Friday, December 8, 2017

Roxane Gay, Samantha Irby, Snapper, and Wilco

It’s absurd to use the word “discovered” for someone like Roxane Gay, who writes for national publications and has been dominating the internet for years.  Her Twitter feed is a work of art, her book Bad Feminist was a viral success, and the lengthy Tumblr posts she used to write about books, films, music, and television were inspiring analyses of pop culture.

So I don’t mean it, really, that I “discovered” Gay when I read her story “North Country” in 2014’s Best American Short Stories, but that was the first time I learned about her, and I really loved that story.  Recently, I read her memoir, Hunger, which came out in June, which Gay says was unbelievably difficult to write.  That book is about a gang rape she endured as a young person that led to her gaining hundreds of pounds so she might feel “safe,” and the body issues she faces as a fat woman in our society. 

As Gay’s memoir of her body unfolds, her resistance to detailing the rape in lengthy scene becomes clear.  She tells enough to recount the horror, but doesn’t take the reader all the way there, a fact I find truly remarkable.  Not because I mind when writers go there, but because I strongly believe some stories belong to one’s own life, and should be shared only when the writer feels ready to do so. 

In general, Gay’s writing is often self-deprecating and full of humor.  The tone of Hunger is understandably grave, but there are plenty of moments of light.  Here’s one I related to immensely:

“I have always worried that I am not strong. Strong people don’t find themselves in the vulnerable situations I have found myself in . . . Before October 10, 2014 [when she broke her ankle], I was running myself into the ground. I have always run myself into the ground, been relentless, pushed and pushed, thought myself superhuman. You can do that when you’re twenty, but when you’re forty, the body basically says, ‘Get a grip. Have a seat. Eat some vegetables and take your vitamins.’”

It’s not that I have worried that I’m not strong.  In fact, I have probably leaned too hard on strength for much of my life.  But when I became a parent, I had to learn to soften, A LOT.  It has been a welcome assignment for me.   


Gay continues, “I came to many realizations in the aftermath of breaking my ankle. The most profound…was that part of healing is taking care of your body and learning how to have a humane relationship with your body.”

Amen to that. 

I binge read most of Samantha Irby’s hysterical second book We Are Never Meeting in Real Life over a few glorious cold nights in October when I couldn’t face life and had to go to bed at seven o’clock.  (Note: I am right back there, now that it’s December.  Hello, pajamas and snuggling in bed with kiddos.)  When I had to briefly return the book to my library so other people could read it (jerks!), I was in serious withdrawal without Irby’s addictive voice and nearly flawless rhythm running beneath my days. 

I started her first book, Meaty, about four minutes after I finished We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and found Meaty darker, denser, and maybe a little cruder.  Irby runs full speed toward raunchy jokes and subjects in general (she explains glibly in an essay that she’s uniquely able to do so because both her parents are deceased), but there’s an element of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness in We Are Never Meeting in Real Life which, shocker, makes it easier to read. 

One of the things that struck me, among many, when I read this second book, was how long it took Irby to find her footing emotionally, so to speak, and it reminded me of something I’ve seen again and again with creative people.  Writers, especially, often suffer from excruciatingly low self-esteem.  Perhaps everyone does, especially in their twenties, and maybe fewer people have the ability or the need writers have, to talk about their lives once things have sorted out a bit.  Still, I sometimes think back to friends who pursued law degrees or medical degrees while I was writing letters in coffee shops and, later, working in coffee shops behind the counter.  There are courses and schools where you can “study” writing (and I have a degree from one of them), but the real work comes simply from years of reading and sloppily aping what you see.  Hopefully the aping becomes less and less sloppy and maybe, one day, you break out in a style all your own.  (This sounds like learning to adult in general, no?)

I know plenty of people who knew they wanted to be writers from a young age and had the tools and resources to pursue their goals, but I know more people who felt like little freaks, who internalized what was a natural, unaccounted-for brilliance as something to hide, or be embarrassed about, or ignore. 

At first glance, Irby’s hilarious take-down of the men she’s dated seems unrelated to her confidence as a writer, but it seems no mystery to me that Irby wrote We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, a whiz-bang of a book, while living with a woman she loves, who both supports her emotionally and gives her the leeway she needs.  I’m not saying you need to be in a relationship to make good art, but I do think running around with people who don’t entirely get you makes it difficult to pursue anything that will make you happy in the long run. 

Also, I love how Irby staunchly defends her long-held position as the receptionist of a veterinary office, saying not every job has to be a career.  I find a lot of comfort in this.  A history of career ambiguity and/or hourly wages won’t help you much at a cocktail party, but sometimes the most important work of your life isn’t resume-ready.  As a culture obsessed with winning, I think we don’t elevate plain, un-glorious slogs enough.  Not having an impressive title is humbling, which is almost always a good thing.  It can also be useful: sometimes it provides the anonymity to pursue what you love without a spotlight.  I personally find this kind of psychic space soothing, even inspiring. Besides, it’s insulting to insist on finding a single combination of words to describe the vastness of who we really are inside.

Speaking of who we really are inside, Tim and I watched Lion over Thanksgiving break and it was really, really moving.  I was finally ready for what I knew would be a heart-breaking story, and I held Ellis and cried through much of it. 

I also read one of Tim’s favorite books recently, called Snapper.  It’s a novel with a few problems, some forgivable, others less so.  I had a hard time knowing when the narration was in the present tense or in backstory, and its portrait of female characters troubled me much of the time, but its skewering of some aspects of midwestern culture is so, so satisfying.  Plus, I learned a lot about Bloomington, Indiana, while reading it.  How often can you say that?

If I were a different person, this would be where my 2017 Holiday Gift Guide goes, but unless you want a dish in the shape of a banana from an antique store, you probably don’t want my shopping advice.  In fact, I’m reaching a bit when I say I shop at antique stores, a point underscored this August when my brother aptly called a place we were headed to “the junk shop.”  It honestly never occurred to me that he was right until he said it, but that’s where you’ll find me lately: wedging junk store finds onto the shelves of my home, inexplicably watching interviews with old members of Nirvana, and pretending, on good days, to run at the gym. 

I hope you are having some gloriously plain days of your own, wherever you are.

P.S. Wilco just re-released their first two albums, A.M. and Being There.  In a miracle of timing and technology, I emailed myself an interview with Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt about making those two records and actually listened to it.  

Wilco has maybe been my favorite band since I discovered (there’s that ludicrous word again) them in my early twenties.  At the time, I called my best friend who grew up outside of Chicago and shouted, accusingly: WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME ABOUT THESE GUYS?  MY WHOLE LIFE HAS BEEN A FRAUD.  To say I was obsessed with Summerteeth is a gross understatement.  I spent every waking hour listening to that album, which at the time meant carting a clunky portable CD player around the streets of New York City, walking to work with it, sleeping with it under my pillow.  I’ve widened my circle a bit since then, making way for other rockers and softer crooners - and more importantly, musicians not cranking out sounds that are exciting to adults but hell on the two developing brains currently dominating my house - but I might always look to Jeff Tweedy’s thoughts on making art, because they are so dang good.

While discussing the feedback-drenched song “Misunderstood” from the band’s second album, Being There - a double album and sharp departure from the alt-country sounds his first band, Uncle Tupelo, was known for - Tweedy says:

“We had built up to ‘Misunderstood’ by playing it live.  In hindsight . . . we were training ourselves to embrace the notion that there is no failure possible, that there’s only communication, and that your vulnerabilities – if you make the wrong choice musically, or if you make the wrong choice lyrically – as long as you’re out there being unafraid of failing, you are entertaining in a righteous way.” 
Later, while discussing a Bob Dylan song, he says:

“I’m always philosophically not entirely sure that one piece of art is actually that valuable, versus the inspiration to make art.  The ability for people to make art and inspire other people to make art, to me, seems way more valuable than any one painting or poem or song or record.” 

It’s not a mind-blowing thing to say, but I appreciate it because I think a capitalist culture somewhat willfully misunderstands what it means to create. The point of making things – songs or books or cookies or blog posts, I would say - is not necessarily to arrive at an aesthetically-pristine product, but for the artist to go through the process of making it and the audience to go through the process of receiving it.  It’s perhaps why, at this point in my life, I’m not sorry when I read a bad book by a favorite author.  It’s exciting to watch someone I respect keep trying, whether they sometimes miss the bar or not. 

I could loop this back around to part of an interview I watched of Kris Novoselic talking about his favorite thing to do (pour a glass of wine and listen to a record by himself in his house) but you’ve got your own late-night YouTubing to do.  But here is my good friend Amelia articulating (while recommending a book called You Must Change Your Life) how there are so many men with thoughts about making art - duh, their partners are home wiping their children’s chins and bums or at the store buying that wine they like to drink so much! 

And here is the joint gift guide we did last year on her blog, Bon Appétempt, recommending books and only books.  I still say, if you only read one book this year, you should make it Dave Holmes’ beautiful, side-splitting Party of One, and I am personally curious about Kelly Corrigan’s new book, Tell Me More.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Glory and Tenderness

We had a baby and his name is Ellis.  He is sweet sweet sweet, man, a little bundle of trust and glow. Sometimes I forget how special he is, like when I'm running around putting laundry away, trying to get dressed while Samantha is doing gymnastics on my bed ("Wanna see sumthin?") and then I stop to hold him because he's all Moooooom, I'm huuuuuungry, and I look down at his chubby face and my whole body melts. It's especially fun with a preschooler around. Her manic play and catastrophic demands contrast nicely with his cuddly ways. Also, they are in love with each other which is not something I was expecting. 

Since having a baby in August, I've traveled a little, slept a lot, watched some movies, read compulsively, drank coffee, eaten caramels, and taken approximately two walks. Every time I have a minute I straighten up or eat or write a letter, so this post has been months in the making.

read Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam even though I was miserable through most of it, because the characters themselves are in misery and do nothing useful to pull themselves out of it. It's a satire, so it's supposed to be painful, but it just felt mean at times. It does get some things right, like what a gathering of artists feels like ("The girl had bright pink hair and sparkly blue fingernails. The guy wore a clean white T-shirt and a Palestinian scarf.") which was one reason why I forced myself to keep reading. (That and to find out if the characters ever do anything useful. Spoiler: they do not.) 

The narrator in Who Is Rich? also has some hilarious thoughts about making art, like when he says: "I'd given up everything for cartooning, and for that alone I deserved to die. Then I gave up on cartooning. I suffered psychic grief, low output, self-mockery, obscurity, isolation, depression, all of the deprivations of the artistic sacrifice - without making any art."

See? Cheery.

I also read Claire Dederer's newest memoir, Love and Trouble, which I really enjoyed. Dederer's prose is electric to me, and while her tone is sometimes darker than I normally prefer, her intelligence is so undeniable, so grave and probing and impressive, I sort of burn with envy while reading her. 

Love and Trouble
has a somewhat rambling structure that I was very into, for some reason - perhaps because you can feel the author's playfulness and presence behind its experiments. The book revisits 90's Seattle in ways I found deeply satisfying and explores how women use their sexuality as a form of power, in both good and bad ways.


I've been wanting to read Gretel Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces for years, and I finally got around to it on a trip with my family. Read it in patches while Samantha slept, with mugs of steaming coffee next to me, Ehrlich's account of herding sheep and her descriptions of cowboys and ranches may forever be married to the condo where I stayed, where my dad watched baseball and held Ellis and everyone took turns at the laundry. (Also, where one of us may or may not have slept all night with the television on. Twice. You haven't lived until you've gone to bed with the late late hosts and woken up with Matt Lauer, IMHO). 

Ehrlich's prose is something to behold, and reading this book I understand why her name looms large in nonfiction. She was first a filmmaker before turning to writing - this book started as a series of letters to a friend - and I wonder if her eye for scenery is partly responsible for her visceral essays. There is a clarity to her writing that is matched by the wind-scraped Wyoming landscapes about which she writes. Of a decision to winter alone in a one-room log cabin after the man she loved died, she writes:

"Living well here has always been the art of making do in emotional as well as material ways. Traditionally, at least, ranch life has gone against materialism and has stood for the small achievements of the human conjoined with the animal, and the simpler pleasures - like listening to the radio at night or picking out constellations. The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce."  

The book that got me the most excited in the past two months, however, was Sean Wilsey's memoir Oh The Glory of It All. Wilsey was born to a high-society family in San Francisco.  His parents divorced when he was young and his father remarried his mother's best friend. (Note: his mother wasn't exactly thrilled about this.) Sean's stepmother - formerly ridiculously kind - turns manipulative and cold overnight. This, as well as his parents own neglect, throws young Sean into a series of identity crises and, eventually, corrosive boarding schools. Descriptions of the book inevitably talk about how it "has it all" - from socialite parents who run in famous circles to a genuinely evil stepmother, wealth, glamour, bla bla bla.  It's true all that is there, but Wilsey's unbelievable attention to detail and the quality of his writing - playful, precise, and maximalist all at once - kept me coming back. That, and his clear devotion to his parents despite all their shortcomings. His tender feelings for his father are especially compelling, and you can't help but root for the boy - and man - who just wants his father's love.
The hardcover has 482 pages and I never once wished Wilsey would cut to the chase.

Okay, maybe that's not true. There were scenes during his boarding school years when the tender, loveable, lonely child turned into a grody, scheming, punk adolescent and I missed the sweetness of the earlier pages, where Wilesy pined for his absent father and painted sharp portraits of his dramatic mother. You can hardly blame a kid who was treated the way he was by the adults around him for acting a little crazy, though.  Eventually, the genuine and sober narrator returned, leaving me more than a little grateful, and impressed by Wilsey's generosity and compassion for the people who let him down. 

Speaking of lovable derelicts, I was shocked to hear about Tom Petty's death this week. RIP maestro.

Finally, I loved this essay by Pam Houston about the price of irony in modern life and finding an abandoned elk calf before a snow storm. It echoes some parts of Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces nicely, but works on its own, as well.



P.S. What do you think of my new header? Did you even see it? JUST KIDDING. It's humongous. I'm working on it.  And by working on it I mean I ignore the sticky note regarding it on my way to breakfast every day.  

Monday, July 3, 2017

Sherman Alexie, Richard Ford, and Don DeLillo: An Accidentally All 90's Post

I was originally going to write about the experience of re-reading Richard Ford's The Sportswriter followed by Don DeLillo's White Noise earlier this summer, but I kept wanting to write a paper about racism and sexism in The Sportswriter, and the relieving feminism of White Noise after spending so many pages with Ford's clammy, semi-unconscious character Frank Bascombe. I happen to love The Sportswriter, but the first time I read it, in my early twenties, I appreciated its torqued relationship to suburban anxiety and peace. Reading it close to forty, I had a lot of problems with it.   

However, I wasn't sure you guys wanted to read a literary analysis of these mid-90's works, and also, Richard Ford started making headlines in ways that could make even Jonathan Franzen, with all his media blunders, run for the hills.  Contemplating the sins of Ford's generation while reading The Sportswriter - how were women so consistently dismissed as pretty things, or put on pedestals as distracting, pretty things?  Didn't anyone teach these men how to find the dignity within themselves and others? - made me feel somehow part of the zeitgeist, though, like how I had just finished worshiping at the feet of Jesus' Son a day before the legendary Denis Johnson passed away in May. 

Look, I know there's nothing more pretentious than telling people you are re-reading a book, but the distinction between a first reading and follow-up reads feels so distinct to me, I am going to be an a-hole about it every time.

Recently, Tim brought home Sherman Alexie's memoir about his mother, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me.  Geez, how's that for a brutal title?  It's so good, though: the title, the book, and Alexie's vulnerability and openness about his relationship with his mother, with whom he had much in common, including an undiagnosed mental illness and fits of rage that made life more than just interesting. 

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me isn't a perfect book.  In fact, it's completely unfair to compare it to reading the first third of White Noise, which I submit as one of the most perfect collections of irony and editing in the English language, but I'm going to do it anyway.  I'm sorry to say I get antsy when The Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise actually begins, which is like saying I start to mourn the whole of Legends of the Fall when the three brothers go off to war, which is both true and unfair because there's still about two hours of the movie left after that.

Side-note: It feels irresponsible to write about the film Legends of the Fall without mentioning the novella Jim Harrison wrote of the same name which led to the film.  The novella is great.  One of my favorite things to do, pre-motherhood, was watch the movie and then read the novella, letting my mind ping-pong back and forth between all the different writing choices.

When I first started reading You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, some of it felt too soon, too therapeutic, too under-edited, to be a final book.  But by the end, some of that was what I appreciated about it.  It felt really generous, and also risky, to reveal some of the more tender feelings inside.  Alexie was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so it also feels extra important that he is choosing to be as open as possible about the struggles he's faced as a son, a Native American, and a member of a dysfunctional family.  As this totally legitimate piece of journalism in People states - about Carrie Fisher's autopsy report, which revealed she died with cocaine and other substances in her system - to keep silent means to keep shame inside, and shame begets shame begets shame.  I'm grateful for Alexie's honesty and also, because he's one of the few writers I've followed from the start of his career when I read his poetry in college, to now, I'm happy that he seems to be tracing paths of healing in his life, whatever those paths may be: literary, personal, medication, etc. etc. 

Of course, this is a book, not a therapy session, but its pages contain all the rage, truth, and narrative processing that make books healing for me.   

Speaking of truth, and Jim Harrison who in his books does not shy away from the topic of governmental genocide in our own country, I really appreciated Alexie's insistence on telling the truth about Indian relocation movements, the abuses that Indian education systems fostered, and the rapes. assaults, and violence perpetrated by priests, teachers, and officials responsible for handling Native American affairs, which led to rapes, assaults, and violence within Indian tribes themselves. 

How are we not talking about these things every day? (Happy Birthday, America!)

There's a surreal page in a book Samantha picked up at a library sale about the canal system inside The Great Lakes.  Okay, I picked it up for her, because I'm obsessed with water and newly intrigued by Lake Michigan, since we are land-locked and it is the closest thing I have to the ocean these days.  (For clarity, the pictures directly above are of the Atlantic, my first real love.)

Here's the page:

I'm pretty sure that's the cleanest, most white-washed definition of colonization I've read in my life.  Like many things in these old library books we pick up from time to time, it gave me chills. 

The Great St. Lawrence Seaway was published in 1992. I really hope it would read differently if it were published today.

On that note, in one excerpt from You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Alexie writes about the fact that there is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which he says is "a vital place.  It is a grievous reminder. A warning.  It is as necessary as any museum ever built." 

But, he says, the fact that we don't have a United States Native American Genocide Memorial Museum, "also proves to me how the United States closes its eyes against the pain it has caused. The United States often looks away from the pain it has caused."  Later, he writes: "The United States wants all of us to forget the crimes it committed against the indigenous.

The United States wants us to forget.

The United States wants us to forget.

The United States wants us to forget." 

Well, I don't want to forget. 

I was going to include some of Alexie's poetry from the memoir, but when I typed it into my computer, it didn't save, and maybe that is a sign because he tends to use profanity and this is a family blog.  JK!  It's not a family blog but I'm not sure strong language is what people come here for.

I do want to say that I watched O.J.: Made In America and it blew me away with its thoroughness, narrative skill, and absolutely essential education about the history of racial discrimination in L.A., something I didn't really understand when the O.J. Simpson trial first unfolded in 1994.  When I read Ann Patchett's book of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, particularly her essay about trying out for the LAPD, she alluded to that history, but I was still pretty fuzzy on the details.  The murders in O.J.: Made in America are lurid and disturbing, obviously, and it has the most haunting trumpet music you'll ever hear in your life, but I'm so glad I watched it, and I wish everyone would see it.

That's my Fourth of July post, you guys!  I obviously didn't set out to discuss genocide, violence, and racial discrimination but in a way, it feels fitting.  Some people don't want to talk about these things, and I understand not having the capacity to look at pain - your own, and the pain you inflict on others.  It's not something we're taught, really, at least not by the larger, hypermasculine culture we live in. 

Speaking of hypermasculine, check out this slide!
In my own life, I've watched adults do a dance when my child cries, hoping to distract her back to silliness.  I know a child's frustration is fleeting, but I want her to know: it's okay to be mad, it's okay to be sad.  It's okay to feel these things, because when you don't allow yourself to feel difficult emotions, you shut out half your life.  This shutting off of your experience is, I believe, what really causes suffering, not the initial pain you feel, which eventually recedes when you learn to integrate it all the way.

I'm done with the lecture.  What do you guys think of DeLillo for a baby's name?  Maybe just The Don??