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).

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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.

mini-review · music notes · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

33947154Summary from Goodreads:
In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.

In the wake of the nightclub attacks in Paris, he recalls how he sought refuge as a teenager in music, at shows, and wonders whether the next generation of young Muslims will not be afforded that opportunity now. While discussing the everyday threat to the lives of black Americans, Abdurraqib recounts the first time he was ordered to the ground by police officers: for attempting to enter his own car.

In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a volume of sharp, insightful criticism about the intersections of music and culture, specifically punk, rap, and being a black, Muslim man who has often been the only brown face at a show, but also grief, loss, and hope. Abdurraqib is also a poet and it shows in the way he constructs his sentences: “No one decides when the people we love are actually gone. May we all be buried on our own terms.”

Dear FTC: I read My Own Damn Copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks

34128230Summary from Goodreads:
From the best-selling author of Gratitude, On the Move, and Musicophilia, a collection of essays that displays Oliver Sacks’s passionate engagement with the most compelling and seminal ideas of human endeavor: evolution, creativity, memory, time, consciousness, and experience.

Oliver Sacks, a scientist and a storyteller, is beloved by readers for the extraordinary neurological case histories (Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars) in which he introduced and explored many now familiar disorders–autism, Tourette’s syndrome, face blindness, savant syndrome. He was also a memoirist who wrote with honesty and humor about the remarkable and strange encounters and experiences that shaped him (Uncle Tungsten, On the Move, Gratitude). Sacks, an Oxford-educated polymath, had a deep familiarity not only with literature and medicine but with botany, animal anatomy, chemistry, the history of science, philosophy, and psychology. The River of Consciousness is one of two books Sacks was working on up to his death, and it reveals his ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless project to understand what makes us human.

The River of Consciousness is a short collection of previously published essays that make us feel the loss of a person like Oliver Sacks very keenly. He loved science and scientific advances in all fields, not just his chosen profession of neuroscience. The collection is a bit too eclectic to be was wonderful as something like The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. The essays on Darwin aren’t that interesting, and perhaps a bit meandering, but for the essays that focus more particularly on neuroscience and the brain, especially “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science,” Sacks’s love and passion shine through.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

32815566Summary from Goodreads:
Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System is a collection of literary and experimental essays about living with chronic pain. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles.

Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System is a very insightful collection of essays about the experience of living with chronic pain. Huber uses a lot of different essay forms to discuss parenting with pain, how to describe pain (and the inability of a scale to convey “pain” to her medical team), what it is like to be a patient with chronic pain and not have access to a coordinated care team, negotiating a partnership (both emotional and physical) with a lover, and how her writing changes depending on her pain level. Most of the pieces were previously published in blogs and journals, so they overlap on occasion, but this is a must-read collection.

Dear FTC: I read My Own Damn Copy.

Best American · mini-review · stuff I read

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2017 edited by Hope Jahren

33503528Summary from Goodreads:
“Undeniably exquisite . . . Reveal[s] not only how science actually happens but also who or what propels its immutable humanity.” —Maria Popova

“An excellent introduction to the key issues in science today.” —P. D. Smith, Guardian

“[A] stellar compendium . . . Delightful to read.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

A renowned scientist and the best-selling author of Lab Girl, Hope Jahren selects the year’s top science and nature writing from writers who balance research with humanity and in the process uncover riveting stories of discovery across disciplines.

When October rolls around each year, I eagerly snatch up my stack of HMH’s Best American Series titles (Essays, Short Stories, Non-required Reading, Science Fiction and Fantasy; RIP Infographics) but the collection I read first is always The Best American Science and Nature Writing.

The 2017 edition is an excellent collection of science writing selected by Hope Jahren. Jahren chose articles not only about advances in science but about the lives and events behind the scientists’ discoveries. Of particular importance are two essays about the sexual harassment that women suffer in the sciences (apparently it is hard to conduct one’s self in an appropriate professional manner ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, which is completely not hard at all, ugh #whyaremen. Don’t bother @ing me). Highly recommend.

Dear FTC: I read My Own Damn Copy.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding

33932361Summary from Goodreads:
Twenty-Three Leading Feminist Writers on Protest and Solidarity

When 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump and 94 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, how can women unite in Trump’s America? Nasty Women includes inspiring essays from a diverse group of talented women writers who seek to provide a broad look at how we got here and what we need to do to move forward.

Featuring essays by REBECCA SOLNIT on Trump and his “misogyny army,” CHERYL STRAYED on grappling with the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s loss, SARAH HEPOLA on resisting the urge to drink after the election, NICOLE CHUNG on family and friends who support Trump, KATHA POLLITT on the state of reproductive rights and what we do next, JILL FILIPOVIC on Trump’s policies and the life of a young woman in West Africa, SAMANTHA IRBY on racism and living as a queer black woman in rural America, RANDA JARRAR on traveling across the country as a queer Muslim American, SARAH HOLLENBECK on Trump’s cruelty toward the disabled, MEREDITH TALUSAN on feminism and the transgender community, and SARAH JAFFE on the labor movement and active and effective resistance, among others.

And almost immediately after reading We Were Eight Years in Power I tore through the essay anthology Nasty Women.

Fill up the well. If you read one essay from this book, read Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Nasty Native Women” – that is a history lesson and a sermon in one.

And once you’ve read that, read the rest of the book. The contributors are diverse, the subjects and responses are diverse, and the ideas for what to do next are myriad.

Dear FTC: I read the SHIT out of the digital galley.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

33916061Summary from Goodreads:
A sweeping collection of new and selected essays on the Obama era by the National Book Award-winning author of Between the World and Me

“We were eight years in power” was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. Now Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fueled the election of the man Coates argues is America’s “first white president.”

But the story of these present-day eight years is not just about presidential politics. This book also examines the new voices, ideas, and movements for justice that emerged over this period–and the effects of the persistent, haunting shadow of our nation’s old and unreconciled history. Coates powerfully examines the events of the Obama era from his intimate and revealing perspective–the point of view of a young writer who begins the journey in an unemployment office in Harlem and ends it in the Oval Office, interviewing a president.

We Were Eight Years in Power features Coates’s iconic essays first published in The Atlantic, including “Fear of a Black President,” “The Case for Reparations,” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” along with eight fresh essays that revisit each year of the Obama administration through Coates’s own experiences, observations, and intellectual development, capped by a bracingly original assessment of the election that fully illuminated the tragedy of the Obama era. We Were Eight Years in Power is a vital account of modern America, from one of the definitive voices of this historic moment.

People. PEOPLE. Even if you read Coates’s pieces as they came out in The Atlantic they are worth reading again as one cohesive piece with Coates’s own introductions about what was going on in his life at the time, things he could have done better, or what a few more years of reflection brought. A smart collection from a smart dude. I read his essays at the time of publication and I absolutely inhaled We Were Eight Years in Power.

Goddamn. “My President was Black” made me cry. Again. Ugly cry again.

Dear FTC: I read the SHIT out of the digital galley from the publisher.