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.

five things: 12-16-16

    1. just married, and just barely 21

      Thirty-seven years ago today I got married to my first husband. My truest belief that day was that I’d be celebrating this anniversary with him, with whatever family we might create, and that I would be with him until we died. My intention was true and real, and my love for him was true and real and permeated into my marrow, and he was absolutely the right person for who I was then — broken, fragile, scared, in need of safety and care — and still we were just so very wrong for each other in just the right places. We hadn’t been married even a month when I lay awake one night thinking, with a kind of horror, about how much smarter I was than him. And the horror was from being willing to say that about myself, and about having that matter to me. It horrified me, I didn’t want to notice, I didn’t want to care. And honestly, I wouldn’t have, but the dynamics of our relationship (him benevolent father, me fragile child) resulted in his complete inflexibility, he was always right. I feel very sad about it all, sad that we were both edged into the places we were, and I think it definitely changed him. He has always been the kind of person who wanted to save people anyway, but he became too grounded in the paternalistic role. But I never would’ve even gone to college had we stayed married, and I never would’ve found myself. Today I’m thinking about all of that, but I have less than no desire to speak to him; he became a right-wing Tea Party bunker-desiring nut job, not to put too fine a point on it.

    2. I started re-reading Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio’s extraordinary collection of essays. (Here is my GoodReads review.) It circles around twin themes of the difficulty of life (including suicide) and the truth of ambiguity, uncertainty, and the unresolvability of anything approaching “truth” without those elements. I’d never read D’Ambrosio when I heard about the collection, and his is a startling mind. The collection was on sale yesterday, $1.99 Kindle, so I shared that on Facebook and decided to re-read it and it’s as wonderful as I remember. A couple of quotes:

      “The canker of self-consciousness has been long in me, so like a lot of writers I not only do a thing, I see myself doing it too—it’s almost like not being alone. That morning our hero skipped in his skivvies down to the shore of the sea . . . it was dark . . . the fog . . . Storytelling!”

      His childhood was as difficult and violent as mine, and his brother committed suicide (a theme he pokes at throughout the collection); I think this quote alone will tell you why the collection is so powerful to me:

      “If I could intervene and change my own particular history would I alter past events in such a way that I’d bring Danny back to life? Would I return the single rimfire bullet to its quiet chamber in the gun and let the night of November 26, 19__, pass away in sleep and dreams or drink or television or whatever the anonymous bulk of history holds for most people? Would I uncurl the fingers from the grip, would I take away the pain, would I unwrite the note and slip the blank sheet back in the ream and return the ream to pulp and etc., would I exchange my own monstrous father for some kindly sap out of the sitcom tradition, would I do any of this, would I? And where would I be? Would I be there, in the room? Would my role be heroic? And where exactly would I begin digging into the past, making corrections, amending it? How far back do I have to go to undo the whole dark kit and kaboodle? I mean, from where I sit now I can imagine a vast sordid history finally reaching its penultimate unraveled state in the Garden, under the shade of the tree of knowledge, raising the question of whether or not I’d halt the innocent hand, leaving the apple alone, unbitten.

    3. Tonight I’m having dinner with my friend Lynn and her boyfriend because he’s going to backpack around SEAsia for a couple of months and he wants to hear my stories. It’s funny; SEAsia is my very favorite place, and I can’t get back there often enough, but I don’t know that I have stories, and I’m a little anxious about it. I can tell excitedly about the places I’ve been, tell my impressions of the places, but I’m not sure what I will convey except for my enthusiasm for the places. And then I give myself a little shake and remember: Lori. You don’t have to plan out the “successful” conversation in your head ahead of time. You’re seeing friends. You’re eating Indian food. You’re talking about a place you love. Relax. Are you this way?
    4. I want to see Manchester-by-the-Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan. I read a wonderful article about Lonergan that made me want to see it, but then I read a review that bemoaned yet another movie about an emotionally stunted man. Here’s the NYT review, and here’s the trailer, and I want to see it anyway.

5. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where there is little as pleasurable as making a very nice meal for someone I love. Preparing the meal for my poetry group made me SO HAPPY (and it helped that the food all came out the way I wanted it to come out!). It took me a long time to get to this point; while I often enjoyed making meals that my kids enjoyed, and especially making treats for them, the tyranny of dinner-every-night-no-matter-how-I-felt took the joy out of it. I’m making a meal for someone I dearly love next week and the anticipation of that, even the anticipation of planning the menu, is delicious all by itself. Yet another toast to the pleasure of keeping on living.

Happy Friday, everyone. xoxo

best books

Well, hell — everyone else is on the Best Books of 2014 bandwagon, why shouldn’t I be? I only read 35 books this year (for fun, I mean — I read at least that many for work), but five turned out to sit on my “favorite books of all time” list. That’s pretty good! A higher ratio than I often have, I think. One book came via my book club, one came via Marnie’s recommendation, and the rest I just chose on my own:

omsThe Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. Here is my short GoodReads review of it. Random House published it in January 2012, so it wasn’t new in 2014, but it really knocked me back. It’s a profound trauma narrative of life in North Korea. It’s sometimes quite beautiful. I frequently had to read out of the sides of my eyes, or stand up and walk around taking deep breaths because of the horror.  I’d had the mistaken assumption that it was impossible to know what’s happening in North Korea, but it isn’t. This novel was heavily researched (and Johnson even visited North Korea), and I think he drew heavily on some of the first-person accounts of people who escaped. After I read this, I read every memoir I could find by escapees. Escape from Camp 14 was by far the best of those, and it transcended horror narrative because the young man, Shin Dong-Hyuk, wonders if it’s possible for him ever to become human. And you wonder that too, with a broken heart. But The Orphan Master’s Son is still a novel, and it’s beautiful, novelistically. I will definitely be reading this one again and again. Right now, with North Korea in the news, would be a great time for everyone to read this.  And then you might want to start following this site: One Free Korea.  I get a daily email of the day’s post and I always pause to read it.

carsonThe Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. THANK YOU, MARNIE. Here is my GoodReads review.  This is one of those books where I could tell you what it’s about, but that’s not what it’s about, that’s not why it sits on this shelf. It’s not because it’s about Geryon, a winged red monster struggling with his family and falling in love with Herakles, who is fated to kill him one day according to the myth. It’s because of the language, it’s because of the singular mind of Anne Carson. It’s one of the very rare books I read on paper instead of in my Kindle — the only one this year, I believe. It’s a book to read very slowly; if you just race through it to get the story you have completely missed the point. It’s hilarious. It’s crushing. It’s beautiful. It’s a book to read with a notebook at your elbow and a pen in your hand. I underlined something on almost every page — here’s a little passage I loved, to give you a sense of it:

[from X: Sex Question]

Cold night smell
coming in the windows. New moon floating white as a rib at the edge of the sky.
I guess I’m someone who will never be satisfied,
said Herakles. Geryon felt all nerves in him move to the surface of his body.
What do you mean satisfied?
Just—satisfied. I don’t know. From far down the freeway came a sound
of fishhooks scraping the bottom of the world.

It’s a book to be savored again and again, and I will be doing that the rest of my life. I started reading another of her books, an essay collection titled, Glass, Irony and God and just haven’t finished it yet. Savoring, savoring, savoring.

beingmortalBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. Here is my tiny little GoodReads review, just a para. I saw Gawande on The Daily Show and was so impressed by his quiet intelligence and way of thinking that I read his book, and now I want to read his others. I’m only 56 and hope that the end for me is in the far, far distant future — partly because I hope that by then, more people in medicine will understand things the way he does. He’s an influential thinker in the medical field so maybe he’ll have some effect. I hope so. The book explores what is important in the later years of life, and how to incorporate those values into the experiences of the elderly, or those facing death. Our culture thinks the more medical intervention the better, and people who turn away from it, reject the chemo and surgeries and harrowing treatments, are on their own. It’s a very thoughtful and beautifully written exploration of a time of life when you’re really on your own and it all matters very much.

northThe Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. Here is my brief GoodReads review. This story of the WWII POWs forced by the Japanese to build a railroad through Burma and Thailand won the Booker Prize this year. Flanagan completely rewrote the book several times — his father had been one of the POWs and he felt great urgency to tell the story just the right way. He finally kept the version that was a love story (as he described it), and to be honest I was not moved by that aspect. Was it a perfect book? No, not for me. There were parts I thought were much less successful than others, and parts I found myself just clicking through the pages. But it still sits on my favorites-of-all-times shelf because it did what those books do for me: it transported me, it made me feel another kind of life, it wrenched me open by putting me in the middle of the very worst of humanity and it lifted me by showing me the very best of humanity in the middle of that worst. For weeks after reading it, I heard myself bringing it up whenever I could, and I seemed to find all kinds of relevant connections. It’s a big book, a wrenching book, a hard book. After reading about the way the Japanese treated the POWs, the book takes us to those Japanese soldiers after the war and I did not want to go there. I wanted them all to suffer terrible, horrible, miserable agonies. Instead, I had to read of their lives, their justifications, their rationalizations. I will read this again, but I’ll probably just focus on the chapters that take place during the war, in the POW camp. Amazing.

Loitering: New and Collected Essaysloitering by Charles D’Ambrosio. Here is my GoodReads review. D’Ambrosio, how have I missed you all these years?! It seems like I’m the last person to know about him, so I’ll have to make up for lost time and read everything he’s written to date. This collection of essays left me feeling like I’d found my much-more-talented other half, my kindred spirit who could say what I think and feel, almost exactly as I think and feel it. He values a lack of certainty about things. Quite loudly. He’s from an extraordinarily difficult family, with a brother who committed suicide. He feels like the eternal outsider. Some essays are pointedly personal and some are not, but they all share this value about the risk and danger of certainty. I especially loved the way he didn’t end them with a perfectly closed circle, a note of finality, and yet somehow they felt like they ended. I kept trying to see how he did that. I’ll definitely read this collection again and again. I just looked at the Table of Contents and wanted to put everything down and dip into the book again.

I hope there are five books waiting for that shelf in the coming year.