Last Week’s Reading: January 22-28


January 22-28, 2017: A sci-fi classic, a new feminist classic, vignettes in verse,  a much-awarded novel worth the hype, and thirty-year-old poetry that’s still fresh.

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: The perfect primer on feminism, eloquent and brief. This would make an excellent gift for high school students in need of a brief introduction to the concept and will rally, I think, those who hesitate to call themselves feminists.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin: I’ve had this 1969 sci-fi classic  on my shelves for twenty years, but I’m rather glad I didn’t read it at twelve. Though short—my mass-market paperback is 300 pages—it’s dense, complicated, and incredibly intelligent. Genly Ai is an envoy from a group of planets (think the Federation, but more abstract) assigned to persuade the inhabitants of the planet Gethen (translated, it means Winter–it’s essentially a populated Hoth) to join the Ekumen. Gethenians have a complicated system of etiquette and honor called shifgrethor, but even more confounding for Ai is their lacked of fixed sexuality; they are neither male nor female (all characters are called “he,” a convention Ann Leckie reverses in the excellent Ancillary Justice). The world-building is sublime, the pace of revelation superb–we struggle to understand this culture as Genly does, and in the process Ms. Le Guin asks us to think deeply about exploration, friendship, and patriotism. Highly recommended.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by David Rakoff: The world lost a funny, sad voice when David Rakoff died in 2012 at the age of 47. If you loved his essay collection Fraud (I did), you’ll find this book quite different–it’s a short novel made of vignettes in verse. It’s grim and witty at the same time, a catalogue of cruelties and kindnesses and most of all, I think, our vulnerabilities. Those looking for an unusual reading experience should pick it up.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz: Deserves every accolade it’s received, and then some. I put off reading this novel because I have limited patience for the male bildungsroman, but my expectations were confounded. Oscar is lovable and tragic, but the story doesn’t belong to him alone; Mr. Díaz takes long excursions into the backgrounds of his mother and sister, giving the book a roundedness and depth I didn’t anticipate. Yunior, the narrator and sometime authorial-alter-ego, is a fantastic narrator, steeped in nerd culture, frenetic, profane and and so full of life that it seems he’s physically propelling words across the page (even in the footnotes). I loved, loved, loved this novel.

To The Quick, by Heather McHugh: Heather McHugh’s wordplay (see “Etymological Dirge”) is fantastic, almost dizzying. This 1987 collection is beautiful and smart and tough. These poems will cut you to the quick. Need proof? Just read “The Amenities.” 

In Brief: Essay Edition

The Empathy Exams: Essays*
by Leslie Jamison

photo (111)Unless you’ve been hiding from all forms of media for the last few months, you’ve no doubt heard the overwhelming praise for this collection of essays, winner of Graywolf Press’s Nonfiction Prize. I am pleased to report that The Empathy Exams deserves all the good press.

In these intensely personal meditations, Ms. Jamison turns her sharp wits on herself, examining her experiences, faults, successes, and privilege as she writes about empathy and how we deploy it. Anyone who’s ever had a difficult experience conveying pain in a medical environment will find material of great interest here, but Ms. Jamison reaches beyond the medical in essays about prison, mining, an extreme endurance race, and the history of artificial sweeteners, among other topics. Her essays vary in length and form, expanding the parameters of the genre and allowing the reader the pleasure of wondering what will come next even as the insights from the previous essay are still being digested. The final essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” is a tour de force, and an absolute must-read.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems
by David Rakoff

photo 5 (2)Last year, I reviewed David Rakoff’s 1997 collection, Fraud, which was in some ways responsible for me being forced to sit through a Steven Seagal marathon, and which is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, so funny that it had me choking with laughter.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable (2005) finds Mr. Rakoff in a less jocular mood, skewering American consumerism in its many forms. Don’t get me wrong — a society that produces Hooters Air richly deserves skewering, but in these essays, laced as they are with humor, I felt a sense of bitterness, which simply wasn’t what I was expecting, though maybe I should have been, given the collection’s title. Still, essays on edible foraging in Central Park and the zaniness of fashion week are worth the price of admission.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Fraud, by David Rakoff

Longtime readers may recall a post about this book (and Steven Seagal, and All About Eve) way back in the mists of time. I returned the book to my friend, who had left it here accidentally, and put it on my someday list. Of course, when I came around to that part of the list, our local library didn’t have a copy, so I had to wait for the book to arrive from the moneyed halls of Weston.


Happily, the other thirteen essays live up to the wry promise of “In New England Everyone Calls You Dave” and “Including One Called Hell.” The essays are from Rakoff’s point of view, but oriented outward, whereas, for example, David Sedaris’s essays (at least to me) are engaged with the world but oriented inward. I’m not knocking them; they’ve made me guffaw on the porch so hard that the neighbors probably thought my personal clock was set to five p.m. I think Rakoff’s brand of humor is quieter, his voice more melancholy, though his opinions are fierce (he truly hates Life is Beautiful, and thanks to him, I can’t imagine ever watching it.)

Whether he’s giving outdoor tracking school a try, hunting for the Loch Ness Monster, searching for elves in Iceland, or remembering  what it was like to live in Tokyo, Rakoff gives master classes in understated elegance and economy of language. He’s clear. Take, for instance, these lines, some of my favorites, from “The Best Medicine”: “Not being funny doesn’t make you a bad person. Not having a sense of humor does.”

I think my favorite essay in the collection, aside from the one about Seagal-fest and the opening salvo (climbing Mount Monadnock on Christmas Day), is “Christmas Freud,” in which Rakoff describes what it was like to play Freud in a department store Christmas window display. Now, I find the whole idea of the Christmas tableau vivant very odd indeed (I’ve never seen one in person — have you?), but Rakoff elevates it to the sublime. Read this book, and I think you, like me, will wish for Christmas Freuden too.

In Which Steven Seagal and All About Eve Appear in the Same Paragraph

When I was fifteen, I climbed a mountain with my father and younger brother and sister.

I assure you that this was not my idea.

I was relieved to reach the summit, but much distressed by the unpleasantness of the descent, the heat and bother and bugs and rocks. The unpleasantness was much exacerbated by my absent sense of balance and deep-seated fear of falling, which also precludes me from enjoying roller coasters, ladders, deck stairs, and broken dining room chairs. And at the end of it all, the gift shop was closed, and so it was sans-T-shirt that I proclaimed, with bad grace, my triumph over the mountain and physical exertion.

That mountain was Mount Monadnock, in New Hampshire, the most-climbed mountain in the world, and the backdrop to the first essay in David Rakoff’s perfectly tuned collection entitled Fraud. Mr. Rakoff, who died last year, was a satirist and contributor to This American Life on NPR, and I’m sorry to say that he did not appear on my radar until last week, when my friend A. brought Fraud over to have a dramatic reading of an essay on Steven Seagal at a New Age center. My friend assumed, correctly, that my husband would find it vastly amusing, and indeed, he did (as did I). However, the reading also led to plans for a Seagal movie marathon, so I wasn’t sure how indebted I was feeling toward A. Until I opened up the book (he accidentally left it behind) and found the epigraph:

You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent. –Addison De Witt

Anyone who begins a book by nodding to All About Eve has earned my love and admiration. Seagal marathon forgiven. I’ll be returning the book before I have a chance to finish the essays, but I’ll come back to it, soon, I hope.