark.  You know why there is no Venn diagram showing the overlap of hope and withdrawal? Because the whole fucking point of withdrawal is to crawl through it even though it feels like a hope graveyard. You keep crawling even though all you want is your drug for one more night and you don’t believe for one hot second that letting go is ever going to feel as good as having the needle in your arm, the Starbucks grande, the bad boy on your speed dial.

 

I’m there now. I’m staring at the ceiling and sweating while my whole family is asleep wondering what the fuck normal people do when they can’t read. (Sleep, apparently, if the three people in my house are any indication.)

 

I ride the bus feeling half listless and half buzzed. I’m dying to pull out a book, a newspaper, a Buzzfeed article about the 23 Things Only Girls With Fine Hair Understand. God, anything with the written word on it. I settle for a quick scroll through Instagram.

 

I feel like I’m dying. I’m Ray Charles in that scene where he’s detoxing, thrashing in the bed, screaming about spiders on his skin. I’m Tom Hanks’ character on Family Ties—the uncle who’s so profoundly alcoholic he drinks all of the Keatons’ vanilla extract to get a buzz. I’m the Ulysses-obsessed kid from my Master’s program who had a psychotic break when he abruptly stopped drinking Johnny Walker Red.

 

I got here by asking for help with my writing. I guess my shrink got sick of hearing me keen about how shitty my writing is compared to, well, every other person in the world who’s strung more than two sentences together. “I’m stuck, I’m paralyzed, I hate every word I write. By the time he was my age, Salinger was done writing.”

 

If writing is Crossfit, then complaining how much mine sucks is my WOD.

 

He lowered the boom: Stop reading for a month.

 

“Say what?” I said. My paying job requires extensive reading; those Amelia Bedelia books aren’t going to read themselves to my illiterate children; my only sustainable hobby (other than therapy) is reading.

 

“Other than work or reading to your kids, no reading. For a month.”

 

I understood the exercise. While for most people reading is pleasurable escape, I’d turned it into something else. I’d turned every book into an indictment against my own work. It was as masochistic as the way I guzzled coffee or enabled my college boyfriend by ghost-writing his essays so he could sustain his drug habit and fraternity obligations. The relationship between me and reading had to be reset.

So, surrender.

 

Was he taking me off heroin? No. Did he take away running or my Costco card? No. Do I have a choice? Yes.

 

I choose to crawl on, forsaking my seven library books because of the dim promise that at the end of this exercise I may have something better: appreciation, love and compassion for my own stories.

The 54 Greatest Books I Read This Year

This is all Stephen King’s fault.  In On Writing, his memoir on writing (“the craft” as he puts it), he mentions that he reads anywhere from 50-70 books a year.  When I read that, I decided I could keep up with Stephen King.  I wasn’t going to let two small children, a full-time job and a part-time therapy habit stop me from keeping up with Stephen Fucking King.

So, I read 54 books this year.  (EDITOR’S NOTE: The year isn’t over so I’ll probably actually read 56.)

Back in July, I told you about the first 22 books I read in 2014. I won’t rehash that here, but you can catch up by clicking here.  I kicked the reading into high gear on the back side of 2014. FN1

What follows is the remainder of the year’s books with my honest appraisals and commentary.

The best of the rest:

MAJOR FAVORITES

1. US by David Nicholls: For the record, I hated his insipid, stunty, first book, One Day, which became a lackluster movie with Anne Hathaway.  Let us never speak of that again.  But Us? I adored this.  Structurally, it’s the best book I read this year as it seamlessly weaves from past to present and back again.  Narrated by a guy whose fears and neuroses feel like a pair of well-worn slippers to me:  I love and recognize them, and they keep me warm. It’s so good I would have sworn it was written by a woman.

2. Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: You can’t be faulted for skipping over this one. It’s approximately 7,000 pages long.  But do you really want to be a lazy piece of shit all your life? If the answer is no, then get on the Tartt train because the Las Vegas scenes of protagonist Theo Decker and his shady friend Boris are some of the most powerful in all of contemporary literature.  It won the Pulitzer for a reason.

3. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: Set in rural Montana, this book is a bit of a downer.  Lots of relationships falling apart, people failing the people they love, missed connections.  What does it say about me that I love to read about that? The New York Times says this is a novel about the “moral limits of freedom.”  If you like to contemplate those limits, especially against the backdrop of Reaganomics and the spectacular ruggedness of rural Montana, take this for a spin.
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4. We Are Not Ourselves by Michael Thomas: Chilling portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease.  Just thinking back to some of the passages depicting the fraying of the father’s mind and its effect on his family makes me want to run out and do a couple of brain exercises.  Debut novel that reminds me to have compassion for my deep, complex, often-burdened Irish heart.

5. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed: I know you’re sick of hearing about Reese, and Wild, and hiking boots.  I get that.  That’s not what this book is.  There’s no REI, no blisters, no mountaineering or would-be rapists here.  What there is is Strayed’s heart on a platter via her immense compassion and brutal honesty for people in pain who’ve reached out for her hand.  That she offers it back along with so much more makes this book bigger than simply a collection of advice columns.  Don’t skip this.  I cried three times while reading this.

6. Men We Reaped by Jessmyn Ward: Speaking of crying, I cried on the bus while reading the last chapter of this book.  It’s a brutal memoir, linking race, poverty, father-less families and systematic injustice on the Mississippi gulf coast.  Ward leads us through the lives she loved and lost.  After reading this book I realized: I’d follow her anywhere.

7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer:  Moving.  That’s the word for this book.  Yes, it’s another Holocaust book, and like all good Holocaust books there are scenes of ghastly cruelty and unspeakable horror.  But there’s also this shining light from the two young people who are surviving the war inspite of the starvation, cruelty, death and destruction all around them.  All the chapters are short too, so it feels like you are reading fast.

8. Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Each chapter is another year in the life of this Midwestern family.  Nothing super dramatic really happens, yet I kept turning the page.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, and all of the books will follow the chapter-as-year pattern.  It’s like an unexpected trip to Iowa– it’s relaxing, scenic, and the people are friendly and likeable.

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This year I also read some really amazing, well done “lighter” books.  These gems are worth your time and money.

Literary Aperitif / LIGHTER FARE

9.  I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum:  This is a light read about a heavy subject: a marriage unraveling.  It’s Maum’s debut novel and I loved the memorable characters and the good sex scenes.  Maum is very funny.  Like Jonathan Tropper funny. Check this one out.

10. I’m Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (Memoir): Let’s see…. an alcoholic drag queen falls madly and sincerely in love with a crack-addicted man-whore.   Underneath the glitz of the gay NYC lifestyle bankrolled by male escort money, there’s a story about what it’s like to care about someone who’s in the thrall of addiction.  This book carefully threads the line between glitz and the bottomless darkness that is active drug addiction.  Outrageous, moving and dark– just like I like my books.

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11. The Removers by Andrew Meredith (Memoir):  Meredith is forced into the family business as a “remover,” someone who carts away the bodies of people who expire at home.  While working with his father in these somewhat horrific job, Meredith comes to see his father, who was heretofore disgraced by a sexual misconduct scandal, with compassion and empathy.  Bonus: interesting details about crematoria.

12. Heartburn by Nora Ephron: This was my first Ephron book.  I liked it, though there’s so much gushing over Ephron, especially since her death in 2012, that I was worried my expectations were too high.  They weren’t.  This book reads like her rom-coms (think Sleepless In Seattle), there’s just enough humor, truth, intelligence and wit to make it fun in a breezy, Meg Ryan sort of way.

13. Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner: Meh. This portrayal of a woman’s fall into addiction (prescription drugs) was entirely too sanitized for my taste.  It was like going on a date with a really hot guy you’re sure loves REM records and first edition Ezra Pound works, but it turns out he watches Real Housewives and loves Nickelback.

14. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles: Does anyone else think it’s funny that the author’s last name is Miles?  This book, structured as a long complaint letter to American Airlines, is both funny and tragic as the epic fuck-ups of the protagonist’s life come to light in his discursive side bars.  He’s stuck in O’Hare, which has been the sight of more than one of my epic meltdowns.  It’s a must-read for anyone who’s ever been an outraged Davey to the airlines’ Goliath, which is pretty much EVERYONE who’s ever flown anywhere.

INTENSER FARE

15. Symptoms of Withdrawal by Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Confession– I “borrowed” this book from my therapist’s book shelf so I could take it on a trip home. I haven’t returned it. The inside cover has an inscription to him that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to read. Must amend that ASAP. The book itself might have been good research for Ms. Weiner as it details Lawford’s (nephew of JFK, son of Peter Lawford) mighty struggle with addiction along with his endless grappling with his place in the venerable Kennedy clan (Camelot blah blah blah).  As someone who grew up 5 miles from the grassy knoll, I appreciated the “insider” stories about the Kennedys and all their Hyannis Port, east coast rollicking. Lawford, however, is completely full of himself, which was distracting, especially when he’s telling us how great his recovery/sobriety is. Pretty sure bragging about how humble and sober you are (vis-a-vis your sick-fuck family) violates the humility portion of the recovery program I’m familiar with.

16. Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller: Ya’ll, holy shit.  Hording is no joke.  I’ve laughed at hording and had the show on as “background music” while cleaning the kitchen.  Now, I feel like a giant asshole because this story enlightened me to what a serious disorder/disease/pathology it is that drives people to bury themselves in filth.  Think about it– it’s one of the most un-funny things I can think of.  This book was a portal into the world where your house could be so packed that a homeless person could be living in your attic and you wouldn’t even know it.  Chilling.

17. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Nathan Englander: These are short stories and now’s a good time to mention that I don’t like short stories.  I find it jarring to read them when I am used to the cohesion and flow of novels.  I enjoyed Englander’s exploration of Big Questions.  The first one was my favorite so download a sample and see if it’s your thing.

18. Diary of the Fall, Michael Laub & Margaret Jull Costa: This is one of the only experimental novels I read this year.  This book is a mind-blower.  Thematically, it explores how subsequent generations deal with the Holocaust and its aftermath.  It focuses on three generations of men: the youngest is searching for forgiveness for a childhood prank that went horribly awry, the father is descending into Alzheimer’s, and the grandfather survived Auschwitz.  Ultimately the story weaves together survival, forgiveness and memory and shows how the Holocaust fucks with all three of those and will affect generations of survivors.

19. Bear, Claire Cameron: My friends were concerned when I mentioned I was reading this book.  Rightfully so.  It’s told from the perspective of a child who, along with her little brother, has survived a bear attack that killed their parents.  So, there they are, little innocents out in the Canadian woods, and their parents have been mauled TO DEATH and they must get help.  She’s five and her little brother is three.  It’s weird to recommend this book, but I do.  It’s awful to contemplate your kids seeing a bear gnawing in your vitals, and I will never EVER go camping again.  If that’s okay with you, read this.

20. Chasing Daylight, Eugene O’Kelly & Corrine O’Kelly: He’s a bigwig at a global accounting firm– the type of guy who flies to Singapore one day and Sydney the next, all while dealing with a “crisis” in a German sub (-sidiary not marine).  He’s a big fucking deal.  Then he gets an inoperable brain tumor and BAM! he has less than 4 months to live.  He decides to go all accountant-y and chart the best way to live his dwindling days.  He’s Type-A to the complete, pedal-to-the-metal max.  Some of that bugged me, but his quest was urgent and earnest.  How, on his death-bed, he still found time to write this book, I hope I’ll never know.  But his stories of reaching out for closures in relationships was incredibly moving.

21. Summer House With Swimming Pool, Herman Koch:  The protagonist was a compete ass. Someone I would “unfriend” and not socialize with.  And not particularly smart like a Kevin Spacey character (think Frank Underwood).  If one of my friends was married to him, we would never do couple stuff.  The whole thing gave me the creeps, and not in a good way.  I’m told his book The Dinner is the better of the two, so next year I’ll have better things to say about Koch.

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22. An Exact Replica of A Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken.  This memoir depicts the stillbirth of McCracken’s first child, a son whom she and her husband affectionately called “Pudding.”  Thank God, she tells us early on that although Pudding didn’t make it, she went on to have another healthy child. Reading this reminds me of how I had to read Lolita— the subject matter is fraught with so much emotion (judgment and fear and disgust– in the case of Lolita, but sadness, terror and grief here) that you have to really sink into the beautiful language to cope with the emotional heft.  McCracken is humorous, compassionate, human and utterly un-self-pitying (how did she do that???) and this book is a beautiful gem.

23. Hannah Delivered, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew.  This book also concerns births– home births and midwifery.  The character arc of the protagonist who sets out on a journey to become a midwife is realistic and hopeful.   There’s a memorable case of characters– specifically, the gay male midwife who goes off to Mexico to find his birthing-assistance bliss.

24. Boy Kings of Texas, Domingo Martinez. This may have been my favorite book of the year. The voice. The violence. The Texas landscape. The poverty. The border town restlessness and “justice”. The lineage of addiction. The burden of racism.  The generational resentments and the things people do to survive dire circumstances.  I’m gushy about this book, as a reader and a writer.  Martinez often breaks down the Fourth Wall and addresses the reader directly– very Frank Underwood and Shakespearean.  His musical references are perfect.  I can totally picture his British Knight shoes and I can taste the tamales he and his family make on Christmas day.  God.  Please read this book.  It feels important to me that you do.

BOOKS I READ BECAUSE OF PEER PRESSURE

25. Where the Red Fern Grow, Wilson Rawls.  This summer, I ended up on a Facebook discussion loop where this book came up. I made the mistake of saying, “I’ve never read that.”  The chorus of “no way!” “I loved that book!” deafened me.  So I read it.  It’s a great middle-grade story if you like bawling your fucking eyes out over dogs. (I don’t even like animals.)  I’m glad I can cross it off my list of American Classics I Should Read.  If you’re a writer, check out Rawls’ bio– no fancy MFA for him.  Just a life time of enjoying stories.

26. The Third Son, Julie Wu.  Allow me to sum up this book: A Taiwanese boy is not the favorite son. Bad things happen to him.  Then more bad things happen.  Then some really bad things happen in and to his country.  A girl falls for him, but he spends most of his life trying to earn money in American instead of being with her and their son.  Too much of a dream deferred.  Cup of tea, not mine.

27. The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty.  Suddenly everyone I knew was talking about Liane Moriarity.  I saw her books everywhere. I was positive I wouldn’t like it, but you know what, I rather enjoyed large parts of it.  The ending got a little absurd for my taste, and I missed the satisfaction of vengeance.  The opening riff about the Berlin Wall as a way into the story about the woman who finds her husband’s confession on a bookshelf (which she wasn’t supposed to find until he died) worked for me.  That he actually murdered someone and basically gets away with it, didn’t work as well.

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28. Wonder, R. J. Palacio.  The same thing happened with this book.  All over my Facebook feed mothers were extolling the virtues of this book and its message: People who look different should be treated with love and allowed to come into your life as friends.  A fiercely honest friend PM’ed me saying she saw it differently and I decided I had to see for myself.  I liked the multiple viewpoints and thought it captured some of the angst of middle school/high school with some freshness.  My least favorite narrator was the kid who has the facial deformity that functions as the lightening rod in the story.  I had sympathy for him and his plight as a child who gets stared at everywhere he goes, but I thought his level of self-absorption was a turn-off.  I would have liked to see a little bit more nuance around the subject of being an object, being stared at, looking different than everyone else, navigating people’s curiosity.  As it was, I found myself annoyed that he was so obsessed with people staring at him.  Does that make me a bad person? Judging by my Facebook feed, yes.

29. Early Decision, Lacy Crawford.  Because kindergarten and nursery school aren’t stressful enough, I decided to read a “based on real life experience” story about a woman who helps high-achieving (and rich) kids polish their college essays so they can get into their dream schools.  I found the interactions between the college application sherpa and the rich parents who hired her entertaining.  But like The Husband’s Secret, the ending took this absurd turn and involved a coincidence that did not ring remotely plausible so my warm fuzzy feelings soured.

Other Randos

30. Big Brother, Lionel Shriver.  I wanted to like this.  The story: a wildly codependent sister who tries to “save” her morbidly obese/depressed/washed-up brother from himself by leaving her family and going on a crash diet with him.  For me, there wasn’t enough spark here.  And the brother’s vernacular– calling things “hip” and talking like someone from the 70’s was distracting and incredible to me.  There’s also a plot trick at the end, which, as an aspiring novelist struggling with plot structure, infuriated me.  I have a distaste for short cuts or cute tricks.  This book has that, so beware.

31. Defending Jacob, William Landay.  I was 357 pages into this book when I finally realized it was fiction, not a memoir.  After that, I lost steam because the father’s saga of defending his son against murder charges in light of an avalanche of evidence against him seemed much more urgent when it was real.  It’s a great read, but let me be clear: IT IS FICTION.

32. Johnny Carson, Henry Bushkin.  Don’t ask me why I read a 320-page bio of Johnny Carson; I have no good answers.  But it was an enjoyable read.  What I remember about Johnny Carson, whom I only saw when I was allowed to stay up late, was that he was skinny, wry, and had that pencil he was always tapping.  That he was actually a petty, ruthless, tyrannical alcoholic with intimacy issues does not surprise me.  The fact that I liked reading all about it from his personal lawyer’s point of view probably says a lot about me.  None of it very good.

33. Heart of the Matter, Emily Giffin.  I wrote a review here this summer.  I’m still pissed she shafted Willie Nelson in her big old Texas book, but maybe in time I will forgive her. (No I won’t.)

 

Footnote 1: Other stats for the year: I spent $349.00 on books, a number I predict will go down now that I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with the Chicago public library.

Total number of pages read: approx. 13, 549.  That that, illiteracy!

Literary Synchronicity: Jesmyn Ward and Domingo Martinez

My final wrap-up for the 52 (and counting) books I read this year is in the works, but before I unveil that let’s talk about synchronicity.

Literary synchronicity.

I read at least 2 books at a time: one hard copy, one digital.  Typically, my e-book is from the library and is something I put on hold months before, thus the books I end up reading at any given time are pretty random, usually selected months in advance.  (Ping me if you have tips on how to game the Chicago Public Library system.)

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Currently, the e-book I’m reading is the 2012 memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez, which was a National Book Award finalist in 2012.  It’s a spectacular glimpse at life in a poor Texas border town (Brownsville) chock full of unforgettable scenes depicting harsh poverty, brute violence, and poses unflinching questions about race, identity, class and American culture.

Last night I read a passage in BKOT about how the families in Martinez’s community would often pass babies from family to family.  As in, bartering human life.  Martinez writes, “[c]hildren here are a commodity slightly more precious than livestock.”  He calls it a “biological ‘regifting’ program” whereby unwanted babies born into indigent families that cannot feed another mouth are “exchanged” for something more valuable.  Thus, a childless couple might take another family’s little one and swap it for something the indigent family needs– a car, a cow, a bag of jewels, a gun.

Nothing I have ever read about poverty makes the point so clearly: the value of human life is inexorably degraded when you live on the fringes of subsistence.  If you’re starving and your community has gone to seed, then your babies have a different value than they do to someone with ample FMLA leave and full medical coverage.

I’m blessed that I have no idea what this is like.  (This is part of the privilege that I routinely take for granted.)  But this isn’t a political post (not overtly anyway).  This is about the weird shit that happens when you read too much.

So.  Less than 12 hours later, I’m on the bus reading Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped, her 2013 memoir of growing up in rural Mississippi and the four years in which she lost five young men beloved to her and her community.  Every fifth page is a punch in the gut as she links her personal story of struggle and loss to the systematic racism that finds its roots in slavery.

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Hard read, ya’ll, but pretty timely given the deplorable events of late.

Like Martinez, Ward writes how the children in her community “moved from family to family … through the decades: women in [her] great-grandmother’s generation would sometimes give newborn children to childless couples after having five or ten or fourteen, and when children were older, they would often move out of the family home and live with different relatives.”  Ward writes that “[h]ere, family has always been a mutable concept.”

Right now I can’t tell if I’m more shocked by the cultural, economic, and emotional circumstances that force desperate families to treat their children like milk cows or by the fact that despite having never read about this, I’m now reading about it in TWO books in less than 24 hours.

If you’ve ever read this blog, you should not be shocked that I am making this all about me.  Fatal flaw: self-absorption.

I’m not a superstitious woman, but I can’t help but think that somehow the universe is telling/showing/illuminating something for me.  I would like for you to read these two books and then we can have long, on-line discussions about them.

But wait, get this: This happened last week too!  Last week I was reading David Nicholls’ new novel, Us, wherein there’s a story line about a child named Jane who died.  Sad, right?  Poor Jane and her poor parents.   The same night I read about Nicholls’ Jane, I also pick up Laine Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, which concerns the death of a young girl named, of course, J-A-N-I-E.  (Her given name was Jane.)

Are you kidding me? I haven’t (and will never) read the DaVinci Code, but was it like this? Clues littered through seemingly random literary choices?  Am I about to be murdered in the Louvre?  Am I supposed to be solving a mystery right now?

Could this synchronicity mean something? If so, what?

 

What Should You Read Next? Outlaw Mama’s Summer Reading Guide

Beach time!  That means those of you who don’t have a rabid fear of water may be in need of a beach read.  (Those of you who are like me are in need of heavy medication when visiting a beach.)  I’ve been consuming books like Costco snacks these days, in part because of my startling discovery: reading books is about a googleplex times easier than writing them.  Plus, if you are reading you can convince yourself you are doing “research” for your novel and not hiding because of your crippling fear of failure.

I’ve read 22 books so far, and lucky for you, I have opinions about all of them (and only 1 of them is about Willie Nelson).  I’m in a new phase of reading books that are newly published.  Heretofore, I’ve never paid one ounce of attention to that, but now I’m getting off on reading books in the same week they are published. Because HIP! TRENDY! CUTTING EDGE!

 

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So, readers at the beach, by the pool, and in the camp carpool line, this list is for you, lovers of the word.

  1. What Remains, by Carole Radziwell: It’s a memoir about Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John Jr. penned by a current real housewife of NYC. The first few chapters are nauseatingly self-indulgent, but it picks up speed. I felt dirty reading this, my interest being purely prurient. Then I found out the author is now a real housewife. What can I say?
  2. Little Failure, by Gary Shtenygart: Heavy, heavy Russian immigrant-y. Full of angsty stories about how his parents berated him as a loser and his massive struggle to reconcile an early childhood in Cold War with the demands of his new Queens community. Confirms the prevailing myth that a miserable childhood is fertile soil for a young artist. I didn’t feel dirty when I read this, but I did feel a little stupid since Shteyngart is spends a lot of time telling readers how fucking smart he is. That hurt my feelings a little bit.
  3. Son of a Gun, by Justin St. Germain. Memoir. Riveting story of a son trying to make sense of his mother’s murder. Set against the backdrop of the wild west (OK Corral and Wyatt Earp’s myth looms large here), St. Germain ties his family history’s own violent, love-thirsty lurches for fulfillment with those of the heroes and anti-heroes of the Wild West.
  4. Salvage the Bones, by Jessmyn Ward. This book was a dark and murky gumbo. The writing was insanely metaphoric—one critic said Ward never met a metaphor she didn’t like. The intense imagery worked though—this book is set in the few days before Hurricane Katrina decimated the rural areas that were destroyed in its wake. There are graphic descriptions of dog fights that wrenched my heart, but what lingers is the pulse of love and loyalty among the siblings and citizens of this little world that was almost devoured by the storm.
  5. Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan. A light-hearted look at how her mother got the fucking short end of the stick because she was stable, mature whereas her father was flashy and charismatic. (I get a little tired of Corrigan’s father-worshipping). Corrigan views her mother from the lens of her own stint as a nanny to grieving children during a trip to Australia. Full of truths that resonate for all of us with one parent who got to be “fun” and another who was stuck slipping bologna sandwiches into too-small Ziploc bags.untitled
  6. Splitting the Difference, by Tre Miller Rodriquez. Memoir. Her husband had a heart attack in bed one lazy Sunday morning. It’s as heart wrenching as you can imagine, with some spicy elements, including the “rough” sex they enjoyed and the portal into a dashing NY lifestyle of a young gorgeous couple with no kids. To this day, I wonder if her deceased husband’s mother read the book and if so, what’d she think about their whip-tastic sex life.
  7. Heartworn Memories, by Susie Nelson. She’s the daughter of legend, Willie Nelson. Her childhood had some sucky parts as her dad shouldered his way to fame and her mother and step-mothers descended into alcoholism. Pretty sure this isn’t in print anymore and I’m not loaning my copy out, so you’re on your own here.
  8. Cut Me Loose, by Leah Vincent. Okay, she got kicked out of her ultra-orthodox Jewish family for passing notes with a boy. Horrible, right? Of course. The read takes us through all of that and the dozens of marred relationships, as Vincent staggers through her life sexing and trying to find a true connection after being cut off from her entire support system. Frankly, it was exhausting to read and I was dying for something redemptive to happen for the final third of the book. It finally did.
  9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, By Karen Joy Fowler. This one blew my mind—there’s a secret revealed a quarter of the way in, and it was as stunning as the passage in Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible where the youngest daughter gets bit by the snake. I’m not an animal lover (which I recognize as a severe deficiency in my character), but this book made me want to be one. Read this if you like original material delivered in a unique voice.
  10. House Girl, by Tara Conklin.Certain passages of this book transported me to the antebellum South, where plantations spread across the land and enslaved people were forced into unspeakably cruel conditions. I admire the scope of this story, but I felt too removed from it. There’s large chunk that is all letters, which was a good device to get the reader information, but it kept me too distant from the soul of the story. Wait until it comes on video.
  11. Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. No, it’s not hot-off-the-press, but thank god I read this. It’s the story of resilience that is unfathomable. I lost so many hours of sleep reading this book—I could not put it down. This book has the immediacy that House Girl was missing. Prisoners of war are so fucked. If you want to read about one who survived an insane ordeal, starting with a terrifying plane crash into the ocean and weeks lost a sea, only to be rescued and tortured by sadistic Japanese soldiers, well, pick this up.
  12. Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham. Her father committed suicide, and now she wants to make sense of it. One sort of wants to wish Wickersham “good luck with that.” But she valiantly puts pieces of her father’s past together and what emerges is a picture of a man under pressure to outrun demons, some past some current. Her dad had a ticking bomb inside of him, all the scarier because no one seemed to know. Avoid this if you have a depressed parent or spouse, but if you are in a solid place, give it a read. The writing is good, though the story is a downer.
  13. Someone Could Get Hurt, by Drew Magary. It’s a comedy book. Picture your favorite blogger (besides me, or I could do in a pinch) whose best posts are witty observations on the absurdity of modern parenthood and the children it serves. It’s funny with just enough poignancy to keep me from writing him off as just another jokey dude. See? I can read light and funny books.
  14. Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead. Calling all would-be ballerinas. For anyone who’s lost her toenails because of pointe shoes or sobbed because the head of the Boston Ballet told her she was too fat for his company, this book is for you. I couldn’t get through Seating Arrangements, but I loved the language and the story here. Sweaty ballet sex with a Russian defector? Yes please.
  15. Picking Cotton, by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. Rape survivor accuses the wrong man. After his conviction, the awful truth comes out—an innocent man is serving time for a crime he didn’t commit. Now he must rely on DNA evidence to clear his name. Okay, all of that is compelling enough, but get this: this memoir is written by the rape victim and the falsely accused man. I read it in one day. The forgiveness, heart and humility at the heart of this book brought me to my knees.
  16. There Goes Gravity, by Lisa Robinson. Hands down, this is the most fun read of the year so far. Who doesn’t want behind-the-scenes dish about the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin? While those bands peaked before my time, Robinson’s book is a rollicking ride through the ego, riches, and career vicissitudes of musical greatness. My favorite chapters were the stars who rose in my time—Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson—but the whole thing… rocked! (Confidential to Lisa: Where is your profile on the mega-stars of country music? See Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash. Or just Willie Nelson.)untitled
  17. Round House, by Louise Erdrich. A hefty piece of literary fiction, this one. This story had some of my favorite elements: child protagonist, legal gray areas, and a rich sense of a place I’ve never been (Indian reservations in the Dakotas). Like Son of a Gun, the story concerns a son’s search for truth about violence perpetrated on his mother, but in this fictionalized account you get much more, including meditations on Indian/tribal rights and vengeance.
  18. The One and Only, by Emily Giffin. I already reviewed this book so I won’t belabor the point. I have some things to say about why Giffin commands so much press/buzz when the better writer, Jennifer Weiner, has only a fraction of her following. That rant, which involves discussion of the supremacy of long blonde hair, latent anti-Semitism, and Aryan beauty norms, so you have that to look forward to.
  19. The Next Best Thing, by Jennifer Weiner.  An entertaining read about the realities of running a Hollywood show. Jennifer’s plucky heroine is admirable in her quest to bring “real” looking women to the small screen. I got a little sick of her constant moralizing about it, but overall I enjoyed this glimpse into grueling life of a show runner on a debut series.
  20. Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. So much to say, but what you really want to know: Is it worth it? The novel is 700 pages plus so it’s a commitment. It’s not a microwave hot pocket, it’s a sit-down-five-course meal with wine accompaniments. Bottom line: it’s worth it. The writing is every bit worthy of that Pulitzer it won. The plot is intricate, but not overly so. The characters were so well drawn, that I swear one day I will run into Boris in the airport. Make the commitment. Support the contemporary, women-authored masterpieces.
  21. Vacationers, by Emma Straub. This book is coffee gelato smothered in whipped cream and thick hot fudge. Topped with a cherry. It’s totally delightful and surprisingly rich. Deeper than the back cover leads readers to believe. It’s a book where everyone has a secret that is slowly revealed. How Straub shifted among so many points of view without pissing me off is a mystery. I’m buying this for my mom before her trip to Spain next month.untitled
  22. We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart. I yelled at this book. I couldn’t help it—it shocked me so thoroughly that I yelled, “STOP IT! SHUT UP! NO WAY!” when a certain plot point was revealed. It’s a heart stopped. The language is unique and the story will curl your pedicured nails. So well done. BONUS: I tweeted the author gushing about the book and she tweeted me back. “Thank you,” it said. Read this.

Help! I Fell Into A Goldfinch-Sized Hole

The following has always been a true statement since Miss Hunter taught me to read in kindergarten: I love to read.  I remember tenting my covers and burning through Judy Blume’s canon with a flashlight in junior high.  My love for a good story arc and a compelling plot runs deep.

Apparently, however, not as deep as the satisfaction of finishing a book.  I think I’ve had my tenses wrong all this time.  It’s not that I’ve loved to read; I’ve loved to have read.  I love watching the tally rise as I finish a book– that’s what really gets my juices flowing.

goldfinch-3_4

 

Take this year.  I’ve read 18 books so far.  Around book 15, I started geeking out at the prospect of pushing myself to read 50 this year.  Could I? Should I? Let’s do it!  I picked up the pace, hoping to finish June with at least 23 books stuffed in my noggin.

Then I started The Goldfinch.  Damn, you Goldfinch, with your perfect descriptions of EVERYTHING and your expert language.  Damn you and your 80 gazillion pages.  The Goldfinch is a speed bump on my quest to digest more and more books.   There’s been no zipping through Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  Yet, I keep returning to see what’s next for the young protagonist Theo Decker.  I’m rooting for him; I adore the beautiful language.  (I’m supposed to call it “prose” and get my English degree on, but it feels like language to me; I want to bathe in it, marinade in it, and hope that some of her mastery rubs off on me.)

So, now I’ve spent a week with GF and am only 1/3 through.  The irony in all of this is that my next book is Proust, a challenge-read that a friend and I are undertaking for this summer.  (I should probably make peace with the fact that I’m perhaps only going to read 20 books this year.)

But the bigger issue?  I might want to look at my values because this little exercise, this musty literary corner of my life is a microcosm– how I do anything is how I do everything.  And my first impulse is always to value speed above thoroughness, quantity over pleasure and the goal above the journey.

And that is my real problem, not that GF had more pages than red states have guns.  No, the real problem is that there’s a battle I’m eternally (and internally) engaged in– how to harmonize all my wild and ferocious impulses into something manageable, productive, and ultimately beautiful, even those that are at odds with one another.

The Rest of the Books: 2013

We’ve got unfinished business on the book list front. I felt a little guilty for not doing the second half of my reading list sooner. (For the first half, click here.)  Sorry for giving you literary blue balls.  That was pretty high school of me, so let’s remedy the situation straight away.  What follows is the remaining 15 books I read during 2013:

Bedside.

Bedside.

16. Little Stalker, by Jennifer Belle. Who should read this book? Anyone who loves original characters and Little House on the Prairie.  I’d give my designer purse collection (of four half-price Kate Spades from the outlet mall) to write half as well as Belle.

17. Some Assembly Required, by Anne Lamott.  It’s impossible for me to withhold my adoration from Lamott. I love everything about her. I love following her on Facebook, going to her readings, re-reading her books– all of it.  This book was a great installment to the Lamott canon.  This may get me kicked out of her will, but I’ll say that the parts her son wrote could be a little dull.  (Sorry, Anne and Sam, but I owe my 23 readers the truth.)

18. Hooked, by Les Edgerton.  If you are so much as considering, maybe, possibly writing a book, you should read this.  And, if you are, say, three drafts in and feeling like you want to hurl the whole thing out the damn window, read this.  He’s so damn funny, lucid and irreverent. But best of all? Edgerton is joyful– about writing, about teaching others to write and about the JOY of WRITING.  (Huh? Joy in writing? Is that allowed?)

19. One Last Thing Before I Go, by Jonathan Tropper.  Here’s why Tropper is an author whose books I read devour in one day: he makes the most pathetic characters seem loveable.  I cared about protagonist Drew Silver, even as he fucked up seven ways from Sunday over and over.  His loveable fuck-ups are some of the best in contemporary fiction. (Does that sound as pretentious as I think it does? Gag.)

20. Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson.  MOST. ORIGINAL. NOVEL. EVER.  When I ride public transportation to and fro, I find myself thinking, at least once a week, about how the artistic process is a metaphor in this book.  Sometimes I think it’s a metaphor for addiction.  Sometimes redemption.  Sometimes dying.  If you decide to read this, and you should, you should acquaint yourself with the Philip Larkin poem, This Be The Verse, famous for its line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” I’m not sure if Wilson references the poem in his book– if he does, then go me with the awesome memory; if he doesn’t, then I’m a flipping genius for tying these two works together. You’re welcome.

21. Fancy Feet, by Heidi Cave.  This book wins the “Blew me away totally” award for this year.  I knew I’d find inspiration in Cave’s retelling of how she recovered from a tragic car accident that killed her friend and resulted in the amputation of both of her legs.  But it was so real– there was anger, and despair and blind fury that she could have easily glossed over.  Often when I’m lacing up my Brooks for a run, I think of Cave and all that she lost and how she face that with grace, humanity and ultimately gave us a great piece of art.

22. The Rest of Us, by Jessica Lott.  Did you ever have a crush on one of your professors during school?  If you went to school as long as I did, you’d have to say yes or you are totally shut down and should probably stop reading this and call in to Dr. Phil’s show.  I was immediately drawn to this story that began as a love affair between a student and a professor.   Reminded me of my days of pining for Prof. [redacted], who I am sure reads this blog because he secretly loved me too (and also is a stalker).

23. Half Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls.  This was my second Walls’ book of the year.  Here she depicts her grandmother’s hardscrabble life in the American southwest.  You gotta hand it to the earlier generation who had to live in mud houses that could be washed away by flash flooding.  There were points where the protagonist’s can do attitude really rubbed me the wrong way, but that could be because I am about a googolplex times more lazy than she is.

24. My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor.  I think I said all I needed to say on my post devoted to my girl, SS.  

25. Something Borrowed, by Emily Giffin. I had seen those pastel-colored books all over the place and finally picked one up.  Giffin tells a good story– who doesn’t want to sleep with her selfish best friend’s fiance? Oh, wait, I don’t.  I found this hard to relate to because I don’t have shitty friends and I don’t sleep with my friend’s fiances.  But it didn’t stop me from finishing it and there’s plenty of books I tossed aside with nary a care.

26. A Ticket to the Circus, by Norris Church Mailer.  Let’s take a brief moment to talk about public libraries.  I frequent them with my children, and usually have about four seconds to peruse the adult books before Simon craps his pants or Sadie puts audio books in her pants.  I grab what I can, and when I get home, it’s often some pretty random shit.  Like this book by Norman Mailer’s fifth (sixth) wife. What a fucking piece of work she is.  She would be the Nene Leakes of the series “Real Housewives of Celebrity Authors,” and I’d tune in every single day without fail.  Crazy, crazy, but oh so fun.

27. Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. This was my first toe-dip into 9/11 literature.  It was a heartbreaking read as it was from the perspective of a kid who lost his dad in the attack.  Also, you know how it’s a thing now to weave two stories together– one contemporary and one from another era. I love how Foer did that here.  Also, Foer is practically young enough to be my son and he’s already writing such great novels.  I am totally in awe of him.

28. Little Children, by Tom Perrotta. At the Yale Writers Conference last summer, I signed up for a master class with Mr. Perrotta.  In advance, I read this book, which made me look askance at the parents at the park last summer.  I had a hard time loving any of the characters, though Perrotta captured the shame and ennui of parenting in chilling detail.

29. Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout.  I picked this book because Ann Patchett said she liked it.  It didn’t disappoint– I thought the characters were tragic and believable.  I recommended to my book club, all of whom hated it.  I never went back.

30. This Is Where We Belong, by Emily Giffin.  This one was better than Something Borrowed.  The characters were more complex and the situation was more interesting.  I loved the shout out to Lupa at the beginning, because it made me feel like I know NYC, even though it’s a total coincidence because it’s the only restaurant I know.  Anyway, if you jump on the Giffin bandwagon, the start here.