Love and Other Ways of Dying (including reading this book)

I’m an enthusiastic reader, and an enthusiastic recommender. I’m also a probably confusing combination of extremely picky and extremely accepting. I’m picky as a reader in that life is too short to read crap (even if everyone else loves it…..if it’s crap to me, my own life’s too short) so I am willing to abandon a book after a good-enough try. But I’m very accepting in that I don’t have to love the book, as long as I understand what the writer is doing. I can severely dislike all the characters, I can hate what happens, or even be bored to tears, as long as I see what the writer is doing and it’s effective and intended. For example, when I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s remarkable series, I felt so bored by it I finally had to set it aside for awhile — but I came back to it, because I felt like I was missing something. And then I realized what he was doing, and that the long period of boredom was critical, it’s what he was intending (just like David Foster Wallace in The Pale King). I never did end up loving The Pale King, and I did end up loving Knausgaard, but for recommendation purposes I could recommend them both heartily even though they felt boring.

So to understand my recommendations, it’s important to realize that I often recommend books that other people dislike — because I’m thinking about what the book is trying to do and whether/how well it does it. I don’t have to love it, it doesn’t have to become an absolute favorite. It’s also important to realize that I really dislike schmaltz. Oh how I hate it. I hate schmaltz and purple sentimentality however it comes at us: in prose, in greeting cards, on television and in movies, etc. Swelling violins, purple mountains majesty and flags waving in a gentle breeze, front porches with flag bunting and window boxes filled with flowers, True Americans wearing khaki or pressed blue jeans (even sometimes True Americans Of All Colors, but not usually) holding hands. GAG. One thing I’m always most happy to hear, when people read pieces of my memoir, is that it’s not sentimental. It’s not self-indulgent and pitying. I am sentimental as a person, but I very much dislike over-sentimentality in writing. I think writers achieve so much more when they use restraint when writing about emotional things. Don’t beat me over the head with violins! To my mind, the best emotional writing takes me there almost invisibly, and leaves me to do all that emotional work. Then it’s my emotion, it’s earned.

It’s a nice cover, though!

And so, to an extremely crappy book I just tried to read, and abandoned. Let me save you (although almost all other reviewers loved it, so read their thoughts if the book seems possibly interesting). Love and Other Ways of Dying, by Michael Paterniti. Thank heavens I just checked it out from the library.

It seemed to have everything going for it. The topic, the form, the fact that it was longlisted for the National Book Award, the other reviews, the blurbs….the topic, which is one of my favorite (it really is about love and dying, writ large and broadly). I’d just finished Eileen and was eager to dive into this, palate-cleansing in every possible way. And I really do love essays (and will take this chance to again recommend the most excellent collection by Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering), so I was literally excited when I started reading. I didn’t know the writer, who is apparently relatively well-known and publishes in great places. The first essay was about the crash of Swissair flight 111, an event so horrific and well-known that there are movies and television specials about it, including this NOVA episode. As I was reading, I periodically kind of rolled my eyes and thought, sheesh, this guy, he’d be super annoying to spend much time with. It was overwritten, it went too far into that kind of emotional manipulation that really wasn’t necessary, at all! The story itself, told with plain, short sentences and no elaboration, would’ve done that.

So I was a little concerned, but read the second essay, “He Might Just Be a Prophet,” about Ferran Adrià, the chef/owner of El Bulli, and the originator of an incredibly inventive way of cooking — he’s considered the best chef in the world by people who rank those things. And again, the topic was interesting enough that I kept reading despite the severely overwritten prose. I needed a bit of lemon ice to cleanse my palate from it, good grief.

But the third essay just done this old girl in. It was titled “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow,” and it was really the most patronizing, condescending schmaltz I’ve ever tried to choke down in my whole life. The whole ‘traditional good old American way of life, the cattleman on the prairie, shucks it’s all dying and look at this noble man and his noble wife managing a crappy motel with all their red necked nobility’ and truly, flags were smacking me in the face and the prose was Elvis in front of a lurid sunset on the blackest of velvet in Las Vegas, or maybe Elvis and Jesus. My god. It was just the most awful culmination, a peaked crescendo of the schmaltz that had permeated the first two, and I was done. I glanced ahead at the next essay just to see if maybe he got it out of his system (the next essay was about a giant who lives in Ukraine, or somewhere like that) but nope, so I broke up with him and threw his shit out on the street and we are finished forever.

Save yourself the trouble, and don’t read this one. (Or maybe do, if the other reviews make it seem like you’ll like it — and if you do, great! We all need to find books we love….this one just didn’t work for me.) If you like essays, and are looking for some recommendations, I have really enjoyed these and you can find my GoodReads reviews of them here:

And if you’ve read an essay collection that you really loved, tell me about it! I’m always looking.

the deal about essays

personalTurns out I have essentially been writing essays for years. There are formal essays, and then another style called personal or informal, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. In his introduction to this anthology, Phillip Lopate writes:

“Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality. Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If ‘we must remove the mask,’ it is only to substitute another mask. The hope is that in the end, when an essayist’s lifework has been accumulated, all these personae will add up to a genuine unmasking.”

The personal essayist interrogates herself, and develops her own unique voice. She may explore the littleness of life, and she may take on issues that loom large, but always she investigates them through her own lens. The big quote, above, led me to write in the margin: I have written blog posts on this exact topic!

Of course an essay is more complete, and expanded, and frequently wanders and rambles (so he says). My challenge, then, is to take what I’ve been doing and blow it up, spread it out. My task is to become comfortable with the precise way my mind works because that’s the voice of the essayist. And when I think about essays I love, it is always about the way his or her mind works, the places it twists, the turns it takes that I wouldn’t have thought to take, the reflections on itself, the phrasing. It may even be less about the specific content than it is about those twists and reflections.

David Sedaris writes essays, and he certainly has a unique mind and voice — and that’s why you read him! He reveals, he’s personal, but you don’t read to learn personal details about him, they’re not quite incidental but they’re not the point. They are material for his mind and voice to explore. Anne Lamott is an essayist. There are Charles D’Ambrosio, of course, Oliver Sacks, and Leslie Jamison, whose essay collection, The Empathy Exams, was a best-seller in April of last year; the writers on The Rumpus are essayists; and columns in newspapers, like the “Modern Love” column in the NYTimes, essays, all.

So I am practicing expanding, and I’m working with figuring out how to get my own mind on paper (the censor is loud). Yesterday I spent three hours at a coffee shop, just writing my own stuff. It was such a pleasure, the most fun writing I’ve ever done. I finished a very rough draft, esssentially just getting some of the bones down. My next draft will need me to dig deeper and be more there as the writer, instead of being there as the subject. That’s the necessary distance of the personal essayist.

I may need to do three or four drafts of my first essay, but when I’m satisfied enough with it, I’ll post it here. It just occurs to me that this feels exactly like the post I wrote about loving yoga all along but never doing it because I ‘should’ be doing other kinds of exercise. I’ve been writing like this for more than ten years, maybe fifteen. But I’ve pushed myself to do other forms — not because anyone said I ‘should’ but because I dismissed this form and thought all the value was in the longer form of a novel. Of course I adore novels and memoirs, but I also adore essays. It’s funny how you can know something all along and it still takes you a long time to know it.

It’s a spectacularly gorgeous day here today, full-on sun and 70 degrees. If it’s not like this where you are, I’ll enjoy this for you. xx

lots of stuff

I thought I was going to write a post about intimacy, but I’ll have to set that aside and get this one down for myself. I’ve got such a huge lot of tabs I can’t seem to close so I save them here, and hope that one or two interests you:

  • Flavorwire posted 17 essays by [female] writers that everyone should read. Adrienne Rich, Jamaica Kincaid, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, great great company.
  • And just for fun, Flavorwire also posted 10 obscure punctuation marks that should get more play. I kind of like the sarc mark, but the interrobang also wins for its fun name.
  • Here’s a recording of Flannery O’Connor herself reading A Good Man is Hard to Find. Amazing to hear her voice from way back in 1959.
  • I just want to read all the links on this post from the Paris Review about unreliable narrators and fictional memoirs.
  • How you resist these 8 little things to do every day that will make you happier?
  • This is a sweet little video of what happens what random strangers sit together in a ball pit. They’re given questions (written on the balls) that ask the big questions, not the stupid small talk questions. If you watch it, watch it through to the end. I love it.
  • This isn’t a link, but something I read this week:  It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis. ~Henry Miller, in Of Art and the Future.  You are so very right, Henry Miller.
  • If you like seeing the players crack themselves up on SNL, you’ll like the video in this link. I always love to see Bill Hader crack up. And I learned that the writer puts surprise cue cards in for Stefon that Bill Hader never sees until he’s performing, which contributes to his breathless laughing.
  • A gorgeous conversation with George Saunders, one of my favorite writers ever. And for fun, the stylesheet his copyeditors used for Tenth of December.
  • A healthy closing note: eat certain grains and beans at room temperature for good colon health! Covering all the bases this morning. 🙂

Whew, with that my browser is now much more manageable. We’re crossing our fingers for some rain here in Central Texas — hope you get what you want today, too.

good thing of the day: pecan pancakes. with real maple syrup.