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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mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Summary from Goodreads:

Selected by Emma Watson as the Our Shared Shelf Book Club Pick for March/April 2018

“Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot is an astounding memoir in essays. Here is a wound. Here is need, naked and unapologetic. Here is a mountain woman, towering in words great and small… What Mailhot has accomplished in this exquisite book is brilliance both raw and refined.” ―Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.

“A sledgehammer. . . . Her experiments with structure and language . . . are in the service of trying to find new ways to think about the past, trauma, repetition and reconciliation, which might be a way of saying a new model for the memoir.” ―Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

“I am quietly reveling in the profundity of Mailhot’s deliberate transgression in Heart Berries and its perfect results. I love her suspicion of words. I have always been terrified and in awe of the power of words – but Mailhot does not let them silence her in Heart Berries. She finds the purest way to say what she needs to say… [T]he writing is so good it’s hard not to temporarily be distracted from the content or narrative by its brilliance…Perhaps, because this author so generously allows us to be her witness, we are somehow able to see ourselves more clearly and become better witnesses to ourselves.” ―Emma Watson, Official March/April selection for Our Shared Shelf

I don’t know what got into Spring 2018 publishing, but Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is another knock-it-out-of-the-park book. I cannot even begin to tell you how beautiful and heartbreaking this slim memoir actually is (and I mean slim – barely 150 pages). Mailhot’s use of contrasting style and tone is perfection. Her critique of how Native women’s language is taken from them and twisted is breathtaking. An early forerunner for best memoir of the year.

My only critique is that the extra-textual information contained in the flap copy above really does not figure directly into the narrative that Mailhot is working through in this book.  Details flit around the periphery. The reader has to work to piece everything together, right along with Mailhot. And I don’t think the extra-textuals are needed because then we spend the whole book searching for the matching details.

If you are following #metoo, Sherman Alexie did provide an Introduction to this book (not sure if it will stay for future editions/printings). But it really adds nothing to the book. If he bothers you, you can safely skip it, read Mailhot’s writing, and then read the Afterword by Joan Naviyuk Kane, which is a Q&A with Mailhot and amazing.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book because YES.

mini-review · stuff I read

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

35137915Summary from Goodreads:
I AM, I AM, I AM is a memoir with a difference – the unputdownable story of an extraordinary woman’s life in near-death experiences. Intelligent, insightful, inspirational, it is a book to be read at a sitting, a story you finish newly conscious of life’s fragility, determined to make every heartbeat count.

A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labour in an understaffed hospital. Shocking, electric, unforgettable, this is the extraordinary memoir from Costa Novel-Award winner and Sunday Times bestselling author Maggie O’Farrell.
It is a book to make you question yourself. What would you do if your life was in danger, and what would you stand to lose?

Put this on your to-get list for 2018. O’Farrell has constructed a riveting memoir focused on the seventeen (17!) times she came close to death. Each brush with the “undiscovered country” is a bit different, some less-harrowing (almost leaning too far into the street as a car is passing) and some sensational (she almost runs afoul of a murderer as a teen). The construction of I Am, I Am, I Am is very compelling. The events are told out of sequence, and she seeds in references to the experience as she builds up to the most-significant death-brush: the onset of viral encephalitis as a child that left her with numerous challenges to battle. In addition, the book closes with a chapter about her daughter, born with a life-threatening medical condition, and for whom the book was written (a portion of the book’s proceeds will go to charity).

I Am, I Am, I Am is available February 6 in the US.

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

mini-review · movie star drool · Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by Julia Phillips

30555528Summary from Goodreads:
Julia Phillips became a Hollywood player in the freewheeling 1970s, the first woman to win the Best Picture Oscar as co-producer of The Sting. She went on to work with two of the hottest young directorial talents of the era: Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Phillips blazed a trail as one of the very few females to break into the upper echelons of a notoriously chauvinistic industry.

But for all her success, Phillips remained an outsider in the all-male Hollywood club. She had a talent for deal-making, hard-balling and wise-cracking, and a considerable appetite for drink, drugs, and sex. But while these predilections were tolerated and even encouraged among ‘the boys’, Phillips found herself gradually ostracized. By the late 1980s, she was ready to burn bridges and name names, and the result was this coruscating memoir of her career.

Julia Phillips died on January 1, 2002, at the age of 57, but her book will stand as one of the classic exposes of La-La-Land in all its excesses and iniquities.

You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again is an interesting look behind the Hollywood glamour by a woman (the first to win an Oscar for producing) booted from the ranks after producing three major movies of the 1970s for two sins: being addicted to freebase cocaine and being female (sometimes it’s hard to tell which is the greater sin). Not one person comes off looking good in this memoir, including the author who, despite getting clean, etc, is extremely fat-phobic and has some trouble avoiding problematic slurs in talking about gay men or non-whites. The other problem with this book is that it veers between third-person past-tense point-of-view for sections set (presumably) in 1989 and first-person present tense point-of-view for all parts set in the past. Which makes it very hard to follow at times – where was the editor? (The front third of the “set in the past” sections are about her childhood, her difficulties with her mother, and the rocky relationship with her husband which, while they provided context for later problems, also slowed the Hollywood narrative which is the main reason people pick up this book.)

I started reading this book as the #metoo movement was gaining momentum and holy cats do “the more things change, the more things stay the same.”

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

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.

Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson

9735306Summary from Goodreads:
The extraordinary story of an all-American girl’s conversion to Islam and her ensuing romance with a young Egyptian man, The Butterfly Mosque is a stunning articulation of a Westerner embracing the Muslim world.

When G. Willow Wilson—, already an accomplished writer on modern religion and the Middle East at just twenty-seven—, leaves her atheist parents in Denver to study at Boston University, she enrolls in an Islamic Studies course that leads to her shocking conversion to Islam and sends her on a fated journey across continents and into an uncertain future.
She settles in Cairo where she teaches English and submerges herself in a culture based on her adopted religion. And then she meets Omar, a passionate young man with a mild resentment of the Western influences in his homeland. They fall in love, entering into a daring relationship that calls into question the very nature of family, belief, and tradition. Torn between the secular West and Muslim East, Willow records her intensely personal struggle to forge a ““third culture” that might accommodate her own values without compromising the friends and family on both sides of the divide.

img_8728The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights “One Community, One Book” chooses a book each year and programs readings, lectures, and community discussions.  Now that the Iowa City Book Festival happens in the fall, they coordinate occasionally to bring the author for a lecture-discussion.  This year the book selected was The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson. *cue squealing* And I got to be Willow’s chauffer from the airport  *#DED* I think I set a zillion ghost emojis to my friend Kat. She did a signing at Daydreams and then one after her lecture and I got allll my things signs plus she’s lovely and nope, I’m not a creepy fan. Nope nope nope.

This is a lovely memoir about finding one’s faith and adopting a culture you love even while fighting the media stereotypes about that culture and faith. When Willow was in town, I talked to her a little bit about this book which was largely written 10 years ago with the enthusiasm of a person in her mid-20s. She mused that maybe she could have written some things differently, or had done more research on a topic, from the distance of another 10 years of living in the “third culture” she and Omar have tried to build for themselves.

Even if she wishes things had been written differently, I feel like she approached this book with sensitivity and a great deal of love and gave a lot of nuance to very “big picture” issues. Her descriptions of Omar’s family are so wonderful (I’d love to meet his mom, Sohair). There is a later chapter where Willow had the opportunity to meet a sheikha, a female imam, and how Westernization has possibly eliminated the need for sheikhas, to the detriment of many. It’s an interesting line of thought.

Dear FTC: OF COURSE I BOUGHT MY OWN DAMN COPY.

mini-review · stuff I read

Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky

32620373Summary from Goodreads:
From critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author and poet Jill Bialosky comes an unconventional coming-of-age memoir organized around the forty-three remarkable poems that gave her insight, courage, compassion, and a sense of connection at pivotal moments in her life.

For Jill Bialosky, certain poems stand out like signposts along her life’s journey. These poems have contributed to her growth as a person, writer, poet, and thinker. Now, take this journey with Bialosky as she introduces you to each of these life-changing poems, recalling when she encountered each one, and how its importance and meaning to her has evolved over time.

Witness Jill turning to poetry in dire moments to restore her faith and cope with loss; there are poems she turns to for inspiration and consolation; poems for when she is angry or disillusioned, or when she wants to see into another person’s soul. While Jill’s personal stories animate each poem, they touch on many universal experiences and life events that all can relate to, from crises of faith to sexual awakening from becoming a parent to growing creatively as a poet and artist.

More than a creative chronicle of one woman’s life, Jill’s book celebrates the unique and enduring value of poetry as a means of conveying personal experience and as a source of comfort and connection.

Poetry Will Save Your Life is a blend of memoir and literary analysis, more on the memoir side. Bialosky illustrates the story of her life – her father’s death when she was small, growing up with her mother (trying desperately to remarry) and sisters, becoming a working woman in the 80s, marriage, losing a sister and her first two children – with the poems that found her over the course of her life. She provides some basic analysis or interpretation of each poem so even those new to reading poetry don’t have to worry. A lovely book about the power and love of words.

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

mini-review · stuff I read

After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, a Daughter’s Search by Sarah Perry

33413878Summary from Goodreads:
A fierce memoir of a mother’s murder, a daughter’s coming-of-age in the wake of immense loss, and her mission to know the woman who gave her life.

When Sarah Perry was twelve, she saw a partial eclipse of the sun, an event she took as a sign of good fortune for her and her mother, Crystal. But that brief moment of darkness ultimately foreshadowed a much larger one: two days later, Crystal was murdered in their home in rural Maine, just a few feet from Sarah’s bedroom.

The killer escaped unseen; it would take the police twelve years to find him, time in which Sarah grew into adulthood, struggling with abandonment, police interrogations, and the effort of rebuilding her life when so much had been lost. Through it all she would dream of the eventual trial, a conviction—all her questions finally answered. But after the trial, Sarah’s questions only grew. She wanted to understand her mother’s life, not just her final hours, and so she began a personal investigation, one that drew her back to Maine, taking her deep into the abiding darkness of a small American town.

Told in searing prose, After the Eclipse is a luminous memoir of uncomfortable truth and terrible beauty, an exquisite memorial for a mother stolen from her daughter, and a blazingly successful attempt to cast light on her life once more.

I had the digital galley on my radar, but wasn’t sure I was going to get to it until I heard Liberty absolutely raving about this book. So then I had to read it.

After the Eclipse is an extremely compelling book of memoir and crime writing. Sarah Perry confronts a lot in this book – institutionalized sexism and misogyny, family violence, domestic abuse, gender roles, trauma – and has created a complete work that brings her mother’s life and her own life into parallel and contrasting narratives. At the same time, there is no sensationalism. Although the catalyst for the work was the trial of her mother’s murderer, Perry uses the information she has gathered to better understand the parent she was denied the opportunity of knowing in life. A definite recommend.

Trigger warning for violence against women and descriptions of rape.

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