Sunday, May 17, 2020

Stung by a Bee

A few days ago I got stung by a bee and it was the most exciting thing that's happened in months. I was slightly allergic to bees as a kid, so I ran to the kitchen and clutched an EpiPen, uncertain whether my rapid breathing was some kind of chemical reaction or merely from the shock of the sting. Turns out, I have a great imagination. I was fine and tried to model how cool you can be when an insect stings you. Samantha was my companion through the whole ordeal, and after we knew I was okay she pointed out where I was and wasn't allowed to garden. "I don't want you to get hurt," she said, a dreamy thing for your kid to say, or maybe just self-interest at work. If something happened to mama, wth would the rest of her day look like?

I've been wanting to write, but also, like, not, because who needs more "content" right now? We're flooded with it. One of the most disturbing parts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been watching my email inbox shift from normal garbage to pandemic garbage. I don't mean to criticize. It just reminded me how strong the grasp of capitalism is in our country. As the coronavirus worms its way into every community, marketing finds new host bodies, maintaining its strength in the guise of offering information or connection.

I know, how cheery can I be? Tim is one of the funniest people I know. He makes me belly laugh several times a day and I also sometimes accuse him of being too dark. Ha! His response is that I'm the cynical one, that I don't tolerate dark humor because it hits too many nerves. (Things aren't always mud-slingy in our house, and anyway, the mud is slung with a very light touch. It's more of a mud spritz.) In the end, I think he's probably right, and things like my paragraph above make me see it clearly.

Now, with confessions of darkness behind us, do we begin with the absolute rot I've been enjoying on Netflix, or with the books that have been bathing my soul?  At the risk of sounding high and mighty, I'll start with the books. Just know that my foray into Love Is Blind was the tip of the iceberg and, if you opened the top of my children's heads right now, you'd find Kwazii and Shellington from The Octonauts staring up at you. I'm not proud of this, but I'm also not ashamed. Quarantine is driving the bus, after all.

It feels like a year ago that I read The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky, by Jana Casale, but it was probably back in March. First of all, I'm jealous of Casale's name. I'm sure it's her real name, but still. It's a good one.

I really loved this book. It was girly, literary, warm, funny, and really really smart. I love the way it combines normal life with thoughts about art and literature, and how the books in the heroine's life are almost their own characters. Sometimes I worry that I like books written for other writers - my love for Less, for example, had me wondering if others less acquainted with the farces of literary circles would find it as delicious and heartwarming. But then I think about a character in Less, a rich author, who shows up wearing billowing linen pants and I think, well, who doesn't like a good roast of linen-wearers? This from a woman who can't WAIT for warmer weather in Michigan so I can don my white linen pants.

Another book I loved, that is way dark and dangerously well-written, was Molly Bit, which I spied at our local bookstore, a store I'm proud of because they closed their doors voluntarily, before the governor's stay-at-home order. A satire of Hollywood's savagery, Molly Bit had me flipping to Dan Bevacqua's author photo in the back frequently, staring at it, whispering, Where did you come from? How did you get so good?

I waited a minute before diving into Sally Rooney's Normal People, waiting, I suppose, for the oxygen needed to combust inside the pages of another one of her gorgeous books. I wrote about Conversations with Friends here, and while I still love that book, it's possible I liked Normal People even more. I also liked thinking about Rooney's habits as a writer, how both books center around secrets, and explore the intimacy that blooms within them. Both books are just so well done, and I have such respect for Rooney's ability to explore all the angles of real, physical, emotional intimacy. Friends keep mentioning the newly dropped Normal People on Hulu. Pardon my disbelief, but I'm skeptical that anything on screen could touch the richness and anticipatory anguish Rooney creates on the page. Curmudgeon alert!

I made it to Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land, which I realized I had read parts of before. It's still exquisite, and I appreciate being inside the world of such a fascinating observer and, if I may say, stylist. I hadn't realized before how much Biss worships at Didion's altar. Revisiting Notes from No Man's Land felt like sitting next to a scholar of Didion, or a younger relative, a joke I'm sure I reach for because, somewhere in the back of my mind, I wonder if I'll watch The Center Will Not Hold, the documentary about Joan Didion on Netflix right now, produced by her nephew, Griffin Dunne.

I've been re-reading some lately, mostly short stories, and when I have the courage to sit for longer periods, I've got Seating Arrangements on my shelf, which will be a revisit of a favorite Maggie Shipstead book, an author I revere and mentioned in this joint gift guide with Amelia. Talk about sweet author names, re: Shipstead. Why didn't I get something nautical in my name? Thinking how to work whale or cephalopod into mine now . . . .

I just ordered my friend Corinne's book and am still swooning after reading her beautiful interview with them, found here. I also ordered Laura Munson's new novel, Willa's Grove, because I truly adore Munson's spirit and flow-y prose. Flow-y is a word, right?  I also can't wait for Molly Wizenberg's newest memoir, The Fixed Stars, about the major shifts that occurred when she discovered, while married to a man with whom she co-owned two businesses and as a mom to a toddler, that she needed to drastically rearrange her life. I adore Molly's writing (so much so that I pretend we're on a first-name basis) and I'm curious how she will write without the structure of a recipe-laden book. I have total faith in her ability to do so, but, I dunno, the new book sounds pretty thrilling. Wizenberg is one of those authors I'm probably always going to look forward to reading, because she seems embrace the examination of her life so fully, and I'm sort of fascinated by her ability to do so.

Did your dad stuff a doughnut hole full of candles for your birthday, when you were a kid?

Speaking of fascination, do I dare tell you that Tim and I watched all of Too Hot to Handle on Netflix? It's TRUE. I'd like to blame quarantine (and Tim will, in a heartbeat) but I have to say that watching cheesy settings and people offering up their souls to reality TV is strangely compelling. Is this how fans of The Bachelor feel? I think I finally understand. This is like the summer I realized I wanted to order Oprah's magazine and went from subscribing to Shambhala Sun, a magazine about Buddhism, to happily reading reviews of vacuums and A-line skirts, my legs kicking behind me as I read on my belly, in a backyard on the coast of North Carolina, in grad school. And isn't that what life is all about - finding who you really are, at the bottom of all your ideas? 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Welcome to the Jungle

Greetings from the apocalypse.  My notes for this post disappeared weeks ago which is appropriate.  Half of the people in our house have the flu, and those standing don't look so hot.  But it's okay because I started watching Love Is Blind a few nights ago - though I can't believe I'm leading with this.  It's a Netflix show about people who get to know each other by talking in "pods," who propose to each other without ever meeting in person.  It's ludicrous and fun, and I watched while cattily positing who was going to make it and who was not.  The whole experience has been a welcome distraction from the general stress of a pandemic, and the specific stress of two fevered, whining children. 

Another distraction has been, quelle surprise, a rock bio about Axl Rose called W.A.R. - The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose.  I can't explain why reading about people who soak their lives in adrenaline and chemicals soothes me so much, but it sure does. 
I drank it down.  A while back, I heard GN'R bassist Duff McKagan on Marc Maron's podcast, on this episode of WTF, and he just sounded so dang sweet.  Of course, the real reason I picked up the book was because of the stigma and enigma that is Axl Rose himself.  

Moving on.  At someone's suggestion, I read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and really, really dug it.  The title is not my favorite, but who asked me?  The ending was also a little wobbly for me, but I consumed the book in great big draughts, including one stint when I sat down at eleven at night, knowing somewhere in the back of my mind that I would stay up reading until I finished it, which I did with no regrets. 

I picked up a pretty cookbook called The New Sugar & Spice: a Recipe for Bolder Baking after hearing the author, Samantha Seneviratne, on my friend Amelia's podcastThe New Sugar & Spice has a narrative bent and is broken into these sections: Peppercorn & Chile, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove & Cardamom (my fave), Vanilla, and Ginger.  The book is infused with histories of all the spices, has beautiful photos, and was deeply relaxing to read, though I haven't baked from it yet.  Seneviratne's second book, The Joys of Baking: Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life is on my list to read. 

I read Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill shortly after reading She Said, which I wrote about here, and really loved Catch and Kill's style.  Since then, I've heard Farrow describe his "preparation" for writing the book (read: procrastination), which was to plow through stacks and stacks of novels, in an effort to structure his own book with as much suspense as possible.  I appreciated this effort and think it paid off.  Though I knew much of the information in the book already, its pacing and the way its details rolled out made it a compelling read, indeed. 

I have heard Farrow intimate, in a few podcasts, that he's somewhat neurotic and an overachiever, and he writes in the book that he was no picnic to be around, when all the events of the book were unfolding.  But it is plain fun for me when a young writer reaches so big and sticks the landing.  It reminds me of how enamored I was of Karen Russell's debut, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, although let's be real, the wolf on Russell's cover won probably half of my devotion.

Speaking of youth, and its passage - while glancing right past my latest birthday in February - I watched Echo in the Canyon, which was not at all what I thought it would be.  I was expecting a deep dive on musical groups coming out of L.A. in the 60's, and while I got a little of that, it was more of a celebration of a concert put on by Jacob Dylan in 2015 celebrating the 50th year anniversary of the Byrds's Mr. Tambourine Man.  There were some beautiful parts to the movie, including some heavenly shots of Tom Petty (RIP) discussing musicians who influenced everyone, and there were details about Neil Young that made him look a little jerkish, which I welcome even though he has been one of my idols.  But discussion of Joni Mitchell was nowhere to be found and, in some ways, the whole thing was a little wan, though still worth a watch.  There were shots of David Crosby saying wonderfully arrogant things, making the assertion he made in Remember My Name, which I wrote about here, that Dylan went electric after watching the Byrds rehearse with electric guitars one day.  But probably the most touching scene was when Steven Stills was leaving a studio and clasped hands with Jacob Dylan.  The casual intimacy between them was moving.  It seemed simple and real and made me wonder, because of his father, if all these musical heroes are somehow family friends, too. 

Other books on my side tables right now: Sally Rooney's book Ordinary People and Dani Shapiro's Devotion.  Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss, and Muriel Hemingway's memoir Out Came the Sun, about mental illness, depression, and addiction in the Hemingway clan, await me on a shelf behind my desk, and I may never finish any of them.  Staying home all day with sick kids doesn't undo me the way it would some.  If I never had to get in a car and drop another kid off somewhere for the rest of my life, I would not miss it.  But the whining and clinging is not much fun, and I find myself unable to accomplish anything beyond drinking coffee some days. 

March is supposedly Women's History Month and while I don't love contrived, calendrical reasons to become more conscious, I haven't minded perusing National Geographic's Women book, which came out last fall and which I recently checked out with some hefty suspicion.  I don't always love National Geographic's take on the world, and I'm never eager to delve into human beings like they are exotic zebras, but there are some beautiful pictures in the book and nice interviews in the middle of it, including one with Oprah.  It's also infinitely interesting to read about how different generations of women have dealt with sexism in their careers.  Some older women tend to credit their success with their ability to ignore unfavorable environments, to stand up for themselves, without fail, or to put their heads down and work.  I'm sure there is much truth in these insights, but it also, at times, can read as slightly shaming for women who don't have unshakeable confidence, who aren't or weren't able to live so boldly. 

Friends, that's all I've got.  These are strange times, globally, and also for me, personally.  Ellis has some minor health problems that have been tethering me close to home, even before all the semi-quarantining, and it can be overwhelming.  Like most of us, I'm ready for some sunshine and some easier air to breathe. 

P.S. My sister-in-law sent me a link to this series that children's author and illustrator Mo Willems is doing right now.  We watched it yesterday, and it was a true lift.  There's also something endearing about how Willems's face, beard, and glasses seem to be taking on the spirit of Theodor Geisel.  

Speaking of Dr. Seuss, here is a picture of him in his office.  Would you ever in your life get a thing done if that was where you worked?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Less (the novel), Bikram (the predator), and Marrige Story (the movie)

I finally read Less (there's a confusing sentence!), Andrew Sean Greer's sixth book and winner of the 2018 Pulitzer prize for fiction.  It's so perfectly toned, in my opinion - hilarious and musical, elegant and bouyant - at one point, I asked Tim to look up how many other books Greer had written.  I knew I was in great hands when the main character, the eponymous Arthur Less, interviews a science fiction writer named H. H. H. Mandern.  That extra H. had me in stitches.  The rest of the book is chock full of jokes and lines I wish I had written.  When Tim reported that Greer had published five books before writing Less, I was like, "Good. He can have this perfection, then."  We also marveled at how simple the plot is, in the end, and what a delightful read it was, in spite of that.  In Tim's words: you can win a Pulitzer for that?  But it's so good and was the sort of book I almost started rereading the second I hit the last page.

Last week, a friend of ours visited and asked, of the filing cabinet in the foyer, "Is this new?" as if a used, battered, file chest belongs in everyone's front hall.  In truth, we had some electrical rewiring done in December and I shoved it there so the electricians could drill into our walls and ceilings and find all manner of foils to our best laid plans (they took care of the important things, though, like some seriously "vintage" wiring). Did Ellis run smack into the filing cabinet earlier this week and fall onto the floor, first going up in the air like a cartoon football player before landing, getting up, and stating, "I fell down"? 

He did.  Is the cabinet still in the foyer? 

It is.  What can I say?  He's a champ.

I just finished She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, about how they broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual harrassment story for the New York Times.  It wasn't as dense as All the President's Men - which I wrote about reading here - but reminds me of that book at times, if only for my continued disbelief that I can drink in all those pesky reporting details, something I couldn't have spent ten minutes on twenty years ago.  Like watching The Great British Baking Show, I believe part of the thrill is watching other people work hard.

By chance, I listened to Ronan Farrow's interview on the Armchair Expert podcast in the middle of reading She Said, which was trippy in that the authors's investigative reporting overlaps with his quite a bit. 

Even trippier, Tim and I watched the documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, about the Bikram Yoga founder's history of sexually assaulting young women who attend his teacher trainings, and the similarities between Bikram and Weinstein are alarming.  Especially alarming is the way each tries to break initial boundaries by requesting - and in the case of Bikram, always getting - massages.  And yes, Bikram is still holding worldwide teacher trainings, and no, hasn't been criminally prosecuted.

And now, please appreciate my seamless transition into Noah Baumbach's directorial work!  At my friend Amelia's insistence (er, request), I watched Marriage Story, which I had already been eager to see after my other friend Corinne - whose new book is on this ace list on Lit Hub - posted hilarious things on the internet about yelling at the screen when Adam Driver was singing and, maybe, I can't remember, turning the whole thing off.  

Even before that, though, I was prepared not to like Marriage Story.  On the day we watched it, I complained to Tim that Noah Baumbach gets credit for being good when really, he's just moody

I still say so, but I did cry sometimes while watching Marriage Story and was very moved by much of it.  The idea of figuring out custody in a divorce causes me such mourning, I'm surprised I didn't shake all the way through it.  Laura Dern was great - she plays hot, shouting, lady lawyers real good these days, don't she? - and while I sort of want to throw a rock at the screen whenever I see Scarlett Johansson, I loved her high-waist pants and indignation, and the idea of taking my child to live in a big double bed at my mother's sunny Californian house (my mother doesn't live in California) fills me with instant calm. 

One thing Marriage Story makes clear, though: there isn't a thing to be done about Adam Driver's hair.

After watching the movie over a two-night spread, I told Tim that Marriage Story is good at times but really just made me glad I'm not getting a divorce.  Tim responded that it made him glad he's not Noah Baumbach.  Ha!

Speaking of men with healthy egos, at the gym the this week a man of retirement age pointed at the numbers on my treadmill and said I had forty minutes to go to catch up with the numbers on his.  Then he leaned over and added, "I was on the elliptical for an hour before that, so double it."  I laughed because a) I hoped he was kidding b) wouldn't it be nice to have so many hours every day?

At the suggestion of my grad school professor who teased me for wearing a huge down coat in class, I'm reading Sarah Ruhl's 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write, a title I can really get behind.  In the very first essay, Ruhl, a mother of three children (and playwright of ten plays), says Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own needs "a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing."  I agree.  She then writes:

"There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict.  When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over.  There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me . . . and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow."

I love that line so much.  All right, then, annihilate me.

Ruhl continues: "I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life.  And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion.  At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.  And life, by definition, is not an intrusion."

And here I'd like to include something I read in Jodi Kantor's section of the acknowledgements at the back of She Said.  Speaking to the youngest of her two daughters, Kantor writes: "Violet, you were only a year and a half old when we started, and your innocence made you my refuge.  Parents are supposed to console their children, but I frequently found solace in your curls, songs, made-up words, discoveries, and above all, in the fierceness of your embrace." 

This is something I have often felt.  Not that my children console me, although they do.  I can't count the number of times Samantha brought me seltzers during my pregnancy with Ellis and in the weeks after I had him, when I was too ensconced in nursing to get one myself.  But the presence of their little bodies in a set of pajamas, their breath curling against me in a dark room, soothes me in unquantifiable ways.  And while the mere suggestion of one of them whining causes the hairs on my head to stand up, and my temperature raises four degrees whenever I hear a child cry now, these two pull me toward a beastly comfort that is too delicious, and too abundant, to deny. 

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Demi Moore, Saeed Jones, Sharon Olds, and Le Divorce

Hello there.  C'est moi, the lady of the house, who marks days by the number of Costco pizzas we've heated.  It's nearing The Big Day, by which I mean Christmas, of course, a day we normally spend traveling and/or exchanging gifts with my in-laws whilst wrapped in fleece blankets.  Enrobed in them, if you will (see last post's picture of Ellis and I reading under one). 

True story: when Tim and I first started dating, we spent a Christmas with his family, and his parents thought there was something wrong with my health because I wore a blanket around the house like a toga.  Writing that sentence makes me see that it is a weird thing to do and reminds me of a grad school professor who made fun of me - lovingly - for wearing a hat and down coat in class, at a school on the coast of North Carolina, in the spring.  And while a former babysitter coined a phrase for this habit of mine, calling it our "blanket culture" and taking up the, ha, mantle herself in our home, my point stands.  Tim's parents worried the first time they spent a week with me, wondering if I was hearty enough as a person.

Well, I am and I'm not, it turns out. For reasons I can't quite identify, I feel like I can't catch my breath lately.  Oh wait, I live with a two-year-old, which is like sharing a small apartment with a roommate who's on drugs.  There have been few reprieves this fall, but one was reading Demi Moore's memoir, Inside Out.  Was I surprised by how much I liked it?  I was.  I kept wanting to google things like, ghost writer demi moore, because the voice was so consistent and clear, something that's hard for even a seasoned writer to accomplish, but something that felt super impressive for someone who never mentioned liking or reading books, although I'm sure she does and, also, it's not like you have to be trained in literature to understand your own story. 

Anyway, I was genuinely curious about different facets of Moore's life.  I wanted to know how she met and married Bruce Willis (who is a Pisces! never would have guessed that) and how the heck she ended up with Ashton Kutcher, who doesn't come out looking so great in this book (shocker).  Organized chronologically - with a weird frame about Moore falling apart after the dissolution of her second marriage - a lot of Inside Out was spent on Moore's childhood, which was anything but ideal.  The narrative sort of sped up once she started getting acting roles, and I found myself almost mourning as we left the slow pacing of her early years.  

I appreciated her ability to examine why she and Willis broke apart as partners, something she identified, on her end, as an inability to really open up to him.  He had his own flaws in the marriage (as we all do?) but Moore doesn't go into them, which feels both appropriate and maybe a reflection of the health of their relationship, even after divorce.  When she said that one of the things she's most proud of is their divorce, by which she meant their devotion to their children and their efforts to keep acrimony out of the mix, I genuinely teared up.

In fact, I teared up a lot reading this book, and I think that's one of the things I enjoy most about memoirs, how they sneak up on me and burst my hear open.

I devoured Saeed Jones's beautiful memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives.  I've been a fan of him for awhile (who doesn't admire someone who goes by The Ferocity as a twitter handle?!).  I mean, he seems very smart and also has good hair.  Kidding!  I don't follow people based on hairstyles - Pauly Shore would be my hero if I did - but I do, secretly, admire Jones's hair. 

Anyway, he writes like a mother and his second book is awesome. 

I read My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, by Ben Ryder Howe, a former editor of the Paris Review, about opening a deli with his wife's family, and it was hilarious and smart and full of heart.  It's also about in-laws, a topic I love to see handled well.  I love mine, of course, but let's face it.  Families are an endless source of humor.  I know someone, in fact, who was asked to swing by a random farm and pick up a dead goat on the way to Thanksgiving this year.  (They declined.)    

Finally, and perhaps dovetailing with themes of family and divorce, I checked out Sharon Olds's book of poetry called Stag's Leap, which she wrote after her husband left her, after thirty years of marriage.  Owee.  Just typing that sentence blows a hole in my chest.  These poems are as moving, unnerving, and wondrous as any meditation on loss I've read in awhile.  I found myself reading them biographically, that is, to find out the story behind the divorce, but of course what's more important is how beautiful the poems are themselves, how masterful a poet Olds truly is. 

I have to admit, sometimes I'm irritated by some of her older poems.  She writes about sex a lot and, historically, her husband's body featured in them heavily.  Reading this collection about losing the man she worshiped her whole life - at least that's how it felt to me on the page, in my memory of reading her work as a younger woman - was sort of a fascinating experiment.  I kept ping-ponging between my own relationship with how-much-to-tell and how-much-to-keep-private, my own separations of art and life.  I found myself wondering, at times, if the blurred lines in Olds's work caused any of her current predicament.  It's a very human question - did I cause this pain and suffering? - and also, I think, not the right one.  I mean, who cares what caused her current situation?  It's none of my business.  Also, sometimes some things just happen. 

As a writer, though, someone who wants to convey the truth of my life while also respecting the people in it, I found this exploration somewhat potent.  And so, this poem from the collection blew my mind.       

The Easel
by Sharon Olds

When I build a fire, I feel purposeful -
proud I can unscrew the wing nuts
from off the rusted bolts, dis-
assembling one of the things my ex
left when he left right left. And laying its
narrow, polished, maple angles
across the kindling, providing for updraft -
good. Then by flame-light I see: I am burning
his old easel. How can that be,
after the hours and hours - all told, maybe
weeks, a month of stillness - modeling
for him, our first years together,
odor of acrylic, stretch of treated
canvas. I am burning his left-behind craft,
he who was the first to turn
our family, naked, into art.
What if someone had told me, thirty
years ago: If you give up, now,
wanting to be an artist, he might
love you all your life - what would I
have said? I didn't even have an art,
it would- come from out of our family's life -
what could I have said: nothing will stop me.

Mic drop from Sharon Olds.