Thursday, August 23, 2018

Happy Birthday, Ellis

In the words of one of our house painters, this summer just flew by.  I wish it was full of trips to the beach and fabulous outings, but the truth is, I spent much of it at various doctor's appointments, driving to the pharmacy for strep throat medications, and battening down the domestic hatches (see also: house painters). 

Predictably, in all this boring chaos, I haven't found a good reading thread, at least not one worth mentioning.  I finally read Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, a book that Tim couldn't believe I wanted to read, since it's about alpine climbing, a rather testeronic pursuit, and also because it features a disastrous season on Mount Everest in which 12 people died.  The first half of the book was somewhat riveting, about the various adventure guides and their clients who were climbing Everest the same season Krackauer was assigned to write about them for Outside magazine.  But halfway through the book, when a deadly storm rolls in and people start misplacing tanks of oxygen and getting altitude sickness and dying, I felt a hollow pit in my stomach and wanted to stop.  I finished the book, but with a growing uneasiness.  

Looking up Krakauer on the interwebs, I was reminded of a book I once wanted to read - The Wild Truth, written by Candice McCandless - sister of Chris McCandless, whose dramatic story Krakauer explored in his 1997 Into the Wild.  Published in 2015, The Wild Truth reveals the violence in the McCandless home, violence that compelled Chris McCandless to leave home and walk into the Alaskan wilderness, unwittingly toward his death, to begin with.  I haven't read The Wild Truth - or Into the Wild, for that matter - but the former looks pretty interesting.  I loved the film version of Into the Wild, but boy are there some big issues with Sean Penn, full stop.  I find it difficult to enthusiastically consume anything Penn is involved in now, but I got into Emile Hirsch for a minute after Into the Wild, and I adored him in Milk, which used to be one of my favorites, starring yet another problematic Hollywood male, James Franco, in addition to Penn. 

When I looked up where Hirsch has been lately, I saw this article, discussing a physical assault by Hirsch on a film executive at the Sundance film festival, for which he did time (albeit not very much time).  I bring it up as an accountability factor, less I unwittingly sing the praises of people who, uh, still have some work to do. 

Like Sherman Alexie, another artist with some skeletons worth discussing, whom I bring up because I wrote about him praisingly here

In other news, I've been listening to a book by Barbara Leaming called Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story.  Somebody please check my brain.  In a million years, I never thought I would be interested in Jackie as a subject, not because she isn't a worthy one, but I just didn't think her life interested me much.  However, I stumbled upon the audio version at the library and, after an immediate revulsion to the narration, told myself to give it a shot, and was hooked.

In terms of questionable male figures, the sexual habits of JFK could make the most libertine among us blush.  His wife's devotion to him despite his flagrant infidelity disturbs me, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the two of them played each other - her for personal security, and him for political gain. 

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book is how little useful support she had in the wake of her first husband's death.  Importantly, the book covers how little doctors understood about post-traumatic stress disorder and how it wasn't until veterans returned from Vietnam, screwed-up en masse, that we started to understand the condition.  Jackie talked to a priest, and doctors prescribed her medications, but the book at least doesn't discuss any therapies that helped her to really process the trauma of holding her dying husband's body in her hands.  As time went on and she did not get "better," there were a lot of people around her telling her not to dwell on the past, including her own mother.  I find that incredible, and super sad.  Also, does this mean I have to watch the Natalie Portman biopic, Jackie?

Sometime this spring I read The Color of Water, by James McBride.  Billed as "a black man's tribute to his white mother" in the subtitle, the book is beautifully written, and felt like an important read for me.  I read McBride's 2016 Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, when I was pregnant with Ellis, and found the writing equally luminous, not to mention impressive considering the author's concurrent career as a musician.  But The Color of Water moved me because it chronicles a woman raising eleven children through the grief of losing two beloved partners, and also because it made me consider my philosophies about education.  Whereas McBride's mother is fanatical about educating all her children, sending them to the best, often Jewish, schools in New York City, I tend to be wary of overemphasizing formal education in a child's social, artistic, and psychic development, a privilege this book made me take a good, hard look at.

Speaking of being pregnant with Ellis last summer, I have often been so grateful not to be hugely pregnant this one. Not that raising babies outside the body is anything but arduous. A local liquor store often rotates letters on their sign and they put up in August: Uh-Oh, It's Leo Season.  As the mother of a Leo and the daughter of one, that one made me laugh.
I watched The Graduate at the start of July and drank in its lush everything - casting, cinematography, direction, soundtrack - but I was newly disturbed by its problematic plot points.  I also watched Blackfish, which I've been meaning to see for years.  Everyone warned me how upsetting it was, and maybe it's my inner Pisces, but I found it almost satisfying.  I've always been freaked out by Sea World.  To see the lives of such powerful animals explored within the dubious ethics of captivity and corporate investments fascinated me.  Plus WATER, SO MUCH WATER, COUNT ME IN.

Finally, it's totally unfair but I blame my restlessness lately on Richard Yates.  I watched Revolutionary Road with Tim before we were married and hated it.  I found it depressing, and shrill, and grim, and unimaginative.  Tim kept insisting the book had virtues the film enthusiastically disowned, and we had such a pretty copy of it (before my and Ellis' powers combined rumpled that thing up something awful), so I gave it my best shot.  Friends, it is rare when a book puts me to sleep.  I am a night owl.  Any flickering light - in my mind or my headlamp - is an excuse to blow past bedtime while telling myself the lie that coffee will make up for it in the morning.  But I learned quickly, if I want to fall asleep, I only have to open up that depressing book and read three pages about infidelity and suburban ennui, and rage between spouses and the shape of women's boobs (COULD YOU JUST NOT, FOR ONE PAGE, WHITE MALE WRITERS?), and I hit the Zzz's faster than Ellis does in a spin around the block with a Jackie book blaring.

I guess what I'm saying is: more pretty book covers, fewer body descriptions, Mr. Yates.  However, there is no denying the deftness of the man's prose.  For all my complaints about dreary plot and shallow hearts, the prose is truly wonderful.
I don't know how to follow that, one of Sut Nan Bonsai's clearest pans, which I blame on myself and my lack of attention span this summer.  How about this?  Ellis turned one.  ONE.  It's not just myself who cannot believe it.  One of our favorite librarians agrees with me, the one who chides me that I never take Ellis out of the stroller (because he's SLEEPING, is she CRAZY?  Does she bonk sleeping dogs over the nose with rolled-up newspapers, too?).

Happy Birthday, Ellis, my beautiful, powerful, affable little Leo.  I love every gap in your teeth and your fascination with book pages, your willingness to take fake medicine from Samantha's doctor kit daily, and how hard you make us all work for that marvelous chuckle of yours.  

P.S. For more on PTSD, I recommend this luminous On Being episode, How Trauma Lodges in the Body, with Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School. 

Or, just ask me about my two c-sections!  Wink, wink.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Diarist and Me: A Love Song in Three Parts

In The Art of Memoir, which I've been tooling around, listening to in my car, Mary Karr says there's a special circle in hell for people who quote themselves. There's probably an inner, hotter ring to that circle, meant for people who quote their own diaries. But I recently found a journal entry that said: "I told Tim, if someone you liked in your twenties is still making you laugh out loud in your forties, I think it's real love."  I was talking about David Sedaris.

In the library one day this winter, I passed by Sedaris' Theft and Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 and sort of rolled my eyes.  On some level, I was probably jealous.  How come his thoughts matter so much they get their own huge book? thought my envious, obviously neglected psyche.  Then I picked up the visual compendium to those diaries, and was hooked.  The editor, Jeffrey Jenkins, was a childhood friend who describes the Sedaris den growing up as place where jazz blasted and modern art hung on the walls.

I've probably loved Sedaris since picking up Me Talk Pretty One Day for a flight just after college, a flight I spent in stitches, silently crying. In Theft by Finding, which I dove into this spring, he writes about being slightly embarrassed by Me Talk Pretty, because other, "better" writers had written books that fell into obscurity.  He also writes, "I think I can write something much better than Me Talk Pretty," which I found to be a fascinatingly bold statement.  After reading 2013's Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, I can say he's done it.  (What a relief! He's definitely been waiting for me to say so.) 

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls has more gravity, more maturity - more stakes, to use the dreaded workshop phrase - than some of his earlier stuff, and the self-loathing so apparent in early entries of Theft By Finding feels worked-through now.  It's like being around someone who's gone through successful therapy.  The writing feels warm, generous, wise even, while still profoundly funny. 

I have Calypso, Sedaris' new book, on my desk now, but enough about that guy, huh?  Let's talk about his obvious literary predecessor, the late publishing scion, Katharine Graham.  Just kidding!  I suppose they have in common losing loved ones to suicide - Kay, her husband Phil; David, his sister Tiffany - but there's a pretty big gap between Sedaris' hooked-on-meth performance artist days and Graham's personal friendships with the Kennedy family and Warren Buffet.

After reading All the President's Men (about The Washington Post's reporters breaking the Watergate scandal), and seeing The Post (about, duh, The Post printing The Pentagon Papers), and being slightly obsessed with Meryl Streep's portrait of Kay Graham, I checked out Graham's memoir, Personal History, which came out when I was in college.  I remember journalism majors toting it around, and female journalism majors especially speaking in hallowed tones about Graham, but I wasn't ready for the book then. 

It's odd, though welcome, how my capacity to absorb history has changed.  Last weekend, I spent hours reading a book about the assassination of JFK while Tim did yard work and Samantha trailed him with the snow shovel she believes is a gardening tool.  If you had taken me aside in college and told me this would be my life, I would have squinted hard into the future and been able to glimpse one wavering leaf in that sunny afternoon before diving back into my frozen yogurt, uninterested.

I cracked Personal History some days after turning forty, and was instantly riveted by the writing, which is elegant and diplomatic and full of grace.  I suppose I was reading to find out why her husband killed himself and how she felt about it (is that lurid?  I am interested in mental health, and the oblique mention of Phil's suicide in The Post had me wanting to find out more about Kay's feelings around it, because it left the responsibility of running a media empire to her, a former reporter and now socialite with little business experience when she inherited the job).  But the writing was so good, and the events of her life were so interesting, I devoted myself to finishing it, much to Tim's dismay.

I also read The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O'Rourke, about her mother's death to colorectal cancer.  I loved the first half of the book, which detailed her relationship with her mother, especially in the final months of her mother's life.  I struggled to connect with the second half, which was an examination of grief in general, including her own.  But the writing was stunning throughout - no surprise considering O'Rourke is also a poet.

What else can I tell you?  My good friend Amelia has started a podcast with fellow writer Edan Lepucki called Mom Rage.  I absolutely love the intimate tone and their mission to expand the conversation around motherhood.  The tagline is: "a podcast for your best and worst selves," which, let's be honest, is exactly who we all are as parents. 

Spring is here (finally!) and I am feeling it.  When we moved to Michigan several years ago, I was undeterred by rumors about how long and hard winters were.  I think I've been broken, though. I drove over a pothole last week that belonged more in a field in Yellowstone than a suburban street in town, and I thought, Okay, winter, I see you and what you've done to us.  I'm not ready to move to Key West or anything, and I don't mind the cold, but the lack of quality exercise bothers me, and from November to May, I make the most questionable decisions regarding nutrition. 

If you need me, I'll be rescuing Ellis from the tables he's pulled himself up to and beating back the tide of Curious George books in our living room. 

Meanwhile, happy Spring! 

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Monday, April 9, 2018

Sloane Crosley, Peter Carey, and, More Importantly, Birds

Tim and I took separate trips recently and some of the pictures in this post are from his trip to Florida. Absent are pictures of me and the kids visiting grandparents, which was a great time but didn't get captured because my photographer was off gallivanting with pelicans.

While I was packing, Tim came up with a pile of books I could take, novels I hadn't yet read, essays I might be interested in. They had to be paperback, obviously, because I was flying with two kids by myself and didn't want to add a five-pound book to my back. My only goal was not to swipe Tim's birthday copy of Hanif Abdurraqib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, put out by Two Dollar Radio, an indie press based in Columbus, OH.  

Two Dollar Radio doesn't need my paltry PR, but when I see a book written by someone who doesn't live in Brooklyn, put out by a small midwestern press, I basically freak out with pride and joy.      
However, look at my hypocritical buns when I tell you one of the books Tim offered, which I stayed up reading and finished before the trip even started, was Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There Would Be Cake. Crosley grew up in Westchester County, New York and worked in publishing for years before starting to write full-time. In other words, I'm pretty sure she lives in Brooklyn. (I'm mostly joking about this Brooklyn thing. I love it there and would live there myself if I didn't need trees and grass and the whisper of bears so much in my life.) 

Of course, I devoured I Was Told There Would Be Cake, which was, stunningly, Crosley's debut in 2008. She has another collection, How Did You Get This Number?, which I intend to read (not just because it has a bear on its cover but let's face it, that never hurts). Her new book, Look Alive Out There, just landed on my dining room table, courtesy of Tim, so it looks like rip-roaring evenings for me ahead: a baby, a bed, a pile of books.

Should that be the name of this blog?

I know your days have been hanging on this update but I did, in fact, finish All the President's Men and even enjoyed it. My enthusiasm might have been boosted by an outing with Tim to see The Post. If you don't want to move into Ben Bradlee's moody blue living room after seeing that movie, there might be something wrong with you. 

Or maybe you just aren't a Pisces.

So now I can watch Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual harrassment, in the movie version of All The President's Men which I will undoubtedly watch by myself one evening while Tim falls asleep six minutes in.

I read this essay by Claire Dederer, who writes sentences I'd like to eat.  It's called What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men? and that, my friends, is a question we should all be asking right now.

In case you're curious, I brought Theft, by Peter Carey, on my trip and may have spent more time watching The Great British Bake Off than reading, but that's only because I don't have Netflix at home. Theft alternates chapters in the voice of two brothers and while I found it VERY ENTERTAINING – especially because one of the brothers, who is a little off, uses intermittent caps to hilarious effect – the switching voices between chapters slowed down my reading a bit. LET THAT BE A LESSON TO YOU, CLEVER WRITERS. 

I do love Peter Carey, though, and hope one day to grow up to have a bio pic rival his.

In other news, I have a story at Bull about a man whose girlfriend has died, who attends the funeral at her family's home in Missouri. If that premise isn't a side-splitter, I don't know what is. 

Seriously, I'm very happy to have a story at Bull. It has duck decoys, confused people, and a small dog, and you can check it out here.
That's all for now. Ellis is grinding his teeth together, an altogether excruciating sound. And yes, he's biting me with the new ones. Thank you for asking!