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! 

P.S. If you want to receive these posts by email, you can sign up here

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! 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Rolling Stone, Joni Mitchell, and Other Gems: An Accidentally Seventies Post

I have been in a strange zone with reading materials lately. I read Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine, by Joe Hagan, which is well-written but took me a few days to get into because, like Springsteen's memoir and a whole lot of rock biographies, Sticky Fingers clocks in at just over five hundred pages. It was fun to learn about the inception of the magazine, and how Mick Jagger and Jann Wenner have been in a lifelong tug-of-war about who owns the rights to the phrase Rolling Stone, but reading about what a mess one of my semi-idols Annie Leibovitz was in her youth, and how sodden with drugs and boundless relationships the seventies were for a lot of people, a) made me think about what glamor really means to your personal life and b) made me pause before diving into the rest of the book.

It's a commitment to settle in for someone's whole life history but, generally, once I cross the one-third mark of a big book, I'm in it for the long haul. Some books teach you how to read them, and I find that to be the case with these big rock bios. Another book I've been reading recently is David Yaffe's portrait of Joni Mitchell called Reckless Daughter
Reckless Daughter overlaps somewhat with Sticky Fingers (Tim kept calling it Icky Fingers; I don't know which title is more gross). Both feature the music industry and some of the same people, like David Geffen, and I would have thought reading about Joni's start as a young folksinger who grew into a California goddess would have been satisfying, but it turns out I was much more interested in the latter half of her life, when her music was morphing out of commercial reach and her relationships were increasingly fraught. The same was true for me of Wenner's biography - I wanted to know what he was up to in his forties and beyond, when he was having children and coming out of the closet and buying multiple mansions and navigating divorce. His ruthless ambition and drug-addled days as a young, hustling journalist-turned-publisher were full of famous events and names, including the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in 1969, but it's almost too easy to be young and ambitious. I like learning about people after they've gotten roughed up a bit, not because I like other people's suffering, but because often that suffering gives people perspective. It can soften them in interesting, if not welcome, ways.    

I also picked up The Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown, thinking it could be fun, but it seemed Diane Von Furstenberg appeared right away. Furstenberg appeared in quite a few pages of Sticky Fingers, and I was tired of reading about glittering parties. The VF Diaries also omits the first person pronoun, a style that generally leaves me with vertigo (an exception of course being George Saunders' haunting story "The Semplica-Girl Diaries").

Another book from the psyche of the 70's on my desk right now is All the President's Men, about Nixon/Watergate.  I sometimes accidentally refer to it as All the King's Men, a confusion for everyone around. I haven't decided if I'm going to commit to it yet. For one, it's co-authored by Woodward and Bernstein and in the third person (!). It's also one of those books where I read a paragraph and realize I absorbed nothing in it, and so I start again. And again. But I sort of love accounts of hard-hitting reportage, perhaps because I could never, ever do it, myself. 

Accidentally continuing the seventies theme, Tim and I watched Battle of the Sexes, about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrel, with Elisabeth Shue whom I frankly would watch water her lawn or buy drapes. The story is based on a tennis match in 1973 and I loved taking in the imagery of those days.  

A welcome departure from the dizzying shimmer of all the pop-culture books lately was Our Lady of the Prairie, Thisbe Nissen's fifth book and third novel. I know Thisbe socially and read Osprey Island sometime after we moved to Michigan. You know I'm a sucker for a water-y tale (and picture! Osprey's Island's cover is right up there with Brian Groh's Summer People for me) and was moved by her descriptions of weather and water and the people on the island where the book takes place. It's a story I think about often, with some terrifically-drawn characters and events that feel both dramatic and true.

I was pleased to find Our Lady of the Prairie just as engaging as Osprey Island, with endearing characters in a Midwest I love to read about: hay-filled and sunny or snow-covered and icy, with hoarder-landlords, dairy workers, motel owners, professors, Amish defectors, old people, and a whole lot of dubious chain-store snacks. 

It's also really funny and I found myself laughing out loud, a LOT. Of her mother-in-law, the fifty-year-old narrator says:

"She did keep photos of us - Michael, Ginny, and me - in frames in her room at East Prairie, though she probably tolerated my face in those shots with her beloved son and granddaughter the way she tolerated my actual presence: grudgingly, and with unconcealed displeasure. I always imagined that, if Michael and I split up, she'd relish X-ACTOing me out or sticking something over my face - an Easter Seal, a Chiquita banana sticker: That's not my daughter-in-law; that's just PLU #4011."

Nissen's awareness of the absurd always feels close at hand, something I welcome at any time. I also found myself continuously happy to see objects I had forgotten about, such as a shower radio inside a tornado shelter, and the following rural setting I didn't know I wanted to so badly to hear described until Nissen does so with characteristic finesse:

"Aldous Bontrager, landlord of 1867553 John C. Wolffson Road, got to the house before me to weed-whack a path to the front door. His trousers were spattered with grass, and when he lifted his cap to resettle it on his head before extending an arm toward me, his hair stuck to his brow in a wet band. The house was surrounded not by lawn but by a bizarrely ordered and organized junkyard: a pile of bicycle parts sat beside a reserve of household appliances; a nearby depression held vacuums, shop vacs, and electric brooms. Broomsticks, yardsticks, trim molding, and other long, skinny things were bundled in twine and stacked against the house like firewood.

'I own it all.' Bontrager swept his hand, indicating either the farmland or the junk.'" 

One of the perks of reading for me right now - and maybe, hopefully, always - is that the right book at the right time provides a sort of subconscious river, a water table beneath my days, where my thoughts go to settle while the world around me explodes. There's a continuity for me, when I'm reading a book I like, that counters the herky-jerky nature of life with a small child. I love my daughter, who is a gem of surprises and dead-on humor, and my little baby who is flipping over and saying "hi" - I swear - and who right now is cooing from a swing in the dining room. But if I don't have some quiet mental space away from the noise, I get out of whack, quickly. In days overrun with errands and meals and Curious George, my non-negotiables are: books, words, fresh air, and sleep. 

I don't mean to be all tiny-violin here, but it's hard to read behemoth hardcovers while wrangling/nursing a baby, and I'm looking forward to taking a break from celebrity bios for a bit. I know there are e-readers and other options out there but please don't take my martyrdom from me. (Joking! Sort of.) 

In the meantime, it's almost my birthday. I'm due chocolate, a cake of some kind. Presents, roses, you name it, I'll take it. "Maybe we can make something for you," Samantha said, when she learned about my day.  I look forward to seeing what she engineers.