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.


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.