Last Month’s Reading: June 2017

June was a busy month for our family,  with meetings, farewells, travels, and celebrations, and thus a light month for reading. I did manage to squeeze in these books:

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson (not pictured; library e-book): I actually did read this one in a hurry, finishing it just a half an hour before it was automatically returned (no overdue finds for e-books, I guess). In these short essays, many revised from previous publication, Neil deGrasse Tyson covers a wide range of topics in astronomy and astrophysics (think dark energy or the Big Bang) for the layperson. It’s a cosmological amuse-bouche, if you will.

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín (not pictured; returned to library): House of Names is an unsettling take on the miseries of the mythological House of Atreus, presenting the perspectives of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra to suggest how everything went terribly wrong. Mythology gives readers a wide sweep, archetype and theme; Mr. Tóibín offers grim detail, whispers in the dark. Read this—the first line is “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.”—and you’ll never again look at your copy of Edith Hamilton without a shudder.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, by Scaachi Koul:  I remember reading, in Buzzfeed a couple years ago, “Hunting Season,” Ms. Koul’s essay about the dynamics of men watching women while they drink. It was so smart, so spot-on, so scary. You’ll find it in this collection of essays that’s undergirded by Ms. Koul’s experience as a woman of color in Canada (her parents moved to Canada from India before she was born). Despite its bleak title and serious themes, this collection is often hilarious—her boyfriend is called Hamhock—since Ms. Koul uses humiliating-yet-funny experiences (a dressing room incident in which a skirt refuses to budge, for example, or feeling absolutely terrified about flying) from her own life to illuminate larger questions about identity and culture. A winner.

Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann: Bite-size pieces of advice to beginning writers, with a focus on empathy and perseverance. Excellent epigraphs. Chances are you’ve heard versions of this advice if you’ve read around in the genre, but still, this is a warm and welcoming read.

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give*, by Ada Calhoun: I don’t think I’ve ever read a non-fiction book about marriage before, but such is the power of a purple cover and Ms. Calhoun’s funny introduction. These toasts are essays on the pleasures and problems of staying married (when she asks her mother for advice on the subject, her mother replies, “You don’t get divorced.”). While not everything in the book spoke to me—there’s quite a bit about infidelity, and I would have liked more LGBTQ-inclusive examples and language—I laughed often and appreciated its realistic attitude, neither “the institution of marriage is doomed” nor “marriage is the happily ever after.”
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

Duende, by Tracy K. Smith: I cheered out loud when I saw that Tracy K. Smith had been named the new poet laureate, and to celebrate I bought this 2007 collection. It’s beautiful and technically accomplished, of course, and I was so impressed by the way Ms. Smith brings histories of violence to life and into the realm of the particular body. She’s an absolutely phenomenal poet.

Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney: The last of the Irish writers I read this month (an unintentional grouping). There’s nothing quite like reading Seamus Heaney to deflate one’s pride; in Human Chain I found a poem about a pen (“The Conway Stewart”) that’s better than anything I’ve ever written or will ever write. And in “The Door Was Open and the House Was Dark” I found the poem I would have read at my dear grandpa‘s memorial service. A beautiful, moving collection.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by Lynn Nottage: I loved this play by Ms. Nottage, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1930s Los Angeles, Vera Stark is an aspiring actress who works as a maid for a difficult screen star (with whom she shares a secret common history). This comedy-drama is witty, fast-paced, and incisive as it considers racism in Hollywood and how modern critics and theorists analyze it. Brilliant, and highly recommended. (P. S. If you’ve read this, can we talk about the Imitation of Life and All About Eve references?)

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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.

If Roxane Gay is a Bad Feminist, Sign Me Up

photo 1 (20)The first time I saw the name Roxane Gay was on Facebook (see? It’s not altogether terrible). I’d just seen a trailer for The Help, and thought to myself: “Um, doesn’t that movie seem racist to anyone else?” A friend linked to a piece by Roxane Gay detailing her dismay over the film’s depictions of race in the 1960s south, which are, to say it in academic-speak, problematic. The essay was very, very good, and you can read it here.

Three summers later, it’s the year of Roxane Gay (or, at least that’s what I’m calling it). Her novel An Untamed State (review here) was published to critical acclaim this spring, and Bad Feminist* is available tomorrow. It’s a collection of Ms. Gay’s essays (most, if not all, previously published elsewhere), and you shouldn’t miss it.

Ms. Gay’s essays are short, intense views of a lively mind at work. They vary widely in tone, ranging from the hilarious (the world of competitive Scrabble) to the horrific (Ms. Gay’s traumatic experience of sexual assault as a girl). Her essay on rape culture, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” in which she takes the New York Times to task (among others), ought to be required reading in high school (and, apparently, newsrooms).

Many of Bad Feminist‘s essays consider books, movies, and TV shows from the perspective of race or gender — Ms. Gay’s takes on The Hunger Games, Girls, and Django Unchained are a pleasure to read — showcasing Ms. Gay’s considerable prowess as a cultural critic. She is equally comfortable talking about “high” literary culture and Lifetime movies; this is the perfect book for anyone who’s a pop culture aficionado.

Here’s one of my favorite passages, on Quentin Tarantino:

But Django Unchained isn’t even really a movie about slavery. Django Unchained is a spaghetti western set during the 1800s. Slavery is a convenient, easily exploited backdrop. As with Inglorious Basterds using World War II, Tarantino once again managed to find a traumatic cultural experience of a marginalized people that has little to do with his own history, and used that cultural experience to exercise his hubris for making farcically violent, vaguely funny movies that set to right historical wrongs from a very limited, privileged position. (222)

Yes, yes, yes. Thank you.

Despite what the book’s title suggests, Ms. Gay is a wonderful feminist: engaged, interested and interesting, funny, respectful of others’ differing views. My politics overlap Ms. Gay’s, but not completely; even when we fundamentally disagree, I found much to consider in her arguments. Ms. Gay doesn’t espouse one right way of being feminist, and that’s a message we could all stand to remember. Bad Feminist is a book for feminists and for those who won’t call themselves feminists; it’s a book for everybody. Highly recommended.

*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.

Fraud

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.

“a thread of her devising”

Charlotte’s Web may be the book I’m most looking forward to reading with my small son. I remember my mother reading it to me, and in particular the calm, gracious way she delivered Charlotte’s classic “Salutations.”

[Actually, in many ways, my mother reminds me of Charlotte: inventive and resourceful, especially when protecting the people she loves; ready to sacrifice for her children; and possessed of a remarkable facility with language.]

E.B. White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web, and Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan, is also the White in Strunk & White, whose Elements of Style is a perennial classic, the pronouncements of which I fear my writing never lives up to.

It should come as no surprise, then, that White is gifted writer in many genres. “Once More to the Lake” is a particular favorite of mine, an essay that neatly encapsulates the tension between childhood and adulthood, memory and the present. His letters are kind and witty (read a wonderful example at Letters of Note), and I’d like to find a volume of them the next time I’m haunting a used bookstore.

A used bookstore is where I found a paperback edition (1983, I believe) of Poems and Sketches of E.B. White. Someone wrote a lovely inscription on the title page that refers to White’s death in 1985:

To dear B–,

In memory of the era that ended during our ’85 visit. How sad- but he will live in our memories & his words will continue to entertain and bind us!

With much love,  K, [unclear name here] & S*

It’s a delightful book; open to any page and there’s something to amuse or interest. This week I’l be memorizing the poem “Natural History,” addressed to White’s wife, Katharine. It’s a short, delicate poem in which the speaker compares himself to a spider, attached to the point of his leaving (his wife) by a silken strand, to aid in his returning. If I were to teach the poem, it would make a lovely pairing with Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”

*I’ve redacted the names of the recipient and the gift-givers to protect their privacy, whomever they may be.

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.