Seven years

WordPress just sent me a delightful canned anniversary notice. Congratulations! I’ve been blogging for seven years!

Dang.

That’s a lot of writing. 1,097 posts.

I started this blog to heal wounds. I had low writer-esteem. I was desperately lonely raising a baby in a strange land. And I had so much to say, but only a few poor souls to talk to.

And they needed a break from the details.

I wrote, and a few people read. And a small percentage said they liked what they read.

At that I was heartened. I felt connected and I felt heard. In fact, once or twice, someone told me that my writing really helped them.

Good gravy, isn’t that all anyone on this planet wants?

I talked to the Internet’s kindest people about homesickness and how hard it was to choose a miraculous and ridiculously confusing creature over the PhD I could have handled much more easily. I talked about deaths that rocked me over and over, friends who abandoned me, the relationship I completely failed at, and wonderful days of joy and light.

I wrote about books I loved and problems I couldn’t solve.

And I have so much more to write. I have a list in my phone that is, currently, nine posts desperate to be written. Those of you who’ve been to this little corner of the Internet before know most of my posts are 2,000 words or so, and that 18,000 words ready, in my head, must create quite a bit of intracranial pressure.

But as I struggled a few months ago with four part-time jobs, two bickering children, one divorce, and a blinding case of I Must Do Better on All These Fronts Even If I Never Sleep because I’m Nothing If I Don’t Excel, a wise friend told me that my to-do list is too long. That there’s enough time. That the stuff with real deadlines should come first, and then I should feed my soul. Do things to feel good, and put off the unreasonable 40+ “to do this week” things I genuinely rewrote on my list every week.

Because there’s enough time. The posts will still want to be written in a few weeks. And the words will come.

Later. Because as much as I love this community, and as much as I need to be on this space, I’ve been here for seven years. And there’s enough time to write a great post later.

Advertisements

Things I Don’t Recommend

So here’s the thing about excellent art…it disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. Right?

Nope. It disturbs and comforts those who are porous yet washes unchanged over those who have no capability for human feeling.

And since this month has broken pieces off my psyche, I’m feeling particularly porous.

Unfortunately, I’ve been reading exactly the wrong books this year. By the end of January I was hopping back and forth frequently between Neverwhere and The Bone Clocks.

Want to know what you should avoid when feeling a bit…off?

Novels whose primary effect on you might, perhaps, be

OH MY GOD THE WORLD IS A LIE AND SENTIENCE IS ILLUSION AND THE DARKEST, MOST SINISTER PARTS OF US WILL BE THE THREADS THAT RISE ABOVE AND DOMINATE OUR BETTER IMPULSES, FOR THIS IS THUNDERDOME!

are not the best choice.

Maybe.

Excellent books, though. Look into them when life is all sunshine and buttercups. Or if you’re not easily swayed by minor apocalypses.
<br /

Minor Book Spoilers

Thought I’d come right out in the title and say there are spoilers herein, but I won’t start them until I warn you specifically.

The root cause of this post is that I want you to either listen to or read No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers. Go get them both from your library or independent local bookseller. One’s a history, one’s a novel. They’re both remarkable and I must get you to read them. Or, really, listen to them. They both make ideal audiobooks.

Back to the promise of my title…I despise spoilers. I absolutely won’t read the back cover of books or the reviews because there are so darned many clues to the book that I want to discover, not be handed. I don’t want to know before I read a text where the basic story is going. I don’t want to know how many years Mitchell’s new book spans (thanks for nothing, NPR) because even that bit of information sets up an expectation and the beginning of my calculations.

So in this post, I will warn you of minor spoilers (the type most readers don’t mind), and what I call SPOILERS, which are genuinely much less informative or revealing than any major book review is. So I’m overly careful with what I warn you about. Because I try to preserve your unsullied reading experience as much as I can. I prefer to read completely uninformed, and I assume out of kindness that you do, as well.

Completely unwitting is how I began listening to Dave Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?. I knew absolutely nothing about the novel when I downloaded. And after approximately 4 lines, I was completely hooked.

[next paragraph contains minor spoiler about format and structure]
I’m not sure I will listen to many novels on audiobook, because I prefer to read fiction so I can pause, reread, and stop on the visual placeholder of a word rather than hinging on voices. But [minor spoiler alert] Eggers’s book is entirely dialogue. This theatrical set up is very kind to the audiobook format. When I heard the title page and the list of voice actors, I was confused. It’s very rare to have an audiobook have more than one narrator. (Another minor spoiler alert: Gone Girl had two, because the novel has two narrators.) But each character needed a voice for YFWATATPDTLF to function as an aural text.

Holy gobsmacking guacamole salad, y’all. You have to hear this book. I don’t know if you have to read it. I haven’t read it. I’ve only listening to it read by highly skilled voiceover actors. The New York Times Sunday Book Review was not kind to the novel, in part because the reviewer missed several nuanced points about the characters and dialogue. And I believe the audiobook and the actors cast in the roles were the difference between my interpretation and Phil Klay’s.

[Next paragraph contains SPOILER about acting choices in the audiobook version]
The reason Klay missed something rather important may have been that he read rather than heard the book, for he seemed to have not understood that many of the characters seek to fool the main character. They agree with or disagree with him at various times with the intent of beguiling. Klay seems very angry that some of the characters would agree with wildly inappropriate speeches by a character, but the way I heard the text, those agreeing were patronizing the speaker. Perhaps the acting choices of the audiobook performers made me more aware of this. Maybe giving Eggers the benefit of the doubt for having meticulously rendered several highly flawed characters allowed me to see the dialogue for what it was: not Franzian political diatribe but nuanced interpersonal psychological chess.

[End of Spoilers, and you may now laugh at my definition of spoilers. I warned you. I want to know nothing in advance and try to give you the same courtesy.]

I highly recommend listening to Eggers’s novel. As a character study of desperation and humanity, it’s compelling. As an audiobook, it’s ideal.

I also highly recommend listening to Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time. As a historical study in the way personality flaws form the shifting sands on which history explodes, it’s riveting.

[Update and enormous spoiler, November 19, 11pm: Phil Klay just won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel Redeployment. His misinterpretation of an exchange in Eggers’s novel between the main character and the Senator lies in his misreading a suggestion for the isolation of mentally unstable people as a suggestion for the isolation of former soldiers. Eggers does not conflate the two. The main character does. There’s a big difference between the main character thinking he’s like a war survivor, and the Senator humoring him, and Eggers thinking that all war survivors are crazy. Klay simply misunderstands, an error which I believe would be solved hearing the book rather than reading it.]

My love letter to audiobooks

I’d gotten to the point in my midlife when I thought I wouldn’t fall in love again. I’ve had my turns with relationships, and learned something glorious from each. My love for my children teaches me about infinity and about dark human frailties. My love for my friends dances about like dandelion seeds, unpredictable and lovely.

GS3188127

And until I found you I thought nothing could surprise me.

Friends told me about you. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t really hear them. Blah blah podcasts, blah blah library downloads. “No, thanks,” I thought. Audiobooks are what my parents listen to when they drive cross country. Books on tape we call them. You can’t hope to get a good story going in the 20 minutes on the way to the increasingly-too-freaking-far-away preschool. I can’t hear a story…really hear…on the way to the grocery store or a meeting.

The kids and I checked out audio CDs for long day trips. King Arthur legend stuff and The Hobbit. Things I didn’t want to read aloud at night. Because that reading is precious. First the back and forth of “little guy chooses a book, then big guy reads from his Just-Right chapter book, then little guy gets another, then big guy reads again…” until we brush teeth. Then the big story after lights out. Well, lights out except for the sea turtle who throws stars on the ceiling, a gift from their uncle that keeps us company all Fall and Winter. Turtle time is big story time…Peanut and I deliberate in the library and in front of our bookcases full of kids’ books. Charlotte’s Web, Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter. I save those marvelous books for “real” reading: my voice, our mismatched-but-once-inextricably-linked bodies cuddled in the big chair, focused on the spotlighted page that becomes, in the book light’s insistence, a stage on which our nightly story plays out.

Audiobooks were for the stuff I didn’t want to read. That we could finish on a trip to the beach and back, or that took too much work.

Crawling back to the river is too hard. Can't an audiobook do this for me?

Crawling back to the river is too hard. Can’t an audiobook do this for me?

But then I got an email. Two free books to try it out. Any titles you want.

Um…can’t hurt to try? Blind date with an audiobook. I’m not ready for something new, and I don’t foresee love in my future, but I can try. Whatever. Free is good. Novelty is sometimes okay, even for the change-averse.

Oh, good heaven how you bowled me over.

Our first date was in the car, after a client kick-off meeting when I needed to relax a bit. We connected. I laughed. At once I knew we were going to be friends. And when I got home, you came in with me. You followed me around as I set up my desk for the new project, as I planned dinner. You walked with me when it was time to pick up my son at school, and it just felt right. I wasn’t ashamed. I was having a good time.

I knew our relationship would be challenging for my children, and I knew they had to come first, no matter how I was falling for you. I believe very firmly that they shouldn’t meet anyone new in my life right now. They need to know they’re the most important voices in my life. So I hit pause on our new…whatever this is, I don’t dare label it yet because you’re too new and I’m too caught up to be objective…and walked home with my son. And we played and talked and did our family things. Without you. We picked up my younger son and we all went to soccer. Without you. On the pitch we had dinner, the one I had prepared while you were reading to me. And I smiled a silly schoolgirl grin. Because eating now reminded me of great books. And walking reminded me of great books. And the car, that dreaded convenience that gets me to and from the 10,000 places a day we should be? It reminds me of you and how happy you make me.

Predictably, I’ve gotten a bit lax about keeping you and my family separate. Now when I make breakfast you’re with me, reading to me and filling our hectic morning with measured, adult speech where was there was only shrieking and teasing and laughter and whining. And when the kids want something or I have to help them, you steel me for the less-savory of my tasks with your gentle 30-second rewind and your reassuring pause button. “I’ll wait for you,” you seem to say. “Go ahead. Take care of your family. You love them and they love you and I’ll just wait.”

And you do. And when I return, hours or days later, you know just where we left off. You’ve wooed me with humor and impressed me with heart-wrenching moments. You keep me company while I clean, cook, and write invoices. You make carpooling and grocery shopping engaging.

You make me love mindless tasks, something I haven’t felt since I was young and child-free and trying to discern the origins of the Universe while I vacuumed. Though I value what I do for my family as much as I do the tasks I complete for clients, somehow I don’t feel the family-work is enough. Before you, dishes were a necessary waste of time, and they kept me from what I love. Grocery runs were just stupid burdens. Making lunch? A chore.

And now, with you, I love the grocery store. And dishes. Lunches have become intricate and engaging because I can justify seeding a pomegranate and shaping sandwiches. I have to do these tasks with or without you. But you make them interesting. And productive. I know I could try the rest of my life to fight the need to make every waking moment productive, but why? It’s who I am.

And you get that. You love that. You understand me, and, I am here to say loudly and in front of the whole Internet, I love that about you. What I’ve missed most about my old life, my life before kids, is reading. Frequent, barely-pausing-to-blink, all-engrossing engagement in books.

I’m not going to get into semantics. I don’t know if our relationship is reading or if it’s listening or if it’s entertainment. I won’t slow down long enough to care. I don’t do the high-brow/low-brow arguments that graduate school pretty well beats out of readers. And I don’t want to examine yet…oh, heavens, not while our love is still new…what you’re doing to my relationship with music.

Thank you for the three wonderful books you’ve read me over the past two weeks. I hope my intense love continues to grow. I adore you so much I’m willing to share you with others, which is something I could only ever say about my children. You’re welcome to be as compelling as you want and to draw as many people to yourself as you want.

The more the merrier, dear love. Bring ’em on.

Chick lit and Franzenfreude

I was unaware, as I began reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, that there exists a growing anger toward him because he’s male. The criticism doesn’t seem to be about his writing of female characters or his focus on male characters. The frustration, according to the media, is that the attention he’s receiving isn’t being given to female authors.

Maybe the media is getting the complaints wrong. Maybe the assertions that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are mad about the media circus surrounding Freedom‘s release have to do with something more than a misplaced perception that “white male authors get all the attention.” Because there is certainly something to the criticism that there are NYTBR books and there are so-called chick lit books and ne’er the ‘twain shall meet. I don’t agree with that distinction, but I do believe in the distinction between literature and fiction.

I don’t agree with Time magazine that Franzen is The Great American Novelist. But I do agree that he’s writing something important and completely apart from that which most American authors write. Canonical lit? We’ll see. I don’t personally think so. But I really don’t think that Picoult or Weiner are writing literature.

Franzen’s maleness is hardly his fault. Yes, it’s frustrating that when critics and professors speak of American literature they tend to load the deck with male authors and hang on to alleged classics for the sake of tradition rather than taste (reference how many more people cite the infernal Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby over To Kill a Mockingbird, the latter of which is precisely three thousand times better than either the Salinger or the Fitzgerald as a social critique and character-driven narrative. But Catcher and Gatsby are focused on different moments in time, different themes, different pieces of Americana and are still valid parts of the canon. Even though I can’t stand reading them.)

Some men write really well and deserve critical praise. Some women write really well and deserve critical praise—but do they deserve more praise than they get?

Certainly women writing today get more attention than women used to get. More female lead characters in the canon, more female authors. In my graduate program we read a lot of Walker and Morrison and Nin and Stein and Barnes and Atwood and Perkins-Gilman and Wharton; so I’m not sure that the drumbeat of “women are ignored” really holds true.

The number of male-crafted texts revered in NYT circles still outnumbers the number of female-crafted texts, sure. But are we asking the wrong question?

Is the author the real issue or is the content the more important place to focus our feminist demand for equal time? The “pros versus readers” list of best millennial fiction from The Millions cites 20 books (including duplicates), 10 of which are by women. So? Should we be counting? Or should we be reading carefully to see if women and men exist, fully formed in these texts?

A decent Salon article points out that women tend to write bestsellers and men tend to receive accolades for their brilliance. And thus begins the age-old popular culture versus high culture nonsense, a debate that is false in its pretenses and its conclusions. Because women write brilliant literature. And men write throwaway novels. Gender is not the issue.

Look, it would be nice to see as many female author names as male names on a list, because we tend to write about different things from different perspectives. But despite what I believe about the importance of womanist fiction, authorial gender is not the point. I’d like to read good books and, later, when recommending them, notice that they’re by women. Or men. I don’t care about who writes them. I care what they write about and how they craft their novels.

I care that the characters are three-dimensional, believable, deeply felt proto-humans. I want well crafted male characters and female characters. Make the situations in which they operate real or surreal, but make the characters seem viable, possible, and believable. My absolute favorite contemporary novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has some pretty serious gaps in the “fully realized female characters” department. I believe it suffers because the women have almost no voice. Franzen gives me less impressive language, less humor, fewer arrestingly painful moments, but bigger, bolder, more solidly credible female voices. And so few books written by either men or women do that. No, he’s not Walker or Stein or Hurston, but he’s also not Joyce or James or Wallace. I’m not in the mood to bash Franzen for being something he’s not.

Whatchya reading?

I posted the list from The Millions a couple of weeks? months? ago, and we had a lively discussion in the comments about what, in fact, the best books of the decade were.

Matt Bucher, over at one of his 40,000 blogs and social media sites, has posted his own list to rival The Millions’.

And he’s starting an Infinite Summer-like reading of Roberto Bolano’s 2666. Dan Summers says he’ll read along if I will.

So I’m toe-deep in 2666 and knee-deep in Don Quixote. What are you reading?

Flux and another book on the choices of motherhood

I’m most of the way through Flux by Peggy Orenstein, and I have to say, I dig it. And not just because she reiterates in a sentence what I posted months ago: “Ambivalence may be the only sane response to motherhood at this juncture in history, to the schism it creates in women’s lives.” I’m not quite done reading Flux, but I’m struck by the sharp contrast it offers to another book I just read.

In the first chapters of I Was a Really Good Mom before I Had Kids I empathized, felt validated, and could chew on other moms’ struggles as I read. Then came the final chapter. I’m willing to put a small amount of money on my theory that some editor, probably a man, told the authors that they couldn’t just write a book of commiseration for moms, of how tough it can feel sometimes; and that this probably-man told them that they needed to solve the perceived problem, not just relate it. “Give those moms some perspective. Fix what looks like ambivalence,” because heavens knows we can’t be ambivalent about parenting in this culture. And that imaginary editor in my totally unsupported theory ruined their otherwise fine book because the final chapter, in its insistence that a new outlook will make all the pain and self-effacing bullshit of parenting go away erodes the rest of the book’s power. Some advertising guru undoubtedly said, “you can’t sell the headache and you can’t sell the aspirin. You have to sell the great things people can do after they take the aspirin.” Well, the book only worked for me when it described the headache, thank you very much. So go ahead and read it, but stop before the final chapter.

Both IWARGMBIHK (before it’s given a shiny new pair of rose-colored glasses) and Flux (when it gets to the motherhood choices section) articulate what my friends and I have all been saying, “A day doesn’t seem that long when you are working,” says a stay at home father in Flux. “But, boy it’s a long time when it’s just you and this kid that doesn’t speak, and she is always wanting your attention. And when she’s asleep, then there are all these things that have to be done before she wakes up. There’s absolutely nothing I have ever experienced that was always bearing down like that. Nothing even close.” I’ve said before that 114 hour weeks at McKinsey paled in comparison to the energy and stamina needed to stay at home full time, without help, with a young child.

In Flux, Orenstein, allows women to wedge uncomfortably in the cracks between rock and hard place without trying to fix them. Where women find they genuinely can’t have it all, and have to decide between power and childrearing, have to sacrifice something, either kid or self, to exist in our society, Orenstein lets them twist and narrates their ambivalence. Like IWaRGMbIHK, Flux focuses on educated, middle class women, and their problems are small when compared with the realities of moms working three jobs or facing life in which they are virtually powerless—abused and silenced because of their chromosomes. But no matter how high up Maslow’s Pyramid you rise, the problems still feel big. Existential crises are important, even if they aren’t on par with dissentary sans clean water.

Orenstein lays bare, if not raw, the choices career women, single mothers by choice, and women who sacrifice career for children make, and does not shy away from showing that choices in adolescence and young adulthood tend to push women into lower paying, less demanding careers and lead everyone involved to assume that caretaking is a role for the XXs. She puts a voice to the mental vascillations between career and home:

“Now is the time your career will take off…but don’t forget to find a husband. Hurry, have a child, the clock is ticking—but what do you mean, you’re going to become a single mom or need more time at home? Don’t lose yourself in your children or you’ll never find a way back—but if you work too much you’ll ruin them. If you have a daughter what will she say about your trade-offs? Remember how you felt about your mom? What’s wrong with you anyway? Weren’t you supposed to be able to do anything?” (97).

She also notes that stay at home dads, too, say things like we here at this blog have: “Staying at home with [an infant] was really tedious….I was surprised by the constantness of it, the lack of breaks that we so much take for granted in life. By midafternoon my entire mental focus would be on how long until [his wife] would get home.” Women in Orenstein’s text who express this quickly dismiss their own feelings, waving off the frustration with “I’m just feeling sorry for myself.” But the  stay at home dad acknowledges his frustrations are why he asked his wife to stay at home so he could return to work.

I like Orenstein’s insistence that we should demand more of men than simply that they father better than their fathers did; that we demand all parents think like mothers and at least discuss, if not share, the sacrifices equally. Many a squabble in the Naptime household stems from the “why am I the only one who thinks of this” disparity that Orenstein notes in all relationships.

She does gloss over other important sacrifices women make for either career or family. She articulates a difference between being a mother and being a Mother. But she doesn’t explore, really, the shades of grey that color each definition. Overall, though, she makes a compelling case that no matter what you choose, it will feel pretty ugly at times, for huge, painful, sacrificial compromise is the only constant in all her case studies. And her questions about whether it all can’t work out for the best in the end, quite frankly, make it clear she doesn’t have children. Because even sociologists who watch and watch and watch still don’t maintain the never-wavering focus of 24 hour motherhood. We’ll see what she writes if she does have a baby. Until then, she has a pretty good book in Flux.

And her best quotes:

“There is a chasm between the abstract idea of having kids and the three-dimensional reality of what it means to mother.”

Updates

Hey, now that Peanut is three and I’m becoming human again and reading again and plotting my return to academia again and writing hardcore again, I’m going to do a better job of updating my “reading” page. Please do, as always, send suggestions. My “to read” pile is always hovering at around 20 books, but now that NK has me hooked on the slate.com podcasts, that number is escalating.

If you come across something awesome and want to suggest it, please do.

Worst parent of the year—-and a large second place tie

I am seriously calling Child Protective Services this time. It’s just wrong the way the Man in the Yellow Hat keeps ignoring George to go off and do something by himself without any sense of how much danger that little creature is really in. So irresponsible. (And rude. Take your hat off when you’re inside, please.) If you keep expecting other people to parent your monkey, buddy, you have another thing coming. (Btw, has anyone called the Animal Protection Institute or the SPCA or something about the fact that this guy has a monkey living with him? Aren’t there laws against holding wild animals hostage to your selfish need for “friends”?)

Last week, our choice for worst parent of the year took George to the fire station and let him slide down the pole…then never went to check on him. Apparently cavorted with the other children for hours while George went off, messed up all the firefighter gear, and rode in the fire engine to a fire.Way beyond letting them play with batteries and matches, man. Choosing the other kids in class i just downright neglect.

This week, The Man in the Yellow Hat (who, as my son points out when we read, is wearing all yellow and should be called the Man in Yellow, and whoever named him is doo-dah) took George to the library and just dropped him off at story time. Would that we all could do that, Mr. Stay at Home and Wear Yellow. The rest of us have to stay and listen and do a little thing we call watching our kids. Man, I’d love to find a library that let us drop kids off for story time. Bad news, though, MiY…you didn’t find one of those. You just left everyone else to do your job. Went off to find his own books, in fact,  while George loaded up a stacks cart and careened down a ramp to a huge crash. The librarian helped George get a library card, which should be a very important moment shared with someone you love, not with some stranger holding an advanced degree in Library Sciences. The A–Hole in Yellow Riding Boots, as I now call him, sauntered in at the end of the story, all happy to see George was ready to go.

Look, dude. If you can’t actually parent that small monkey, teach or control or beat the curiosity out of him, you have no right to be his primary caregiver. There are loving gay couples all over Arkansas who’ve been denied their right to parent and would take  care of that monkey MUCH better than you seem to be willing or able to do. (Kudos, Florida. Now that the Supreme Court has shown it’s illegal to discriminate against gay parents, all the willing families of your state can give children the loving, stable homes they deserve. Too bad George seems to be in a landlocked state.)

And while we’re at it, Charlie and Lola’s mom had better get off her ass to help once in a while. Every time we open one of those books, she’s tasked Charlie with looking after his little sister. That’s not fair to Charlie, lady. He needs his childhood, too. Did you have the first just to babysit the second? Seriously, let’s all look into zero population growth, if the 8 year olds of the world ar going to have to raise the next generation. Please take some interest in your children. For heaven’s sake, they are letting whales go down the drain! Do you know what that does to the plumbing?!?!

I’m just tired of this. I know the moms and dads at the playground read instead of watching their kids, and some of the nannies talk to each other instead of teaching, but these literary parents are terrible examples. Max’s mom sends him to bed without dinner just for calling her a monster? (Then caves later and leaves a hot meal in his bedroom? Mixes me-ssa-ges!) Frances’s father offers to spank her if she doesn’t get back in her bed when she’s scared of the noises in her room? (Never mind that an hour before, when she was scared, her parents gave her cake. Have these people never heard of gentle and consistent? Geeeez!)

Anyway, I’ll process the votes again, but I think the A–hole in Yellow Jackboots wins this round. Doesn’t matter, of course. I still have to read each George book as a cautionary tale—“Oh, look. That seems like fun. But he should really ask, first. Then, if it’s safe, then he can try that. After his mommy or daddy say yes”

“Or the Man in Yellow,” chimes the unwitting parenting neophyte.

Books I love, that nobody seems to read.

After our extravaganza about classics we loathe, the erudite blogosphere and I have undertaken another endeavor.

Books we love that nobody seems to know about or read:

(This is harder than I thought it would be, since all my books are in a POD storage facility, waiting for us to either buy or rent, hinging on the daily fluctuations of the market, interest rates, and my hair-trigger vascillations. That said, if I know these are true loves from memory, isn’t that more authentic? Let’s pretend so.)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Walker Evans and James Agee. Oh, my. Gorgeous photos. Compelling journalism.

Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zola Neale Hurston. Dear, me, that woman can write down to a person’s bones. Passion, love, poverty, power, and above all, the indefatigable soul of fatigued women. Damn.

Silences. Tillie Olsen. Can’t do it justice with words. Which is the point, as its goal is to textualize the silent periods of authors’ lives.

Collected Works. Grace Paley. Choose your favorites.

One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel Marquez Garcia. Maybe people are reading this and I don’t know. I did not find Love in the Time of Cholera enjoyable. Everyone who has ever read One Hundred Years, though, was touched to the core, by its magical realism and epic grasp on the human heart. Is this already on everyone’s list? Please go read it. The Nobel Prize announcement insisted that, in his writing, he creates: “a cosmos in which the human heart and the combined forces of history, time and again, burst the bounds of chaos – killing and procreation.” Who wouldn’t read all of his books after that?

Nightwood. Djuna Barnes. Some of the most compelling scenes I’ve ever read. Some of the most sadly endearing characters I’ve ever met. Some of the most confusing passages I’ve ever pushed through. Really, really brilliant work.

Wings. Shinsuke Tanaka. Gorgeously spun tale of joy and intolerance, difference, and love. As with all good stories, we have to fudge the ending a bit with our toddler, but it’s easy to change the story’s climax just a little to make sure everything turns out even more okay.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. Chris Ware. A poignant, gorgeous, thought provoking graphic novel. Especially tender about relationships of fathers and sons. The year I read it I gave it to everyone I knew for Chrismakkah.

Princess Bride. William Goldman. The cult following of the movie would imply a large fanbase for the book, which is (predictably, both for the track record of “the book was better” and for Goldman’s MASTERY of narration) ten thousand and three times better than the film.

Tender Buttons. Gertrude Stein. penelope said it first, but I second it. This is the work worth reading. There is molto there there.

Absolom, Absolom. William Faulkner. For some reason it’s neither read nor assigned as often as it should be. It’s the most compelling, for me, of his work because the female characters are the most poignantly drawn. As I Lay Dying is good, but not good enough to re-read a third time. The Sound and The Fury is remarkable, but harder reading. Light in August is brilliant and compelling but I can’t take the violence right now.

Poetical Dictionary. Lohren Green. Philosopher and History of Philosophy guy makes language visual and poetical. Very compelling intellectually.

An American Tragedy. Theodore Dreiser. I wrote my undergrad honors thesis on Sister Carrie, and I loved that book. And for a historical perspective on American industrialization and women, it still reigns supreme. But something about An American Tragedy just really floats my boat. No pun intended. Oh, dear, I should edit that out. No pun intended at all. Gross.

Not a Box. Antoinette Portis. Yes, it’s a children’s book, but it’s absolutely inspiring.

Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace. Detailed and stream of consciousness and meticulous and hilarious and disturbing and prescient and nakedly raw. Delicious. Also Brief interviews with Hideous Men. Not so much The Girl with Curious Hair, only bits of which did I enjoy. Still working on Oblivion. I had taken a Wallace break to raise a child and write my own fiction, but now I’m tearfully relishing his every word. My God, I ache knowing that we’ll never get more.

The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I keep a copy in every room, and in my glove compartment. (Okay, not really, but I’m considering it this week.)

I couldn’t include many of my favorites here because most people have read them and still read them, which disqualifies them by definition. But I feel the need to show some lovin’ to some of the greatest books ever written: Catch-22, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Joy Luck Club, Lord of the Flies, Green Eggs and Ham, The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Grapes of Wrath.

Ten books other people love but I don’t

Oh, the web is wonderful. After reading the following:

http://capacioushandbag.blogspot.com/2008/09/meme-that-i-just-made-up.html
http://outsidevoice.wordpress.com/2008/10/09/unlovedbooks/
http://faemom.wordpress.com/2008/10/12/ten-books-people-love-but-i-dont/

I had to give it a go. Because the above posts made some EXCELLENT points re: the painful shittiness of Wuthering Heights, The Old Man and the Sea, and Heart of Darkness, I can simply agree wholeheartedly and move on to:

1. Billy Budd. The only thing more painful than social implications of his speech impediment is reading about it. Tragic? Aye. Dramatic? Aye. Now stick me in the eye so I don’t have to read it ever again. (My secret for those who loathe Moby Dick is: skip any chapter that begins with a whale or a boat. The dialogue and existential angst stuff is pretty darned good. Except that it’s Melville and I don’t much care. I’m just saying, if you have to read it, skip the whale and ship bits. Makes it a pretty quick read.)

2. Oliver Twist. B-uh-lech. Maybe it had soap-opera appeal as a subscription serial, but come on. Try Tale of Two Cities, instead. Still laborious in a “yup, clearly he was paid by the word” kind of way, but the final two pages make it all worth it. And I like a payoff. Which is why all the E.M. Forester-y British nineteenth century books that leave ends dangling, dripping with possibility and fraught with “if only” make me want to hurl them at the nearest open flame.

3. War and Peace. Ugh. Oh, God, please, don’t. Crime and Punishment, yes. Anna Karenina if you really, really want to. But barring those masterpieces, why, really, wend your way through Russian lit? They have long winters, lots of vodka, and enough space to be alone. I would not begrudge them their need for torturously long reads. But we don’t need the literary distractions. I’m not arguing for short books. I wanted to write my Master’s thesis on Infinite Jest, for heaven’s sake. But Anna and War are like reading all the “who begat whom” sections of the Bible. Were those guys paid by the word, too?

4. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Um, no. Stop with your Catholic angst and your paternal angst and your filial angst. Too much boy desperate to be a man but held back by his country, religion, and extensive knowledge of classic literature for me. (Seriously? A whole novel about Icarus and Daedalus? The painting is genius. The story is okay. The Irish reinterpretation is laborious and self-congratulatory.) Stephen is the Irish Holden Caufield, only not as easy to read. (Ulysses is worth it, though, for those dissing Joyce. But read the The Odyssey first. Or get a guide. Or read the critical edition. Ulysses is brilliant as a call and response to The Odyssey like O, Brother Where Art Thou is brilliant as a call and response to both. All three are abstruse on their own.)

5. The Sun Also Rises. Aaaaack! Ernest Hemingway, you offend my literary sensibilities. Again. Do you actually read, or do you just write? Jesus, le mot juste was never so dry or so overwraught with self importance. Bombastic in his superiority, Hemingway makes me gag, especially when he’s so obsessed with male genitalia. Try his Nick Adams stories, instead. The only way to fix Hemingway is to make his male characters prepubescent.

6. Gone with the Wind. Makes me want to strangle Scarlet and Rhett—for the entirety of the text. Please. Shut up already. You’re boring. Makes me want to let them secede. Or force them to read all the books on this list, over and over.

7. Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness. I know I said above that it was covered in the other anti-best-of lists, but I can’t not say it again and again. Poorly written, colonial racist eroticization of The Other, thinly veiled homoeroticism, and just plain uninteresting. More machismo-penis fiction, a la Hemingway. Assign it only as punishment for plagiarizers who will “do anything” to not fail your class.

8. On the Road. Holy Self-Absorbed Baby Boomers at Their Worst, Batman. Jeezus, why are we letting that generation run the world? They’re boring!

9. Confederacy of Dunces. ptooey! Did you not want to throttle Ignatious J. Reilly the whole way through? I’ve never met a more unsympathetic character in a novel. Why do people like this book? I felt like I was on the spinning wheel of fortune while a blindfolded knife thrower was on break waiting to maybe think about maybe making things interesting for me and the audience. After he made us all watch cubist films about paint drying.
Infuriating. Pulitzer? What? Try, instead, if you want funny yet tormented, self aware and philosophically important—Infinite Jest. And read the footnotes. Ten thousand times more worth your while than any of CoD.

11. The Great Gatsby. Okay, I said it. I know I’m the only one, and I’m willing to be alone on this one. Gatsby is full of horrible people doing horrible things, and not even in an important, changing the world kind of way. Give me biographies of dictators or famine or tracts about world poverty, but don’t make me pretend to be impressed, or even interested, in rich Americans who shat all over society. Yucky, icky self absorption, conspicuous consumption, devaluation of women’s bodies, and painfully obvious but unexamined divides between the many classes in American society. Plus, the narrator is way too Holden Caulfield for me, and you know how I feel about him. Entirely disagreeable and distasteful chap, that one.

12. Tuesdays with Morrie. SCHLOCK! Oh, my, schlockedy schlock schlock. Get your carpe diem elsewhere. This is schlock.

13. Angela’s Ashes. I’ve now been disowned for saying this, but what is the appeal? The writing is fair to middling, and it’s neither depressing enough nor uplifting enough. As memoirs go, it’s filed twice under “yeah, right” and “who the hell cares?” Maudlin expressions of intense poverty are fine by me. I love me some well written memoirs of intense powerlessness. Somehow, dotting the “i”s with little smiley faces makes the whole thing seem disingenuous, no? You want a book about finding hope in absolutely desolate conditions? Try What is the What? by Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng.

(Now that I’ve read the list here, I feel less original about On the Road and Catcher in the Rye, but I also feel vindicated…)

Yes, that was more than ten. Ask anyone who has ever met me if I can follow rules or self-edit.

Our next assignment, overeducated blogosphere, is a list of books we love that nobody else is reading.

David Foster Wallace

In grad school, the professors wouldn’t let me write my thesis on Infinite Jest because none of them had read it, and when they saw that it topped 1100 pages (I don’t have my copy to give you precise numbers, I just moved and don’t have anything in the fridge and need to go shopping but can’t get past a long day of running around after a toddler with a heart heavy from the pain of DFW’s death thudding around in my stomach, and am not in the best mood, so bear with me on estimates) of densely packed text and endnotes sheer rambling genius, they balked at the workload reading both his novel and my thesis would bring to their carefully balanced lives.

I resented their laziness. Then I changed topics and vowed one day to write an erudite lit-crit analysis of the text. Especially because Wallace excelled at but distrusted literary criticism. But shite happened and I haven’t gotten around to it.

I blogged about a month ago that I felt disconnected from the world when I realized Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had been dead for three days before I knew. It was as though my sadness didn’t count any more because I had missed the window.

This time, the world rotated twice before I knew DFW died. The announcement rocked me to the core but didn’t change my day. And that, itself, saddens me because it means my life is so shifted off its base that the shockingly early death of one of my top five creative inspirations doesn’t even rate a schedule change. The rest of my week, though, shuddered and sputtered as the implications of his death sunk in.

And I don’t know what to say. I’ve known for two days and I don’t know what to say. (Updating this weeks later, I’m still not done processing my grief.) His writing changed me. I saw him speak once (thanks MPB and SBB) and his speaking did not change me. The creepy cult curiously smarmy cadre of followers did not change me. I was rarely tempted to quit my job and run off to Pomona to be his student, because I didn’t feel any need to be connected with him personally. I didn’t want to be taught by him or to talk with him or to write for him. I wanted to read his work.

And now there won’t be more.

I may be silly to feel his death as a weighty presence in my life. The man himself had no presence in my life. His characters, their actions, their idiosyncrasies, their seismically surreal lives had a transient presence in my life. But all I have to do is recall the cover of his weighty novel and I can again touch the intellectual dance of reading it. I can feel my hunger for more as I read myself bleary-eyed for the entire summer of 1997 (I was busy in the summer of 1996. I didn’t pick up IJ because of the grant. I picked it up because I wanted a book that would ensure nobody would talk to me on BART, a la The Accidental Tourist. But I loved it intensely then, and would love to reread it now.) I can feel my connection and revulsion and confusion at Wallace’s characters every time someone says his name.

And I want more. I’m angry and disappointed that there won’t be more.

I loved his lobster piece for Gourmet magazine. I love that he took the job, puzzled at the pop cultural status that brought him such tangential work, and I loved his rambling thoroughness. I loved that he came to the conclusion that it’s just not okay to boil creatures alive.

I haven’t read the obits. I don’t even know how he died. (I found out later and wrote a horrible post on this blog, of which I am embarrassed but which I will not erase.) I don’t care how he died. This is not a Jeff Buckley story or a Kurt Cobain story or a River Phoenix story. I wish I knew what kind of story this is. All I know is that the woot from Sept. 16 made me feel all too keenly that nobody will take DFW’s place.

And now all I can think is, I hope all you bastard literary canon snobs will read his work, because you missed the boat the first time. When I write my PhD dissertation on his work and one of you lazy self preserving pricks says you haven’t read it, I will produce all the contemporary fiction on the shelves and say, “well, it’s better than and worse than and different than this….And it’s all we have left.”

The Macarthur grant bit always forces the genius label. I don’t know that he was genius. I just know I really love reading his writing. I don’t even know that I love his writing itself. I love the experience of reading it. And that is the ultimate compliment for an author. I don’t even love your work, man. I just love what it does to my head.

We’re all going to miss you, and our minds are poorer now that yours is silent. I hope, at least, that the pain is gone.