Books I’ve Disliked Recently

Hello blog, here’s two reviews of two books I didn’t like recently.

Boomer1 by Daniel Torday (DNF)
I got about 30% into this book and decided to give up. The first few chapters describe the doomed relationship of two hipster millennial bandmates in New York City, so I probably should have stopped reading right then because those are exactly the characters I don’t want to read about. The story then takes a turn when the couple breaks up and the dude decides to become a domestic terrorist because the Baby Boomers kept him from getting a job? And then, for some reason, we get a whole section of the book from the point-of-view of the dude’s mother, who was also in a band? And it lost me there.

And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell (2/5 Stars)
My feelings on this memoir are more complicated, because I not only finished it but raced through it. I enjoyed reading it! It felt like reading a long form blog post, which is why I read it so fast and also why I can’t give this book a good review. This is a memoir about a late twenty-something woman who becomes pregnant shortly after becoming engaged. She lives in New York City and wants to be a writer. She decides to keep the baby, and the rest of the book is about her experience with pregnancy and her traumatically painful labor, and then her first year as a mother, where she experiences postpartum depression and tries to get back into writing.

I felt for her experience, and I even learned a few things. (Get the epidural, for instance.) However, I rolled my eyes so often during this book I felt bad about it. I don’t judge O’Connell’s experience, but it was hard to sympathize with her after a while. The last quarter of the book is mostly her saying, “Why does no one ever tell women that child birth is so painful? Why did no one tell us it was going to be so difficult?”

I’m all for breaking the stigma of how motherhood is difficult – but come on. These questions – why did no one tell me it was going to be so hard? – become the thesis of the book, and by the end I realized there was little substance to this memoir besides that. I suspect this was a memoir written simply to write a memoir, without the benefit of distance, and the fact that O’Connell writes about how difficult her experience is without recognizing that it’s a pretty universal experience that a lot of woman have written about makes it seem like a memoir totally lacking in self awareness, which is the absolute worst quality a memoir can have. I can’t stand memoirs written in haste the very second after someone Has An Experience, and this one is that.

 

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Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

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The thing about thrillers is that they’re not about characters, or even plot, but how it all comes together in the reading experience. A thriller needs to shock and surprise in order to be successful. It needs to be unputdownable. The more thrillers I read, the harder this is to achieve – like some sort of literary high, my tolerance for twists has risen. I read The Girl on the Train. It was okay. I read The Woman in the Window. It was okay. Still, I wait to be thrilled.

Baby Teeth doesn’t try to be one of those books but because it’s a dark thriller, I anticipate it will be compared to them. It’s different, though – I appreciate the uniqueness of its story and the characters, its lack of a mysterious dead woman driving the plot. Most of all, I admit that once I got into the meat of the story, I had trouble putting it down.

The plot: a beautiful couple has a child, Hanna, who is non-verbal and keeps getting kicked out of schools. Suzette, a stay at home mother, has seen her child’s dark side, but the father, Alex, only sees her as a sweet eight year old girl. The story alternates between Suzette’s and Hanna’s perspectives. As the story builds, Hanna takes on the persona of a witch, and starts to plan her mother’s demise. The character’s darkness rises and it drew me in, unable to look away as the story got more and more twisted.

Then, it falls flat. I’m going to talk about the ending of the book, so stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers.

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation is the tale of a wealthy depressive in her early 20s, set in New York City in the year 2000. I’m going to risk a guess and say that to most people, the main character of this novel is not the sort of person that’s appealing to read about. Especially since the book is written in the first person. It basically means you will be living in the character’s thoughts for however many pages it is. And it gets dark in there.

I’m a huge fan of deeply flawed female characters, but even I had trouble stomaching Moshfegh’s narrator in this novel. Both of her terrible parents died a few years ago, she just graduated from Columbia University, she’s supposedly effortlessly beautiful and she knows it. But after being fired from her part time job at an art gallery, she decides to spend the next year taking a variety of sleeping pills from her hilariously incompetent doctor so that she can spend as much time asleep as humanly possible.

If books came with scratch and sniff, this one would smell stale, like dirty laundry left out too long. In a good way, if only because it’s purposeful. Living inside this character’s head was truly upsetting. My Year of Rest and Relaxation perfectly encapsulates clinical depression and addiction. It’s darkly funny at some points and deeply sad at other points, but the entire time I was reading it I thought there was no way the plot could go anywhere; the sorrow just went too far down, as if the depression was the entire character, the entire plot. Ultimately, the ending did fall slightly flat to me, reaching as it did for a high note in a novel about the search for nothingness. Still, because I admire women writers who write about women that prickle the reader’s skin, I admire this novel and Moshfegh’s writing.

Thanks to Penguin and Netgalley for providing me with a review copy of this book.

Sweet and Low: Stories by Nick White

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I haven’t read a short story collection in a minute, so Sweet and Low by Nick White was a treat: I read it mostly in the ten or fifteen minutes before bed, or in the minutes I spent waiting for something or someone. Sometimes short story writers lose me in this way – I like the first story, but then the second story is harder to get into, and so on. With Sweet and Low I was always able to jump back in and get re-absorbed by White’s writing.

Sweet and Low is full of personal, closely narrated stories about people in the south. Many of the stories deal with sexuality and shame, making it all feel so very American and familiar. The first story is about a woman who, after her husband’s death, discovers he was having an affair with a younger man – a sort of cliche story line that feels real through White’s writing. The second half of the collection is a series of disjointed stories about a single character, from his childhood through adulthood, and dealing with sexuality, family, and loss beautifully.

My main criticism is that from time to time the stories switch from being fully realized and palpably real to having something of a literary magazine flavor which is hard to describe. I love literary magazines, but they have a tendency to celebrate writing rather than stories – some parts of Sweet and Low feel like writing, and some parts feel, brilliantly, like stories. Enough so that I recommend it, especially for those stolen minutes of reading wherever you can find them.

Thanks to NetGalley and Dutton for providing me with a review copy.

Writing In the Margins #3: Ideas

I’ve had this problem with my writing over the last couple years – I had no ideas. I thought and thought and still no ideas. Sometimes I would come up with small ideas, nothing big enough to sustain whole stories, but ideas, still – usually of half-imagined characters. I can come up with characters no problem, and snippets of dialogue, and maybe half of a chewed up plot line, but actual story – this has been impossible to come by.

Which is I guess why I haven’t finished a short story in around two years, though I’ve started plenty. I kept chalking it up to laziness. Why couldn’t I take half an idea or a character name and turn it into a freaking novel? A lack of discipline, of course.

I am currently working on two short stories. One of which is a half-formed idea that I think if I punch enough will finally start to look like a story. Another one, the more recent one, came from an idea that feels larger. I was sitting in Starbucks, forcing myself to write, and it came to me.

Is it a good idea? I don’t know. But there’s characters there, and a plot, and even a sub-plot, and CONFLICT! How did it happen? Well, I squinted at my computer screen in boredom for long enough that my brain was just like, “Okay, enough, here you go – do something.”

For the first time in a while I think about my story when I’m not writing. That’s how it used to be – like my mind couldn’t rest until the story was finished and all written down. But this is still a small idea, and an idea is not a story by itself. So what happens when you finally have an idea? If you don’t keep working on the story, there’s a chance it’ll leave you, and you’ll forget why you were excited to write it in the first place.

I am living in fear that this will happen. Right now I am busy – I am learning how to admit that without feeling lazy. While I write this it’s finals week, but I still wrote a little bit today. I am getting better all the time at this writing-with-a-day-job thing. It only took me a few years to have an idea. Hopefully, in another decade, I’ll have finally written something good.

The point of this post is mainly just to check in, and because I felt like I have to update this blog every once in a while or else it goes to the blog graveyard to die. But also I wanted to say that I’ve finally taken the writing advice that I’ve heard so many times, and it worked. You can’t wait to feel inspired, you just have to sit your butt in the chair and get to work. I was always all for the sitting part, but once it got to the work part, the blank word processing document with its cursor going blink blink blink always filled me with a bone-deep exhaustion. It didn’t make me feel especially creative. On the day in Starbucks when I got the idea for the story I am currently working on, I had a backpack full of grad school work I should have been doing instead. But I wanted to try and write something. I put a timer on for 25 minutes, and opened up a notebook, and after a few minutes of that familiar, no-fun feeling of having nothing to write, I eventually did. For every writing session that goes like that, I’ve had a bunch of others that have gone the other way, where I clam up and then go take a nap instead. I’ve heard it gets easier the more often you do it.

Check in: March 2018

I thought I’d check in with what I’ve been reading in 2018 so far.

I’ve finished 5 books so far this year. (Goodreads helpfully reminds me that I’m 5 books behind with my reading goal, as well.) I’m not reading as much as I used to, but I have been reading before bed and listening to audio books in my car so it’s not too tragic.

Here are the books I’ve read, am reading, & my thoughts.

A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio
This book, a memoir by a black woman who is also into ultra running (a sport dominated by lanky white men) is partially to blame for the fact that I recently signed up for my first marathon. I’ve followed Mirna on instagram for a while and I think she’s delightful. I really appreciate the message that she sends – you don’t have to look a certain way to run, and most importantly, running is fun, even when it hurts. I enjoyed reading this book.

Strange Fruit, Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill
During Black History Month in the U.S., we usually hear about the same stories over and over, which suggests (along with the fact that we dedicate the shortest month to it) that black history doesn’t have the same depth as the history that is predominately taught in schools (white). This is not true, and Gill’s graphic novel depicting lesser known stories of black history makes it known that black history is vast, varied, and surprising.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
Ever a writer’s writer, Jeffrey Eugenides really drove me wild with jealousy with this one. I absolutely loved it. The man can write a story.

American Primitive by Mary Oliver
A book of poems. Not much to say about this one – everyone (as far as I’m concerned) loves Mary Oliver.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
I had a weird experience with this one. When I started it in January, Sherman Alexie was a literary wonder, loved and admired. By the time I finished, he was another #Metoo statistic. A lot of people are saying they won’t read his books anymore, but frankly I don’t subscribe to the belief that a person’s crimes or misdoings are always worth tossing out their art with the bath water. I think it’s good to look at who has power in the literary community (and all professional areas) and consider sticking more women in there. But overall the scandal didn’t really cause me to see the book differently because I was already kind of put off by it.

I like memoirs, but this was very stream-of-consciousness, which didn’t really work for me. On the surface, this is a memoir about the death of Alexie’s mother, who is depicted as a bad mother, which wasn’t well enough detailed, especially in light of the over-romanticization of his absent alcoholic father. She seemed like an interesting woman but I never got a good picture of her. Overall, each story is more about Alexie himself than anyone else. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it was heartbreaking, and sometimes it was just plain tedious. The best parts of the book were Alexie’s anecdotes about growing up as a Native American reservation teenager attending a nearby white high school. So I guess I should finally pick up The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has been on my to-read list for years.

And that’s it for books completed. Currently, I’m trying to read more literary magazines to get me in the mood to write short stories. Right now I’m working through back issues of Tin House. I am also writing some truly awful short stories, and getting ready to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo in April. Happy spring, y’all.

Writing in the Margins #2: Choices

Last July I wrote a post called In the Margins, which was intended to be a series on being a writer with a day job. So where am I at now, a few months later?

I’m okay. I haven’t written anything I’ve liked in a long time. I lost NaNoWriMo, but this past week I’ve started re-writing the story I started with it. My goal is to write a series of short stories this year, hopefully some I like enough to submit for publication, but since I haven’t written anything I think is good enough in so long, I sort of feel pessimistic about it.

I took part in a Coursera class offered by the creative writing faculty of Wesleyan University focused on writing for NaNoWriMo, and I enjoyed it. The best things I wrote last year were a few hundred word prompt exercises I wrote for those classes. I guess the lesson there is that I should be doing more writing for writing’s sake, i.e. practice writing, rather than stressing out about not particularly having any stories I like. Eventually, a prompt could turn into something more.

And how is the work-life-writing balancing act going? Better. I spend less time stressing out about time than I did. This time last year, I was so drained and overextended and stressed out. My commute is shorter now and work doesn’t sap my energy as much and I’ve learned how to rest better. Do I sit down and write for an hour every morning? Well, no. Am I happier person? Yes.

In mid December of 2017 I decided I wanted to do a 100 day streak of meditation. I’m on day 26 now and I’m enjoying it a lot. Throughout the past year or so I’ve been hoping to get back into meditation, but I couldn’t make it a daily habit; I just couldn’t force myself to sit down and do it. But when I told myself I was going to do 100 days straight, no excuses, I knew I could do it. No day is too busy that I can’t take 10 minutes to sit down and make sure I didn’t break my streak. The lesson in that – and, luckily, the meditation itself is making me realize this as well – is that the difference between doing something and not doing something is the choice to do it, and we’re the ones who are in control of our choices. I need to choose to spend more time on my writing if I’m ever going to be any good.

Let’s make this a monthly check in post. I’ll be back next month to let you know if I’ve written anything good.