A Bunch of Books I’ve Read Lately (Plus A Few I Haven’t)

I got a Snapchat from a friend the other night … a picture of him holding a book and the caption read “Is this what Friday nights are like once you’re 30?” … and I had to laugh because that’s been my Friday nights for as long as I can remember. Firstly because I am always so tired and grumpy on Friday nights that the last thing I want to do is talk to a real person, and secondly because I started reading so much so young that I never realized it wasn’t cool to stay home and read, and thirdly because even when social life became a thing who really fucking cares, I’ll do whatever I want on a Friday night! I don’t know why people think reading books is so lame, it’s just slow TV and everybody watches TV all the time. And God knows I need slow TV; television is wayyy too oversensory for me. You let me in front of that thing for 3 hours and all of a sudden I’m angry and crying and why is it over why did it end why does everything end and can’t be alone, blahblahblah. Netflix & Chill my left foot. So with a book you don’t have all the sound and flash and dimension, you have to focus more and do more work in your mind, it’s less overwhelming (at least to a person like me), and it takes longer to sink in. You can be alone for a while — and I have been! Look at all this stuff I’ve been reading!

BONUS: I included some books I started but didn’t finish, an act that’s a new phenomenon for me. I’m working on commitment/achiever issues in my life and part of it involves letting go of things you’re unnecessarily committed to so you can be committed to / achieve the right things. That’s a really abstract and emotionally heavy-handed way of saying that I finally learned to YOLO read, or rather, if I don’t like a book why waste my time on it? I’ll never forget a friend from my MFA program telling me that the average person can only read 3,000 books in his or her life time — yikes! We’re super mortal and finite! So better choose wisely. Here’s my choices lately:

Books I’ve Read Lately:

  1. The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder. I once picked a Chris Bachelder book off a shelf based on its cover and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me; I loved it and it’s what sent me down the rabbithole of lists of names of authors and writing styles that have informed and shaped my craft and person. All this to say if you have a problem with me, blame this guy. But also all this to say that I was very excited to see Bachelder had a new book out (as he’s only got like 4 or 5 to his name now), and also kind of bummed to see it was a football book, particularly after having read Steve Almond (another author I love)’s Against Football and being part of this sort of camp of writers who like to think critically and rebel against popular human social / consumer events / phenomena. But anyhow, trusting Bachelder, I start reading this book and I’m really not that into the content (dudes galore, dudes dudes dudes, football, blah blah), but then all of a sudden I’m in tears in a coffee shop in Oakland and I know 100% without a doubt why this book is a finalist for the National Book Award this year. I think fiction writers differ from nonfiction writers in this: nonfiction writers explore things and fiction writers become them. I know it’s not fair to / too short a space to compare Almond and Bachelder here but that’s what I’m doing; but there’s a difference between someone like Almond who admittedly loves being a football fan and wrestling with it / questioning it via writing, and someone like Bachelder who is in Throwback Special actively wearing this fanhood in a quirky-but-serious, cultish-but-heartfelt way. The book is about a group of guys who have this ritual of gathering together annually to reenact an 1985 Redskins play a la Civil War / Ren Fair reenactors. First off, I love that because you usually think of Civil War / Ren Fair reenacting as pretty nerdy / obscure things, so to show people doing a generally-socially-labeled-“non-nerdy”-thing in a nerdy way is a nice perspective check that inherently asks you to consider football differently. Secondly, this concept is beautiful because football is about ritual, it’s this thing we do in this country that leads to us doing all these other rituals (homecoming! Superbowl! etc!) and so by walking through it in this way you really get thinking about why we do everything we do regularly in general — which I think is the job of all good fiction. Thirdly: the overall spirit of equality/unity/complementarianism that Bachelder uses this particular group of guys and this particular male-oriented sport to drive also allows me to overlook the fact that, well, frankly, here’s a white man writing about white men (and you know how eeeek I can get about that). I think this is something I’ve always loved about Bachelder’s work — in a world full of privileged dudes who are spouting off in one way or another about how great they are or feeling shut up and like they can’t say anything without getting sued, he’s quietly (but strongly!) creating this space for white men to be different and still themselves. “You’re still allowed to be a white man in this country, we know it’s not always easy because being alive isn’t always easy, so here’s a good way to do it.” Like… I would buy my dad this book for Christmas. I probably will.
  2. Americana and Zero K, both by Don DeLillo. DeLillo is another one of my all-time favorite authors and this summer I read his first and latest novels, and both were a trip in different ways. Zero K, his latest, was good — a quick read, pretty sci-fi-ey and artsy, full of that classic DeLillo-knows-everybody’s-soul deadpan narration and a few panty-dropping truth bomb lines like “Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving” (wahh! I know!). I think I like where DeLillo’s heart is at in places like this, but don’t feel like the actual book helps with anything culturally. Maybe that’s just what happens when you get jaded and older and I’m still just a young buck spring chicken baby writer bunny who thinks fiction is supposed to affect social change, blahblahblah. Speaking of young bucks: Americana on the other hand — DeLillo’s first novel — was just Jack Kerouac’s On The Road meets Mad Men, full of sexism and materialism and self-interest and that grimy kind of sex and success and not giving a fuck about other people really. What a letdown, to realize your favorite author, the one you have on every pedestal, sucks sometimes too. Also, maybe DeLillo himself is just human and mortal and wrestling with meaninglessness, and these books are just the middle-aged and later-in-life ways of doing is, respectively. That’s hard to watch, both in adults I love who are aging and in my favorite authors (I guess these things are sometimes one and the same). So both books were heartbreaking in that sense (especially coming off of reading Underworld and Libra, two of his best works, last year). It’s hard that you usually meet an author through their best work: most of us English majors read White Noise in college, and that book is just the shit, the tits, the God-Almighty-great-job-Don, whatever you want to call it, amazing, soul-of-a-nation-status stuff. Writingwise though White Noise is scattered and disjointed AF, whereas Americana was not as developed voice-wise but has this driving sense of movement, and Zero K has this super strong voice but seems to have given up on central purpose. Jesus this is just a blog post not a PhD dissertation on DeLillo’s life and works and the way authors arc and fall in relation to society and time, I’m sorry, so many nerds have already done that, let’s carry on.
  3. Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From A Failed Missionary by D.L. Mayfield. D.L. Mayfield has been one of my favorite bloggers/writers for a while now. I sometimes consider her one of my “older sisters” in terms of writing/thinking about faith stuff and literary stuff in the same era and same media spaces — I know that’s creepy, sorry D.L. if you’re reading this and you think that’s creepy, you know I’m a weirdo who admires you. Anyway, I was honestly kind of nervous about reading this book because I have watched D.L.’s process of working hella hard at writing, working hella hard at her life, getting a contract, writing the book, getting published — she’s pretty transparent on social media, this is how I know all this — and if I’m completely honest I guess I’ll say I was worried she was selling out to Christian media and the book was going to make me mad or annoyed! This is partially because I’m a little jealous I’m not writing down & capitalizing off my I-used-to-be-an-evangelical-woman story, but also partially because I have always really looked up to D.L. for questioning everything relentlessly and turning everything upside down and making me/others think and I was wondering if that process or nature had come to an end. I was worried her book was going to have a nice little bow on it like a lot of sold-out Christian media does — and it did sort of have a nice little bow, but not in that way, not a way I expected. I was surprised and relieved (I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised; she’s always been great at this, I just got uptight & project because it’s something I wrestle with too) at the way she was able to tell her story of trying to be a missionary and getting caught in the crosshairs of cultural/power structures without rolling over and giving a shiny moral to it. I appreciated, as I always do, her quiet rebelliousness, her funny honesty (isn’t all honesty funny, if you’re really being honest about it?): “All I really ever wanted was to love on my terms…all I ever wanted to do was oppress people, in the kindest way possible.” What this book asks, really, is: if you deconstruct the Christian evangelical system, if you take out all the things Christians are “supposed to do” in order to be good people / convert people, and you stop clawing after success even if it’s couched in all these subversive ways, if you try to get to the root of what love is — are you really just left with a happy life where people love each other and learn from each other even though they’re different? The answer — in this book, and to many of my prayers — seems to be yes.
  4. Home and Away by Joanne Meschery. I decided that since I live in Northern California and I’m going to be a Northern California writer I needed to figure out what other Northern California writers there were besides John fucking Muir. Lo and behold I found Joanne Meschery, who wrote three novels out of the Truckee area in the 80s-90s, and boy am I glad I did. This book ruled. A novel written by a woman nearly 30 years ago that covers family life, abortion, the small-town-big-city divide, homosexuality, high school sports, religious fervor, and two affairs, all without being cliche?  I swear to God if people actually read books and learned things from them we wouldn’t be having the election we’re having this year.
  5. The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer. This is our latest book club pick and I was pretty grumpy about it because I’d been reading articles on my very-progressively-minded Twitter feed about how people like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer are making everything harder for women of color, women of different sizes, women of “lesser” privilege levels. By “making everything harder” I mean “taking up all the media attention” a la the Trumpsicle and preventing real work/change from getting done. Ugh okay so here is the point in my blog/afternoon funk where all my feelings come out: I am so damn tired of this idea that there isn’t enough space for everyone in the world. I know we’re freaking out about it because we’re ruining the planet and coming to terms with our finite resources but good Lord that doesn’t mean we have to be assholes to each other. I am really thankful that during my MFA at the University of the Arizona, all the professors were on this “There’s room for everybody” train of thought, meaning, always the answer is more people should be telling their story. Yeah there was limited funding for our department and everyone was fighting over it, but since I was getting funding from a different department entirely, I actually had time/energy to think about that idea and soak it into my little belief system and I think it’s actually true: there’s not a scarcity of ability to tell stories, or if there is, it’s a long way off and we’re nowhere close yet. The caveat is that not everyone is going to listen but not only is that completely okay, it’s also completely logical. You can’t expect everyone to listen if you want everyone’s voice to be heard because everyone’s only got so much time to devote to their news feeds and reading lists. You can expect, and hope, however, that there will be an audience for everyone who wants to tell a story, because everyone’s news feeds and reading lists are different, and your audience might look different than other audiences and that’s good and okay because it means people are relating to each other and learning and caring. Yes mob rule / mob mentality is an issue but again these are bigger fish to fry and I’m just trying to comment on a book, which is Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo, which was kind of chatty and unliterary but also made me feel things and relate and learn to be a stronger person and cry (side note, those last 2 go hand in hand always and don’t you forget it). Yes of course I related to Amy Schumer because I’m a privileged white girl too, but I have to say this: if it wasn’t for people speaking up about their issues of insecurity and trauma and violence, the rest of us wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it either. The more people who are doing it the better, regardless of gender and skin color. Yes Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham get to do it on a massive media scale first because they’re more accepted by the patriarchy (think “tip of the wedge” if you will), but we gotta stick together yo when it comes to empowering people to say what’s not okay. By “we” I mean “all humans with feelings and experiences,” so I mean everyone ever. And be “what’s not okay” I mean people committing acts of violence, not people talking about how acts of violence aren’t okay from a privileged standpoint. And I get it: I get that it’s easier to do what Amy Schumer is doing when you’re rich and famous and beautiful and have money and lawyers and media and editors and everything you want at your fingertips. I soooo get it and will probably write at length (yes greater length) about this on other occasions, but for now, I hope everyone can learn to talk about how acts of violence are not okay, and the reason I even feel okay saying that in public is because I read stuff like this book that gives me the confidence and attitude and voice to do so, and I know that there are writers of other backgrounds out there too doing the same thing and I hope they can rise up and get the same media attention as people like Amy like the cream of the crop they are (and they are!). This is what the Amy Schumer book made me think about, on top of laughing about sex jokes, so I liked it. End rant.
  6. Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet. I sat next to Lydia Millet when she guest taught one of my craft workshops in grad school and I did not know enough about her to take full advantage of it. That’s irrelevant to my reading this book but I wanted to name drop and say it because… my blog, my rules. Wait, it’s not irrelevant: in workshop she just had this chill calm about her and reading this book several years later, it’s cool to see how that personality can drive such intense, strong narration. I don’t mean in an opposite way like “How could such a calm person write such crazy stuff?” but rather “I think it takes that kind of calm and focus to really be steady and piercing in your work and writing.” I loved this book. It was creepily connected to a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately — like, not just metaphorically / thematically resonating with my life, but down to the quotation/line level on specific concrete subjects like trees and the Tower of Babel and movement of God in our midst (I guess not super coincidental as I work in urban forestry and think about words/language/spirit all day but still). In this book I found what I’ve been looking for for a while — a strong female narrator who isn’t jumpy, isn’t apologetic, isn’t hung up on being female, isn’t reactionary, isn’t ignorant, isn’t crazy. What her character is is frank, accepting, but still powerful and moving. She is tied to “feminine” things (motherhood, wifeness, etc), but she’s badass and she’s doing something different with them. Susceptible without being succumbing, resilient without being reactionary. Oh what is the book about? About a woman who decides to have a kid then her evil husband (who left her when she decided to have the kid) decides he needs to have a wife and kid for his campaign trail, so he hunts them down and starts taking over their life (subplot: the woman hears voices and it’s kind of like this…. is she crazy, or is something magical realism going on too? kind of thing). So it fits this nice spot of oppressed-woman-book where the woman does something different with her oppression, and has a different voice/outlook on her experiences than I’ve seen in other books like that (again I don’t read that much… haven’t even probably hit 1,000 of my allotted 3,000 yet, so fill me in on books I’m missing). I also liked the way drugs were handled in this book? The narrator just kept being like “I took a Valium. I took a tranquilizer. I got a prescription for sedatives.” and just moving on through the plot — didn’t luxuriate in drug trip scenes, didn’t waffle on about whether or not she should be taking them or what she thought or what people would think, etc. For females in particular dealing with mental illness and trauma, I thought this book took huge steps in overcoming hangups and stereotypes in those spheres.

Books I Didn’t Finish Lately (Because Remember, Choosing “No” is Still Choosing Something):

  1. Hystopia by David Means. David Means is one of my favorite short story writers of the past decade so I was pumped he had a novel out and then bummed at what kind of novel it seemed like. I started reading it anyways because David Means! But I couldn’t get into it. It felt way too much like DeLillo’s Libra (aforementioned), which is good but which has already been done.
  2. Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck. I thought I was into reading my favorite authors’ first books, but then I got a little ways into this one and it wasn’t any good. I called my brother who’d read it and he said “Oh yeah it’s really misogynistic and not any good, but read it anyways so I can talk about it with someone.” I love you Luke but I took it back to the library… ain’t got no more time for misogyny in this life.
  3. Ulysses by James Joyce. I got pretty far into this book a couple times and even got a few study guides to go along with it but I just… I don’t have the energy to try to interpret a dead white guy being obscure anymore. We are just so past the era of writing esoterically and asking to be understood. We need great writers who we can understand and can help us understand… and those are the writers I want to be reading and James Joyce isn’t one of them. I dropped this in one of those Tiny Little Libraries on one of my dog walks so maybe someone else who likes that stuff can enjoy it.
  4. The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever. My friend and I are on this huge Cheever kick and I got 100 pages into this book too but just… I don’t know… I like it, it’s good writing, but, ehh. I’m a millenial and I have a high bar set for my attention in a limited about of time. Entertain me or teach me something new and do it fast. And Cheever does! But in his short stories. Read “The Swimmer” and we can talk about that instead.

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