My Favorite Love Story is Not a Love Story

At least not in the traditional sense. Otravida, Otravez by Junot Diaz is my favorite love story because it’s the story of love when it’s hard, of love when it’s difficult, or when it seems impossible.

The narrator is a woman in love with Ramón, a man with a wife and son he does not speak to.

Our first months Ramón and I were in the park daily. Just to wind down after work, he said, but I painted my fingernails red every time. I remember the day before we first made love, how I already knew it would happen. He had only just told me about his wife and about his son.

The narrator (and in turn, us, the readers) are haunted by the letters sent to Ramón from his wife.

In a box on the top shelf of the closet he has a stack of Virta’s letters, cinched in a fat brown rubber band. Nearly eight years’ worth. Each envelope s worn and frail and I think he’s forgotten they’re here. I found them a month after he stored his things, right at the start of our relationship, couldn’t resist, and afterward I wished I had.

He claims that he stopped writing to her the year before, but that’s not true. Every month I drop by his apartment with his laundry and read the new letters she has sent, the ones he stashes under his bed. I know Virta’s name, her address, I know she works at a chocolate factory; I know that he hasn’t told her about me.

The letters have grown beautiful over the years and now the handwriting has changed as well – each letter loops down, dropping into the next line like a rudder. Please, please mi querido husband, tell me what it is. How long did it take before your wife stopped mattering?

The narrator writes,

Here there are calamities without end—but sometimes I can clearly see us in the future, and it is good.

Her love for this man is something fraught; described to her best friend like this,

Ana Iris once asked me if I loved him and I told her about the lights in my old house in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn’t do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.

But still, the love feels real, or at least, the need to stay is.

I am pregnant when the next letter finally arrives. Sent from Ramón’s old place to our new home. I pull it from the stack of mail and stare at it. My heart is beating like it’s lonely, like there’s nothing else inside of me. I want to open it but I call Ana Iris instead; we haven’t spoken in a long time. I stare out of the bird-filled hedges while the phone rings.

I want to go for a walk, I tell her.

The piece ends just as softly as it begins.

She’s writing again, I say, but Ana Iris interrupts me.

I’ve been calling my children, she says. She points out the man across from the courthouse, who sells her stolen calling-card numbers. They’ve gotten so much older, she tells me, that it’s hard for me to recognize their voices.

We sit down after a while so that I can hold her hand and she can cry. I should say something but I don’t know where a person can start.

It gets cold. We go home. We embrace at the door for what feels like an hour.

That night I give Ramón the letter and I try to smile while he reads it.

Read in 2016: Top Five

Here we go, ya’ll. Twenty sixteen is over, and while it was raucous to say the least, we’ve made it through. Yes, it can be hard to look beyond the dire fear that 2016 has effectively ushered in the end of the world, but, we did get Lemonade out of it. That has to count for something.

In any case, despite the insane political shit show we’ve all been forced to endure, I hope you’ve all managed to get some decent reading time in. But who am I kidding, we hit 129 degrees this year. What else were you going to do?

As I like to do every year, I’ve taken a look back at the books I read over the last twelve months (never as many as I would’ve liked) and meditate on which ones I liked, which ones I loved, and which ones I will never, ever pick up again. This post won’t go through all of that, but I will share with you my top five books that I read this year. If you recall, I decided earlier this year that I wouldn’t be reading white male authors if I didn’t have to (and I had to, twice, for book club, neither of which made the top five cut, and one that I’m particularly annoyed was even published). That trend will stay mostly in effect next year, but less because I’m over the white male perspective (though, still true) and more because so many other writers, particularly women, are kicking ass. This year, as many years before, continued to prove that fact. 

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#5 The Bricks That Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

I discovered Kate Tempest for the first time this year, and I’m so very glad that I did. As her bio tells you, this girl is a wriiiiiter. She’s a poet, playwright, rapper, recording artist, and novelist, and this debut did not disappoint. Set in gritty southeast London, the story follows a group of young city dwellers connected through love, drugs, friendships, and their own desperation. Tempest sets up a not-your-typical love triangle that is at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and yet completely satisfying. Unlike similar premises before it (think Tao Lin’s Taipei, Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero) Tempest does not bore us with long scenes of aimless, drug-addled youth. Instead, she weaves beauty and empathy into every character’s interaction, and when she shows us somewhat aimless, drug-addled youth, it is not to show off, but to demonstrate humanity. And while the novel’s form could do well with a break from its formulaic structure, lines like, “she is riddled with the haunted, shy defiance of a woman born with all the bits adding up to the wrong amount” are enough to have us look past that. You’ll read for the story but stay for the writing.

#4 M Train – Patti Smith

I was first introduced to Patti Smith’s indelible writing not through 1975’s poetry and rock-infused Horses, but through her 2010 memoir Just Kids, that chronicled her time as a young 20-something in New York with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. If you read and loved Just Kids, her next book M Train was not part two (which is okay, we don’t need to add to perfection). M Train was the perfect meditative read that I needed for the syrupy days of summer, the right book for a rainy day (or any day). Part essay, part poetry, part memoir, part cultural critique, M Train infuses New York post-Hurricane Sandy, TV crime shows, Japanese literature, Frida Kahlo, an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin, Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, black coffee, brown bread, olive oil, death, love, and loss. Lovely, moving, honest, we can only hope Patti Smith never, ever stops. 

#3 A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James

The only male writer to make the list, and very near the best book I read this year, goes to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. (“Brief” is ironic, the book boasts close to 700 pages). When I finished this book, I was on a writing retreat in the middle of nowhere Maryland, staring out over a lake. I was stuck, for several minutes, wondering how on earth I could return to my own novel when things like this existed in the literary world. The novel is no short of explosive, switching from a plethora of characters–young gang members, older Dons, drug dealers, The Singer (Bob Marley), a woman who loved him, CIA agents, even ghosts–over the course of thirty years. Officially, there are 77 characters, not all who get a voice, but all who exist in some way throughout the book. The setting is mostly the streets of West Kingston, eventually moving to Miami and New York. Not for the weak of heart, the writing and language is intense, violent, at times assaulting (I couldn’t read this one in long stretches), but absolutely mesmerizing. My only critique: the book could do with more women. The few female perspectives are a refreshing reprieve from the intensity of the male perspective. And James’s writing comes alive the most through the female characters. For example, we first meet the character Nina Burgess she’s waiting outside the house of The Singer, the man she loves, lingering, waiting for him to appear. James perfectly captures her heartache with the final line of her section: “The white man takes the first bus that comes. I don’t and I’m telling myself that it’s because I don’t want to be on the same bus with him. But I know I’ll miss the next one. And the one after that too.”

#2 Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

I first discovered Claudia Rankine with 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and realized then what poetry could do. Fusing politics, poetry, prose, and images, Claudia Rankine powerfully sums up the times (at that time, the George Bush Administration) with lines that punch. Citizen does exactly that for our current times. In the era of Trayvon, the cover is a solitary black hood cut from a sweatshirt, demonstrating the hypocrisy of the politicization of a simple garment. Moving from personal to the political (the pages on Serena Williams are incredible), Citizen chronicles the frustration of our times with lines like, “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” In relating Serena and Venus to Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Rankine writes, “This appropriated line […] seemed to be ad copy for aspect of life for all black bodies.” And, when Rankine tells the story of a [white] woman she works with mistaking her for another [black] woman she works with, she jokes, “who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.” And yet, following an apology by the woman who refers to “our mistake,” Rankine writes, “Apparently your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion. This is how the apparatus she propels you into begins to multiply its meaning.”

Rankine cuts. Her words put a microscope on the subtle and large injustices that our country continues to allow. In its biting brilliance, Citizen is the smack-in-the-face cultural critique we all need.

#1 Gold Fame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins

Of all the great books I read this year, there was only one that made me want to stop everything and write. Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus stopped me in my tracks. Who writes like this? Who uses adjectives like this? In a world where California has gone completely dry and the rest of the country is fighting for scarce resources, Luz and Ray are trying to survive in a barren state. When Watkins described insatiable thirst, I felt it in my throat. When she described the omnipresent sand, I felt it pass my skin.The caustic heat on my body. Line by line, her language is intoxicating: “for she wanted to give him all things there, in their tiny kaleidoscope universe fixed in the center of the great big benevolent cartwheeling galaxy around them. There was nothing she wouldn’t let go–the freedom of that[…]” The story, for some, is strange. Watkins breaks the rules on what a novel should be by infusing short story into a straight forward third-person narrative, which do not always make sense at the time of reading (I think, however, it all works on reflection). But her willingness to push boundaries, to write like a bullet train dipped in modern art, makes this the best novel I read this year.

Other close runners-up: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and Leah Hagar Cohen’s The Grief of Others.

So, 2016 wasn’t all so bad. Great art has always been there to help us through the toughest times. As we move into uncharted territory, writers will be there to document, empathize, and take us to new worlds when we most need it. Here’s to 2017 and another year of great literature.

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”

So begins Celeste Ng’s riveting novel, Everything I Never Told You, which, as you can see, has all of the elements of a mystery we’re familiar with. A small town, a family, a missing daughter. But from this trope, we are given new things to grapple with: first, we know immediately that the daughter is dead. Second, this daughter is not the same blonde haired blue eyed young darling we’re used to feeling feelings for. This is an Asian American girl in a mixed Chinese-White family, and so there are new things to grapple with. 

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Let me say this, to those who don’t already know my reading preferences: this novel sounds like something I might pick up, read a page or two, think that’s some lovely writing, and put back on the shelf, never to actually read. And that is because of one thing: plot. I disdain overly plotted novels, the ones that feel contrived and convenient, overburdened with the author’s hand. Give me novels about people being people over mystery thrillers any day. But, and I say this honestly and from a point of cynicism, this one is different. How, do you ask?

For one, the writing really is lovely, and that alone was enough to make me stay. It’s soft, poetic, but not flashy or filled with tricks. It invites you in, asks you to hang out for a bit. It’s not the exclusivity of Ben Lerner, not the language play of Lauren Groff, and not the simplicity of J.K. Rowling. It’s in a sweet spot in between all of those that really, really works.

Second, Ng places her characters in 1977 Midwest. (I lived in Pittsburgh. Ohio counts as the Midwest.) It’s only a few years after the final state battled imgres-3for the right to inter-marry. Racial tensions are high. (In fact, I thought a more accurate depiction would have been to increase the racial tension in the town, but perhaps Ng didn’t want to change the focus of the novel too much.) James, the patriarch of the family, teaches American Cowboys at the local college and knows what the students think every semester when he enters the room to teach. He sees how people look at him and his family. But, he has swallowed so much racism throughout his life that during one particular scene of his son Nath swimming at the local pool, the reader endures an excruciating exchange amongst the white kids and Nath that leads James, with all his buried internalized racial inferiority to pronounce to his inquiring wife Marilyn: “Some kids teased him at the pool today. He needs to learn to take a joke.” This internalized stuff creates much more tension later on, when we see Marilyn and James breaking down to their constituent parts, screaming at each other while the distance between what they mean and what is perceived is vast. The one disappointment here is that Marilyn never grapples with her whiteness, let alone with the race of her children and husband. It did kind of feel like a missed opportunity.

Ng does an amazing job of creating tension throughout the story, as we flash back in time and forward again, learning what really happened to Lydia

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only at the very end, a truth that the rest of the family never gets the relief of learning for themselves. Each character is deft at secrecy, withholding so much more than they reveal. Amongst the three children, the two oldest, Nath and Lydia have the closest connection, but even this becomes stifled when Lydia starts hiding the acceptance letters to prestigious universities coming in for Nath, for fear of him leaving. Nath frequently finds himself bogged down under the weight of their parents’ admiration for Lydia, which Lydia herself finds suffocating, but Nath, unlike Lydia, imagines a clear escape for himself: college, away from Ohio.

Hannah, the youngest, is our fly on the wall, our quiet, observing presence, who occasionally doubles as the narrator. She watches her family, observes their interactions, seems to know everyone better than they know themselves. I thought Ng’s use of her was pivotal. Though we rarely hear from her, the book would certainly being lacking without her presence.

Of course, there are things that are glossed over and a tad unbelievable. Marilyn and James’s first meeting is one, wherein Marilyn the student lunges at him during his office hours on the first day of class. This was nothing short of jarring, and to my professor friends, laughably false, even for the ’70s. Some of the quiet moments observed by Hannah feel too profound for a young girl. I wasn’t sold on the revelation about the “bad boy” who is pegged by Nath to have some knowledge of what happened to Lydia. But these moments are small, and infrequent, and we can learn to live with them due to the ferocity of the rest of the novel. 

This is not a happy novel, but Ng is deliberate in planting glimmers of hope, however small, that help us to not feel overwhelmed by the end. All in all, this is a well-crafted novel by a skilled novelist. Add this one to your summer reading list now!

#FavoriteFemalesFriday: Celeste Ng

I’m dedicating this #FavoriteFemalesFriday post to one gal: Celeste Ng. Not only did she write the amazing Everything I Never Told You, the New York Times bestseller, New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, but she’s also super bad ass, discussing race boldly (the family in her book is mixed Asian-White in the 1970s Midwest, a time when biracial marriage had recently been illegal in some states. *Cough* Looking at you, Virginia) while invoking the feeling of isolation associated with being a person of color in a sea of white. (Which is also something that could be said of the U.S. publishing industry.)

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Ng had this to say about how Asian American fits into the conversation on race in America on NPR’s Code Switch: 

I think in the United States we talk about race as a black and white issue. … We’re generally talking about it as if it’s a binary equation whereas, in fact, there’s more than two races and in fact those races blend together. There are a lot of different ways that people identify. I think as we have more interracial marriage and we become more aware of all these issues, we may start to talk about race in a more complicated way.

But race is a factor in Everything I Never Told You, not the full story. The novel is much more complicated than that. Throughout 300 pages of tightly woven family history, secrets, and unexpected twists, we learn the story of the Lee family, and the 15-year-old daughter who drowned in the lake near their house. The novel is air-tight; Ng knows exactly what she’s doing. Furthermore, we have a present tense omniscient narrator. Yes, present tense. And this is how good Ng is: I had to check to make sure I was right. I almost always tire of the present tense within a short story, let alone a novel. But Ng is so damn skilled that it is seamless. 

This is how the book opens:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”

What? So bad ass.

Back to the issue of race, since it is a component of the novel. In an interview on Hippo Reads, when asked to dive into the choices for the characters’ racial identity and how true to life the racism is, Ng responded:

An early Goodreads commenter remarked that the racism in the book was unbelievable—she felt it might have been realistic “in the 1920s, maybe, but not in the 1970s.” And at one of the first readings I did, someone asked, “How did you research the racism?” The sad truth is that I didn’t need to do a lot of research on that front: with one exception, every racially-tinged encounter in the novel—from the more outright discrimination to the many microaggressions, intentional or not—is something that’s happened to me, to family, or to someone I know personally.

 

Here’s some research I did do: in 2001, the Anti-Defamation League, along with several other groups, conducted a landmark study on attitudes towards Asian Americans in the U.S. It found that 68% of Americans had a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” view of Chinese Americans; that more Americans were uncomfortable supporting an Asian American for president than a black, Jewish, or woman candidate; and that 24% disapproved of intermarriage with an Asian American. A 2009 followup found numbers had improved, but only somewhat. I’ll note, also, that so far, the only people who’ve expressed surprise at any of the racial attitudes in the book have not been people of color. For the most part, readers who have been minorities—Asian or otherwise—have pretty much reacted, “Yup.”

And finally, I’ll end with this, my favorite quote that definitely resonated with me as a writer: 

I think many writers are drawn to write about their fears as a way of domesticating—or at least managing—them.

Yes. Feel that one. Deeply.

Thanks, Celeste Ng, for being a truly gifted, bold writer. The world needs more of you.

Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

The stories we tell create our truth. And in North Korea, the stories told by their Dear Leader are the only stories that matter, at least, according to Adam Johnson. One day, someone can be one person, and then suddenly, their story is changed, and the next day they are someone else entirely. As one character puts it,

“Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

This, of course, makes for great fiction. Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son takes its reader on a journey through modern day North Korea—a place that is, in Johnson’s mind, dictated by fear and depravity, brutal violence and brainwashing. If the North Korea of today is true to the North Korea depicted in the book, then it is far worse than I had imagined from my comfortable spot here in the U.S. Of note, Mr. Johnson’s research for this novel involved firsthand testimony from defectors, and visiting North Korea himself. He is not a Korean novelist.*

imgres-1Set in the recent past, (Kim Jong-il is the ruler) the story ostensibly follows Pak Jun Do, (John Doe[?]) a man who grew up in the orphanage his father operated. When we meet Jun Do as an adult, he has become a professional kidnapper for the state, which involves some early gruesome images and unspeakable violence. His only levity comes while at sea on a fishing boat; late at night he takes to listening to a haunting voice emanating over the radio waves: two American women rowing around the world, one of them singing while she rows through the night. We learn quickly just how backwards his world is. There is a constant fear of Americans prepared to “sneak attack” the country. Images of the wives of men are tattooed on their chest. There is no “I,” there is only “we” and there is a defined fear that comes from believing otherwise. North Korea is perfect, a land of plenty, as long as that story continues to be told. When one character chooses to defect by leaving the fishing boat in a life raft stacked with cans of food, everyone else on the ship must make up a horrific story, lest they all be sent to prison camp for allowing a member of their team to leave. All of these examples give you just a small sense of the world these characters live in.

There is an almost obligatory sense of detachment throughout the entire novel. This is because Johnson (rightly so) does not romanticize the story by adding many deep relationships, friendships, or love scenes (with the exception of one, which feels necessary after 300+ pages where we suffer through beatings and starvation and countless other terrible things). We never really have a character we’re rooting for, and there is only some breathing room offered towards the end, when we have very small moments of light shining through the cast of immense weightiness. There are stomach-churning scenes of torture. We become nauseated by the lies being perpetuated over the loudspeaker set up in every North Korean home, the stories that become truths and shape every citizen’s life. Johnson includes very little sensory description, making the writing straightforward to (at times) a detriment. All I could picture was gray, gray, gray. Does the sun even shine there? Not in Johnson’s mind.

imgres-2From the fishing boat back to North Korea, where the story of how the friend was lost (now in a brutal attack that involved both the U.S. Navy and a shark) becomes a lived truth for Jun Do, to a brief encounter in America, in the grand state of Texas (which is the most ridiculous part of the novel and still confuses me why a State Senator and a few other “officials” would be meeting with North Korean “officials” by themselves), back to North Korea and an out-of-your-nightmares hospital where the dying are drained of their blood (so it can be sold, of course), to a break in the narrative and time passing at a prison camp so brutal that the punishment for attempting to escape is to be buried up to your waist while every single prisoner whips rocks at you. After all of this, we enter the second half of the book, where Jun Do emerges with an entirely new identity. How is this possible? Because the Dear Leader says it is so.

More sickening brutality ensues; the interrogator we come to know in the second half explains a prison camp that uses lobotomies performed with a 20-centimeter nail in order to maintain prisoner complacency, there is a pain machine that promises the most painful death of all: “We ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels, a shifting, muscular river of pain. Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity—the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing.”Gah.

The second half of the book is the bulk of the major narrative, and we finally meet Sun Moon, the nation’s actress, plucked into stardom by Kim Jong-il himself. We have a direct encounter with the Dear Leader. There are strange references to the film Casablanca. There is a somewhat chaotic end, and eventually, we come to understand the fates of all the characters we’ve learned to (somewhat) care for. It all goes on a bit too long.

There are moments when a characters’ humanity peaks through the heavy cover of imagespolitical compliance. There are sparks of individualism: the love Jun Do begins to feel for the widow of the defected second mate, the pleading of Sun Moon to Commander Ga to come with her and her children to America, the comfort of hearing a female rower sing in the night, as her voice plays softly over the airwaves, the interrogator whose one goal is to document the histories of those he must kill, so that their stories are not forgotten. It’s these moments Johnson attempts to remind us that even through the mask of an upside-down world, we’re all human.

The book is good, in the sense that it’s structurally sound, tells an interesting narrative, and is fascinating in its ability to imagine a world most of us know very little about. If you can get through the brutal, gut-sickening violence, it’s worth a read. What Johnson does not skimp on are the too-insane-to-be-true details. And he’s an undramatic writer (at least on a line-by-line basis). If you’re looking for a novel with great language, poetic sentences, and beautiful sensory details, this is not the one for you. But if you’re ready to be taken to a totally new world that is (scarily) not the stuff of science fiction, if you’re ready to be confronted with the reality of an entire nation that the rest of the world is still powerless to do anything about, read this book. Though maybe at times a bit gratuitous–but who knows?– The Oprhan Master’s Son is worth the read. 

 

 

*If you’re keeping tabs, note that yes, I broke my own rule by reading a white, male author. I justify this in that a) it’s a book club pick and this is a democracy and b) the characters I’m met with are not all white people, so that helps.

Hidden Feminism in Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior

Mary Gaitskill’s 1998 short story collection Bad Behavior was so profound when it hit shelves, even Michiko Kuktani had something nice to say about it:

“She takes us on a meticulously observed documentary tour of [her characters’] inner and outer lives, giving us fierce portraits of individuals rather than a gallery of eccentric types.”

(This, despite after many of the short stories in the book had been rejected by the major literary publications.)

imgresGaitskill spares no expense, with each story feeling more shocking than the one before. To be sure, these are not horror stories, but they can certaintly be difficult to read and make one feel quite squeamish. (The second story, A Romantic Weekend had two characters so awful in their own ways—the woman seeking love and falls into the role of victimization while the man repeatedly dehumanizes her—that I admit it was difficult for me to get through, and if you’re sensitive to trigger warnings, this might be one to avoid.) But the situations and people that repulse us are precisely the ones Gaitskill is determined to humanize. By the end of each section, we do not necessarily empathize with a character who is sleeping with a prostitute but loves his wife, but we do hate him a little less.

I’ve waited a few weeks to write this review, mostly because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the collection. With the exception of the final essay, Heaven, which is gorgeous and elegant yet painful all the same, each story had its own way of making me feel incredibly IMG_2799uncomfortable by its end. There are several themes and situations that are repeated but felt less of a way to carry the stories forward and more like circling back on the same characters and ideas again and again. There are a lot of submissive (straight, white) women and a lot of domineering (straight, white) men. Take the opening essay, Daisy’s Valentine. In it, a man (who also happens to be a functioning drug addict) decides he likes a woman in his office despite still living with his girlfriend, who we learn he repeatedly cheats on. The man’s character is awful, believing he can do and feel as he pleases, and he remains frustratingly unchanged in the end. In A Romantic Weekend, following a weekend away where the man repeatedly abuses and ridicules the woman, we’re left with an image of them cuddling in their car as they drive back to their lives in the city. Something Nice follows a married man who regularly sees the same prostitute. This story holds the sneakily feminist and perfect exchange:

“You shouldn’t come to prostitutes looking for honesty.”

“You’re not a prostitute. Don’t say that about yourself.”

“What do you think I am?”

“You just happen to be a pretty, sexy girl who, uh—”

“I have sex for money.”

“Well, all right.” He slapped her thigh nervously. “You’re right. You’re a prostitute.” It sounded so horrible. “But you’re still a wonderful girl.” He grabbed and snuggled her.

It’s a keen contradictory moment, when the man sees the woman for her humanity versus how he is expected to view her given her powerless position. To be fair, this story ends on a feminist note. By the end, the man sees the woman prostitute out in the day, and she politely ignores him, formalizing a power shift. An Affair, Edited is a brief piece vignette of a man who recalls a horrible affair with a woman after spotting her on the street, then engages in a relationship with a woman he also seems to hate:

“Why was he always attracted to these small, dramatic women?” moans the man.

Connection is where we see the first use of a repetitious female relationship, where the friends “broke up,” leaving one woman to wonder regularly about the other, while the other is viewed as hysterical and crazy, but, to be sure, more successful. In Trying to Be, we return to a prostitute (but now we are from her point of view as a regular woman just trying to make it in New York) and a man who visits her regularly. Secretary was a story of abuse and power and absolutely the most difficult to get through. It is a story of an older man and his sexual mortification and abuse of his young female employee. As we watch this abuse develop from nothing to something, we are reminded just how power inserts itself so easily between two human beings, based solely on status, age, gender, race, and economics. Following the first instance of abuse, there is delicately wrought pain in the lines:

“When I went home that night, everything was the same. My life had not been disarranged by the event except for a slight increase in the distance between me and my family. My behind was not even red when I looked at it in the bathroom mirror.”

Other Factors is our first introduction to a character who isn’t heterosexual, but again, the trope of the more successful friend comes in. The final essay, Heaven, pulls mercifully away from the themes of male and class privilege to spend some time with a family who has lost a child. It is tender and gorgeous and a welcome reprieve by the end of the collection.

On one hand, it was difficult, as a woman, to read story after story of images(white) men with power exercise their privilege over and over again at the expense of powerless women. On the other hand, are these stories written from the framework of a feminist exhausted by men who tramp all over women? Should it not be the case that women should feel brutally honest? Because, despite how painful they can be, the stories Gaitskill is creating are not made of characters and situations that feel false. Quite the contrary, everything feels true to the point of making us want to bury our heads in the sand (or, tear shit up.)

Gaitskill’s writing is sharp. What makes her stories so against the grain for any writer’s workshop (re: Short Story Writing 101) is that her characters, on the whole, remain unchanged by the end of the story. This is a whole new way of examining people and situations. Is it the case that we don’t always change when something happens to us? Is it more honest to say we are rarely confronted with our own privilege enough to make us empathize or stop what we’re doing? Is it true that things might just continue to stay as they are? For this, Gaitskill knows exactly what she’s doing.

Carving Out Your Creative Space

Virginia Woolf would not like my writing space. I don’t necessarily have a room of my own in the apartment I share with my boyfriend, certainly not a place where I can shut the door. (Aside from the bedroom, which we of course share, but I personally cannot write in the same room as where I sleep.) What I do have is a big desk that sits against a space of wall in between the kitchen and the living room, not far from my bookshelf, that is mine and mine alone. I’ve replaced the solitude that comes from a closed door with an hour of carved out time in the morning. I’m lucky to have a partner who respects this, who, when he’s not sleeping through my morning writing hour, understands my need for this quiet, uninterrupted time of my own.

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My bookshelf, another necessary part of my creative space, sits a few feet away from my desk.

This time for me is breath-of-life vital. In the morning, my head is the clearest, and I can fully escape into a short story or longer piece I’m working on before my mind catches up to thinking about the rest of the day. This is when I am at my best creative self. I work full time, and I’ve never been a person who can find my creative space in the evening when my head is already clogged from the happenings of the day. By the time I’ve finished work and practiced yoga (another necessary “me-time” part of my day), there’s dinner and another hour or so of winding down before I fall asleep, so the morning is the only time I have to write. If I didn’t have it, I would absolutely feel like something was missing.

I say this because I understand how important it is, as a creative person, to make the time and space for your art. One of the most unpleasant years of my life—I say this in relative terms, I acknowledge I’m a privileged person who had a job and food and all the trappings of a normal adulthood—was spent working at a law firm, writing for lawyers, and realizing the only time I had for my own writing was a few hour block on the weekend, and several times that few hour block turned into a one hour block, if at all, because there was grocery shopping and cleaning and weekend things that needed to happen.

My morning space, each day: oatmeal, coffee, computer, and quiet.

My morning space, each day: oatmeal, coffee, computer, and quiet.

It wasn’t until six months into this job that I decided in order to change the way perceived my day, indeed, change the entire focal point of it, was to force myself to wake an hour earlier than needed, spend a few minutes meditating, and the rest of the time writing. Only then was I able to reclaim my sanity. When I started at my current job, It was an absolute breath of air: more relaxed hours, working with artists who understand the need for creative space, having colleagues who celebrated the two weeks I took off to attend a writing residency in the middle of the country. They understand and appreciate this need.

I can say that I’m lucky. For many, creating this space doesn’t necessarily come easily. There can be logistical concerns: not all of us live alone, or live with a person or people who understand the need for this time. Some of us have children, or loud roommates, or less understanding partners. We may not have a desk of our own, or a non-communal space that we can occupy for an hour each day.

And then there can be motivational concerns. Making room in your life for your own creative space comes with its own set of impediments. There’s fear involved, anxiety, reminders of a million other things you could be doing (There are dishes in the sink! How can you be writing when there are dirty dishes in the sink?), there’s the voice that pops up to tell you you’re selfish for taking this time out for yourself. It can take a tremendous effort to ignore all of these internal and external distractions in order to just sit down and create.

But this is what you need to remember: you are worth it, and your creative self needs it. Creating is not a selfish act. Creating is your time to put forth into the world your thoughts, feelings, ideas. It impacts change, whether just in you and how you perceive the world around you, or on a larger scale. It is necessary and worthwhile and your life will be better because of it.

My creative space is my desk, situated against the wall in between the kitchen and the living room.

I urge you to find that space, and then urge others to find that space. Maybe it’s your kitchen table. Maybe it’s your bedroom. Maybe it’s an hour before your roommates wake up, or for thirty minutes after your kids go to sleep. Just find a time that is only for you, where your phone is put elsewhere, distractions have dissipated, the voice in your head is quieted, and you can fall into that space and just create. The dishes can wait, your story cannot.

Book Review: The Last Days of California

Before I get into this review, I should preface by saying I read Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California during my residency in Nebraska, when long days of working on my own novel left me seriously desiring some kind of literary escape, a world or characters I could totally wrap myself in. Something that would be engaging enough to not allow my mind to wander to that hasty decision to change a sentence in section six of my novel, or the rewording of a paragraph in the opening chapter. I probably should have reread the first Harry Potter book, given my needs. But instead I chose Mary Miller, which may have informed a bias opinion on why I did not love the book. That said, let’s get into it.

 

 The Last Days of California is a story of an evangelical Christian family from Alabama who are on a road trip to California, where they want to be when the end of the world occurs. The story is told from the point of view of Jess, the fifteen year old daughter in the family of four. Jess battles the same inconsistencies of identity and apprehension about herself as most fifteen-year-olds do, but hers seems comparably worse given the beliefs she’s been passed on by her parents and her need to constantly ask strangers if they’ve been “saved.” Jess’s older sister, Elise, is, in Jess’s view, prettier, smarter, and savvier than she. Elise is also indifferent to the idea of the world ending and pregnant by a boy from her hometown whom she is casually dating. Jess is the only other person in the family who knows this. A fear-mongering religious father and an exhausted (and possibly non believing) mother round out the rest of the main characters that make up the story. The woman in the story feel much more realized than the father, who often comes across in fuzzy detail like a caricature. 

Given the premise, it seems natural that there would be many pages with very little imgres-1action. And of this, there are lots. At the story’s beginning, the family has already commenced the road trip from Alabama to California, so we aren’t even provided with much in the way of home setting. We spend all of our time in Jess’s worried, questioning head, which, as far as the consistency with what I recall of being fifteen, Miller does a great job of. But this leads to the problem: we’re stuck in a fifteen year old’s head. There are keen observations and a few sharp lines of which Miller is known for in her short stories, when the lack of action is perhaps the point, but this did not translate into a longer narrative. In fact, the many pages of nothing served only to dilute those sharp moments. 

The story felt, on the whole, like one of Miller’s short stories, but with pages and pages of mostly nothing filler in between. Which is a shame. At one point the family is witness to a very serious car accident that leaves a man dead, but it felt so out of place that it was clear Miller needed some kind of action to fill the many pages of repetitive driving scenes. The scenes where the family has stopped in a hotel along the way were more clearly felt, but there were still moments of boredom. During one such scene near the end, Jess, questioning her beliefs, calls her church’s minister to talk to him on the phone, and he asks her in no uncertain terms to tell him her how she “violates herself.” It won for its creepy factor, if that was the goal, but again felt like something thrown in, not doing much to highlight or change anyone’s view on the narrative of men in powerful positions within the structure of a church. However, during this scene, Jess observes the sound of clinking of ice in a glass through the phone and imagines him at home with his family, caring for his disabled child. In other words, a moment where Miller brings me back to why I love her writing in the first place. 

imgres-2The best scenes are when Jess’s hyper-awareness comes through. Lines like, “Most of the gas stations were attached to something now. In Louisiana, we’d stopped at one attached to a tanning salon and Elise had tanned, cooking the baby while the rest of us ate shrimp po boys.” Or, when observing her father’s driving, “He did his usual back-up-without-looking routine and it made me want him to crash even though it would be a lot of trouble for all of us and I might even get hurt in the ordeal. I still wanted him to crash. It would be his fault. He would try to blame it on us, but we would all know it was on him and he would feel terrible about it.”

When, towards the end of the story, Jess loses her virginity in a hotel bathroom while a imagesparty of teenagers continues just outside the door, she observes just after the boy dumps the condom in the trash and leaves the bathroom, “I sat on the toilet and listened to them talk and laugh, knowing I would never be a part of it. I would always be separate, thinking about what expression my face was making, what people thought of me. Observing peoples’ weaknesses and flaws–their big thighs and crooked teeth and acne, their lack of confidence, their fear. I would always think the worst about people and it would keep me from them because I couldn’t accept myself.” 

Sentences like these are why I desperately wanted this novel to be better than it was. Unfortunately, they’re just too few and far between in the greater narrative to make a decent story.

We Read to Find Life

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orphan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’

 

– Claire Messud, Publishers Weekly interview about her book The Woman Upstairs, following the question, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

This Week in Review

Last week, I couldn’t even bring myself to make a post. I was too saddened by the news out of Charleston to consider what my own week had been like. The wounds from Charleston will take time to heal, but at the very least, I’m thankful that this week has been different. That millions can keep their health care, that equality in love is finally recognized, that–even though it’s a small step, the barest of steps in the road ahead to eradicate systemic racism–we’ve accepted the fact that the Confederate flag needs to be taken down. We’re getting there, America, we’re getting there.

#KeepItDown

“We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.” –Bree Newsome

The U.S. Supreme Court has finally recognized what most of us have for years, that love is a right for everyone. Though there are still problems (several states still have laws where you can be fired for being gay), we at least have gotten one step closer to full equality. #LoveWins

My man, my partner, looked mighty handsome in his Jump Magazine interview. My favorite line, “A lot of times, it’s not really about chopping up different sounds. It’s about vinyl. That’s my biggest thing. I need the vinyl.” I’ve sat with this man while he spent hours in record stores. He’s not joking.

My second installment of The Biking Chronicles appeared this week on Green Philly Blog. The day after it appeared, I was harrassed on my bike on my way to work by a driver, who called me a string of profanities because I needed to swerve to avoid a removed section of pavement on the road. The city is getting better as far as creating more pathways for bicyclists and the share program, but here I listed suggestions that will help to improve the city’s relationships with cyclists even more. I’m hopeful that the ingrained aggressiveness of drivers towards cyclists will begin to change. We desperately need it to.

One way to improve food sustainability and not waste food is to save your vegetable scraps. Here I show a before picture of my vegetable scraps saved (and kept tightly sealed in the back of my refrigerator) over a two week period…

…and the vegetable broth that came out of it. Simply place all of your scraps in a crock pot, pour in enough water just to cover all of the vegetables, and then let cook for eight to ten hours on low. This one came out a slightly reddish color due to the beets, but all of the flavors are present.

These double chocolate cherry cookies are vegan and delicious. Recipe is from Post Punk Kitchen, cherries are from Greensgrow Farms.

July is almost here, and for me, all of my downtime has been spent reading. On the balcony, in the sun, or even in my living room with the rain pouring down outside. This week I finished one of my favorite books, Just Kids, and it hit me with the same emotional power as the first time I read it. Currently reading We Were Liars for my first ever adult fiction book club and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, working toward The Last Days of California (Mary Miller is brilliant and packs more punch into a single sentence than most writers I’ve read), and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Hgozi Adichie, whose writing I absolutely admire. Must finish all of this before September 1st, of course, when Jonathan Franzen’s Purity comes out. (!!!!!!) Happy summer, everyone.