dies · happy dance · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

35721123Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of The Queen of the Night, an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as “masterful” by Roxane Gay, “incomparable” by Junot Díaz, and “incendiary” by the New York Times. With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his first collection of nonfiction, he’s sure to secure his place as one of the finest essayists of his generation as well.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

I will tell you right now that I was in Michael’s buying fancy writing/drawing pens when I got a DM from Rachel Fershleiser (bless you, lovey) asking me if I would like an early galley of Alexander Chee’s new book. Which I had been coveting hardcore. Pretty sure I shrieked out loud in the checkout line.

I have been waiting since DECEMBER to tell y’all about this book.

“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it.” – “On Becoming an American Writer”

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays – some previously published elsewhere, some brand, spanking new – that outline Chee’s development as a writer and provide a peek into his experience growing up as a queer, biracial kid in Maine. Meditative pieces such as “The Curse” and “The Querent” give way to heart-breaking examinations of identity and lost love in “Girls” – a powerhouse essay anthologized in The Best American Essays 2016 – and “After Peter.” (Note: I will never not weep reading “After Peter,” it is sublime.) Chee then takes us on a tour of the Struggling Writer’s Life: jobbing as a yoga teacher, tarot reader, and cater-waiter (“Mr. and Mrs. B”), getting an MFA (“My Parade”), various living arrangements (“Impostor”), and creating a garden (“The Rosary”). At times, he is wry and cheeky in pieces such as “100 Things About Writing a Novel.” And then, if you have read his previous novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, he quietly turns you inside out with “The Autobiography of My Novel” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” (Side note: if you haven’t read his novels get on that because you are seriously deprived of amazing sentences.) The order of essays builds over the course of the book to a moving examination of what it means to be an American writer, especially at this present time, in “On Becoming an American Writer.” 

Alexander Chee has a gift – he can write sentences that just stick in the mind like tiny bits of grit, to be worked over and polished and revisited.

“That afternoon, I tried to understand if I had made a choice about what to write. But instead it seemed to me if anyone had made a choice, the novel had, choosing me like I was a door and walking through me out into the world.” – “The Autobiography of My Novel”

These are not complex sentences nor filled with over-flowing description but are complex and beautiful in their simplicity. It is such a privilege to read his words. I could read them forever.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is out on Tuesday, April 17. Bravo, Alex. Thank you so much for your beautiful book. I look forward to making as many people as possible buy this book.

ETA: I would like to introduce you to another writer, Brandon Taylor, who stans for Alexander Chee even more than I do and writes far more eloquently and intelligently about Chee’s work than I could ever possibly hope to write. Please read his essay about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, “Sad Queer Books: When You’re a Queer Person of Color, Writing is Tough Yet Vital,” at Them. Keep an eye on Brandon, by the way. He’s going to blow us all out of the water.

Dear FTC: You know I rubbed this galley all over my eyeballs when I got it.  I’ll be buying a copy whenever Alex manages to get himself to Iowa for a reading so I can be weird and awkward in person and gush all over while he signs it (and the galley, too).

dies · Extra Extra · happy dance · stuff I read

Pre-order alert: New Alexander Chee essay collection!

35721123“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it.”
– “On Becoming an American Writer,” Alexander Chee

Y’all, mark April 17, 2018, on your calendar, get your pre-order in at your bookseller, prepare your spring reading nest. Alexander Chee’s new collection of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is stellar beyond words. I’ll have a longer review much closer to the review date.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book offered by the publisher and I’m surprised I’m still alive to tell you this because I almost died in the fancy marker pen aisle of my local Michael’s when Fersh’s text message appeared to ask if I wanted a galley. There may have been shrieking.

dies · stuff I read

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Summary from Goodreads:
From the bestselling author of Bad Feminist: a searingly honest memoir of food, weight, self-image, and learning how to feed your hunger while taking care of yourself

“I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.”

In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her own past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

I have been WAITING AND WAITING for this book.  A new Roxane Gay collections of essays/memoir.  Give it to me now.

I don’t think I can write anything coherent. Roxane’s book is beautiful and gutting, full of sharp cultural criticism about how large bodies (fat people, particularly fat women) are perceived running parallel to an account of her life After and how broken she became. I don’t know how she found the courage to cut this book free from her mind and allow us to read it but she did. It had to be so hard because I felt physical pain in my chest while I was reading it.  I am in awe of her strength.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. I’ll buy it, too, probably.

BEA · dies · stuff I read

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:
The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

It is said that the night Willie Lincoln, who died at the age of 11 of typhoid fever, was laid to rest his father Abraham Lincoln came to the cemetery to visit the body.  It is also said that he held his son’s body, spoke to it.  George Saunders has taken this historical nugget and turned it into a masterwork of beauty and pathos.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel narrated largely by the shades that inhabit the Georgetown cemetery over this single night.  These shades are trapped in this limbo, hampered by need, want, and fear.  Their forms are grotesquely reshaped by their obsessions and sins, for want of a better word.  Willie Lincoln’s shade becomes a focus of attention in the cemetery for children’s souls do not linger in this purgatory.  If they do, a horrific fate awaits.  Three shades, Vollman (a businessman), Bevins (a printer), and the Reverend Thomas, do their best to encourage Willie’s soul to ascend.  But Willie’s father has promised to return and so the little boy waits despite the increasing danger.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an incredible first novel from a master of the short fiction format.  The shared narration is reminiscent of a Greek chorus or a conversation, rendered on the page like the script of a play. These shades are not Dickens’s ghosts – they are venal, vengeful, lustful, racist, distraught, obsessed with property, old lovers, old slights by family members, old wounds.  In a way, they are in collective denial of their state.  Saunders reflects the condition of the United States, torn by the Civil War as it reached the height of its bloodiest battles, in the inhabitants of this cemetery.  The limbo of Saunders’s Bardo is not the Dantean Limbo of the Inferno, with the virtuous pagans living peacefully throughout eternity; this limbo is menacing, with an undercurrent of evil.  It swirls around Willie Lincoln, who waits in vain for his father to take him home.

I read this book almost immediately upon receiving the galley direct from George Saunders’s hands. It proceeded to wreck me emotionally for the next 350 pages.  The uniqueness of the format allows the characters to speak directly to the reader without any sort of narrative interpretation or point-of-view.  I could read this over and over and keep finding little nuggets to wonder over.  I intend to purchase the audiobook edition of Bardo, which has a star-studded cast of 166 readers including Saunders himself, and just submit to it completely.

Lincoln in the Bardo is available on February 14 – you must read it.

Dear FTC:  I have a signed galley from BEA, which was an absolute highlight of the conference. Thank you so much to Random House and George Saunders for this book.

BEA · dies · mini-review · stuff I read

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Summary from Goodreads:
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her of the Underground Railroad and they plot their escape. Like Gulliver, Cora encounters different worlds on each leg of her journey.

Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors of black life in pre-Civil War America. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

If The Underground Railroad doesn’t win all the literary prizes this year then those judges have no idea what they’re missing.

This a raw, searing, gutting novel of will and grit and fear and mistrust and hope. Whitehead has pulled from so many parts of history to create the world that Cora occupies, from racism and the inhumanity of slavery to eugenics to Tuskeegee. All the open wounds laid bare.  Whitehead also chose to use elements of magical realism and alternate history novels to explore different ideologies that have been floated in the past regarding racism and segregation.  Cora is transported between states using a literal underground railroad – one state seems to have a sort-of progressive benevolent (yet menacing) segregation, another violently rejects all African-Americans or sympathizers, another presents an ideal utopia.  The plot and writing are truly phenomenal. A masterpiece.

(My only regret is that Oprah surprised us by picking this for her bookclub, moving up the publication date by over a month and goofing up my reading schedule.  I had just finished being wrecked by Homegoing so wasn’t able to get this at the beginning of the month.)

Dear FTC: I got an ARC of this book at the Adult Author Breakfast at BEA and you can be sure that I’ll be buying a copy of this, too.

dies · mini-review · stuff I read

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Summary from Goodreads:
The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

I missed Yaa Gyasi’s signing line at BEA (rats) but I was able to get approved for an Edelweiss galley and for that I am so grateful (Gyasi will be signing at Prairie Lights in October, yay for Iowa Writer’s Workshop alums).  This is a book that will stay with me for a long time.

The structure of this novel serves up the plot to perfection.  Once Effia and Esi are introduced in adjacent chapters – in settings both sublimely beautiful and terrible – the plot unfolds through two branches of the family tree.  Every chapter follows a subsequent generation, alternating branches, Effia’s line then Esi’s line.  Reading other reviews, I noted that some readers were frustrated that Gyasi changed narrators so often. Just when we wish to have more time with a character, we jump branches and generations.  But I thought this was such a good way of representing the pull of time.  The characters cannot go back to have questions answered, to find things that were lost, or make different choices. Time only goes forward.  This was especially true for those chapters set among Esi’s descendants who were sold into slavery in the American South – there was no going back to know one’s grandparents, or home village, or ancestral tongue.  Brutal.

Homegoing is so well-crafted it’s almost unbelievable that this is a debut. This book will break you, in a good way.  Keep the tissues handy.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Commonplace Book · dies · music notes · stuff I read

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Summary from Goodreads:
Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all. As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.

The second I heard that Alexander Chee had a novel coming out about a Belle Époque opera singer with a secret I went on a mission to figure out how I might ferret out an advance copy.  I put The Queen of the Night on pre-order in hardback but I knew I was going to need time to read, and re-read, and digest.  Basically, I just want to snuggle the book and pet it because it is that good so I’ll try and write something reasonably coherent.

Lilliet Berne is what is known as a Falcon soprano (named for the first such singer, Cornélie Falcon), with a voice of incredible darkness and power but a very fragile physical instrument.  Lilliet’s secrets have secrets, secrets that could be deadly.  When she is offered an original role, an accolade that would cap her career, the opera’s libretto threatens to bring her secrets to light.  The librettist is an unknown, the novel it is based on unknown to Lilliet.  As she recalls her life, delving through many layers of intrigue and disguise to determine which person betrayed her, the reader begins to wonder: who is Lilliet and what will happen to her?

The Queen of the Night is a novel at the intersection of Romanticism and Realism, two major movements in nineteenth-century art.  The surreal nesting of Lilliet’s many-layered life inside the harsh reality of an orphan in Paris during the Second Empire.  The sturm und drang of the opera next to the monotony of being a grisette in Empress Eugénie’s vast wardrobe.  The glittering heights of celebrity outline the horrifying years when Lilliet is treated as a possession.  Were this to become an opera, Verdi would have to compose the music.

Throughout the novel, Lilliet muses on the ideas of fate, hubris, and vengeance, giving us a glorious line:

…the gods did not kill for hubris – for hubris, they let you live long enough to learn. (p46)

Lilliet is the Queen of the Night – a role she loves for its dark power and famous for the fiendishly difficult “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”/”The vengeance of hell boils in my heart,” is Carmen – trapped by the hand of cards dealt to her, is Violetta – caught between her heart and her past as a courtesan, is Leonora – the casualty of a revenge plot decades in the making.  As Lilliet notes: “victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat.”  As I was re-reading the book, I noticed that I wanted to listen to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Pucinni’s Tosca.  Odd, because Giovanni is a baritone role, clearly not something Lilliet would sing, and Tosca did not premiere until 1900, well after the events of the book.  But there is something echoed in Lilliet’s struggle against what she views as a curse brought on by hubris: Giovanni brazenly inviting his doom to supper and Tosca singing her haunting aria “Vissi d’arte” about art and prayer.

Tucked in among all the activity with circuses and Emperors and celebrity and opera, there is the simple story of a teenage girl who believes she is to blame for a karmic misfortune.  In her haste to get away she commits error after error as any inexperienced, grieving teenager might do, stumbling into misfortune and by sheer strength of will and cleverness keeping herself alive.  She becomes the famous Lilliet, leaving the adult woman to salvage what is left of the little girl from the Minnesota prairie.  Whatever your thoughts on opera as a music form, this coming-of-age tale with its mysterious twists and turns is the heart of Chee’s novel.  A brilliant book to start 2016. 

Bellissima.  Bellissimo. Bravo.

PS: If you aren’t familiar with opera – it isn’t all Valkyries with blond braids and Viking hats, trust me – I suggest the following list of discs to check out:
Renée Fleming, “The Beautiful Voice“, “Bel Canto“, “Renée Fleming
Jonas Kaufmann, “The Verdi Album“, “The Best of Jonas Kaufmann
Bryn Terfel, “Bad Boys“, 1996 Don Giovanni recording
Joyce DiDonato, “Drama Queens“, “Diva Divo
José Carreras, “Passion
The #1 Opera Album and The #1 Opera Album II – these are compilations with both older and newer recordings but wide range

Dear FTC: I did a first-read of this novel using a DRC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss and then I bought a copy because why the hell wouldn’t I?

dies · stuff I read

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do by Sarah Knight

Summary from Goodreads:
THE “GENIUS” (Cosmopolitan) NATIONAL BESTSELLER THE ART OF CARING LESS AND GETTING MORE Are you stressed out, overbooked, and underwhelmed by life? Fed up with pleasing everyone else before you please yourself? It’s time to stop giving a f*ck.

Are you stressed out, overbooked, and underwhelmed by life? Fed up with pleasing everyone else before you please yourself? It’s time to stop giving a f*ck.

This brilliant, hilarious, and practical parody of Marie Kondo’s bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up explains how to rid yourself of unwanted obligations, shame, and guilt–and give your f*cks instead to people and things that make you happy.

The easy-to-use, two-step NotSorry Method for mental decluttering will help you unleash the power of not giving a f*ck about:
Family drama
Having a “bikini body”
Co-workers’ opinions, pets, and children
And other bullsh*t! And it will free you to spend your time, energy, and money on the things that really matter. So what are you waiting for? Stop giving a f*ck and start living your best life today!

Warning: If you don’t like cursing, specifically “fuck” and all it’s creative uses, this book (and review) are likely not going to be your cup of tea (I read a review where the reviewer complained there were too many f-bombs, etc. and I almost commented with “duh”.)

So, Sarah Knight – having KonMari’d her physical space – decided that she needed to something about the energy drain that giving too may fucks about things you don’t actually like or care about.  She developed the NotSorry Method.  I.e. if you really don’t like Tuesday night booze and karaoke with other people in your office (whom you don’t otherwise socialize with) because it makes your Wednesday morning hellish, and you care far more about doing your job well and impressing your boss than what Janet four cubicles over thinks about you, then politely decline the karaoke and don’t give a second thought to Janet.  And so on through all the different relationships and scenarios in your life.

The parody aspects of this book – aping the layout and terminology of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – are hilarious.  But all that aside, Knight’s message of only giving your mental space, time, and energy (and occasionally) money to people and things you care about is a really good one.  Definitely a fun, useful book for a new year.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.