stuff I read

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt: A Memoir by Duchess Goldblatt

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Summary from Goodreads:
Part memoir and part joyful romp through the fields of imagination, the story behind a beloved pseudonymous Twitter account reveals how a writer deep in grief rebuilt a life worth living.

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt is two stories: that of the reclusive real-life writer who created a fictional character out of loneliness and thin air, and that of the magical Duchess Goldblatt herself, a bright light in the darkness of social media. Fans around the world are drawn to Her Grace’s voice, her wit, her life-affirming love for all humanity, and the fun and friendship of the community that’s sprung up around her.

@DuchessGoldblat (81 year-old literary icon, author of An Axe to Grind) brought people together in her name: in bookstores, museums, concerts, and coffee shops, and along the way, brought real friends home—foremost among them, Lyle Lovett.

“The only way to be reliably sure that the hero gets the girl at the end of the story is to be both the hero and the girl yourself.” — Duchess Goldblatt

How to describe Duchess Goldblatt? You either know who/what she is because you’re a Twitter follower or you don’t.

So, if you need an introduction, Duchess Goldblatt is a semi-fictional character, a social media profile created by an anonymous woman that appears to be an elderly woman, represented by a 17th century portrait, who dispenses sage, silly, and lovely bon mots and advice on Twitter.

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, by Duchess’s still-anonymous creator, details how Duchess came to be, at a time when her creator was spiraling after a number of personal crises: the breakup of her marriage, shared custody of her only child, the loss of a job. She also details the death of her father during her college years, her fraught relationship with her mother, and her only sibling’s self-destructive mental illness. If family troubles like these are triggering for you, there are a couple chapters you might need to skip through; CW also for talk of suicide.

But in between the creator’s memoir, we get the memoir of Duchess Goldblatt, the matriarch of Crooked Path, as she grew in Twitter visibility and gained ever more famous followers (Lyle Lovett has become a friend to both Duchess and her creator). Her creator has maintained her anonymity – with few exceptions – and, you know what? It doesn’t really matter if we know everything about Duchess’s creator or not. We don’t need to know who thought up Secular Pie Thursday on Thanksgiving, as a way to stave off loneliness, only that Secular Pie Thursday exists as a bright spot on a holiday that might be rough for some people. I think that’s the greatest gift of Duchess’s creation – that even in her creator’s darkest moment, she found a way to give light to others and bring light into herself.

Long live Duchess Goldblatt.

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt is available today!

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

stuff I read

A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by David O. Dowling

41154985._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A vibrant history of the renowned and often controversial Iowa Writers’ Workshop and its celebrated alumni and faculty

As the world’s preeminent creative writing program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has produced an astonishing number of distinguished writers and poets since its establishment in 1936. Its alumni and faculty include twenty-eight Pulitzer Prize winners, six U.S. poet laureates, and numerous National Book Award winners. This volume follows the program from its rise to prominence in the early 1940s under director Paul Engle, who promoted the “workshop” method of classroom peer criticism.

Meant to simulate the rigors of editorial and critical scrutiny in the publishing industry, this educational style created an environment of both competition and community, cooperation and rivalry. Focusing on some of the exceptional authors who have participated in the program—such as Flannery O’Connor, Dylan Thomas, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. C. Boyle, and Marilynne Robinson—David Dowling examines how the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has shaped professional authorship, publishing industries, and the course of American literature.

A Delicate Aggression is an interesting read, but a very slow one and one that I feel wasn’t terribly cohesive in the end. I appreciate that Dowling comes from outside the Workshop (I can throw a stone from my office – ok, fine, I would need a slingshot from the roof of my wing of the hospital – and hit Dey House across the river, so this is all very local to me) but the way he chose to spotlight particular individuals during different directors’ tenures didn’t give me a good picture of the Workshop over time, how it changed or stayed the same. My major takeaways were:

  • the Workshop method is WOW, abusive and resistant to experimentation or change
  • it was a hella boys club plus booze, which I think most of us already knew.

I think a reader would need to know about the history of the Workshop already to understand this book, so it isn’t a good entry point.

There were also some obvious people missing although I’m not sure if some authors declined to participate in the interviews or how many declined. Alexander Chee has written about his time at IWW a bit so should have been a good inclusion during the Conroy era and if we’re going to talk about IWW graduates who write successful popular novels with romantic elements, Elin Hilderbrand was suspiciously absent from this narrative, particularly when the last two chapters are about Anthony Swofford and Ayana Mathis.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum

46065066Summary from Goodreads:
Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about publishing but were too afraid to ask is right here in this funny, candid guide by acclaimed author Courtney Maum. Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book has over 150 contributors from all walks of the industry, including international bestselling authors Anthony Doerr, Roxane Gay, Garth Greenwell, Lisa Ko, R. O. Kwon, Rebecca Makkai, and Ottessa Moshfegh, alongside cult favorites Sarah Gerard, Melissa Febos, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Mira Jacob. Agents, film scouts, film producers, translators, disability and minority activists, and power agents and editors also weigh in, offering advice and sharing intimate anecdotes about even the most taboo topics in the industry. Their wisdom will help aspiring authors find a foothold in the publishing world and navigate the challenges of life before and after publication with sanity and grace.

Are MFA programs worth the time and money? How do people actually sit down and finish a novel? Did you get a good advance? What do you do when you feel envious of other writers? And why the heck aren’t your friends saying anything about your book? Covering questions ranging from the logistical to the existential (and everything in between), Before and After the Book Deal is the definitive guide for anyone who has ever wanted to know what it’s really like to be an author.

Before and After the Book Deal is a comprehensive explanation of the publishing process all the way from “so you want to be a writer” to “do I have to publish a second book”. The soup-to-nuts guide to publishing, if you will. Maum includes examples of personal experience and advice from many writers, editors, publicists, and agents to provide a larger scope of advice. This isn’t a book of Rules About Publishing You Must Follow To Get Published Or Else. Some pointers are pretty common-sense reminders, like, don’t be a jerk to other people then expect them to help you. In many instances Maum provides information about points where an author may need to make a decision – MFA or no MFA? Self-publish or traditional publisher? Get an agent or go it alone? To teach or not to teach? – without saying one choice is right or better than an other because it all depends on what an author wants from their career.

A good read, too, for anyone who just wants to know more about the process from a writer’s perspective. Plus, Maum is pretty funny.

Before and After the Book Deal is out today, January 7!

Dear FTC: Thanks to Catapult for the galley – I had requested the digital galley on Edelweiss and then a paper copy magically showed up at the store for me from Jen Kovitz. ❤

Readathon · stuff I read

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

40063024Summary from Goodreads:
A witty, informative guide to writing “good English” from Random House’s longtime copy chief and one of Twitter’s leading enforcers of proper grammar–a twenty-first-century Elements of Style.

As authoritative as it is amusing, this book distills everything Benjamin Dreyer has learned from the hundreds of books he has copyedited, including works by Elizabeth Strout, E. L. Doctorow, and Frank Rich, into a useful guide not just for writers but for everyone who wants to put their best foot forward in writing prose. Dreyer offers lessons on the ins and outs of punctuation and grammar, including how to navigate the words he calls “the confusables,” like tricky homophones; the myriad ways to use (and misuse) a comma; and how to recognize–though not necessarily do away with–the passive voice. (Hint: If you can plausibly add “by zombies” to the end of a sentence, it’s passive.) People are sharing their writing more than ever–on blogs, on Twitter–and this book lays out, clearly and comprehensibly, everything writers can do to keep readers focused on the real reason writers write: to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively. Chock-full of advice, insider wisdom, and fun facts on the rules (and nonrules) of the English language, this book will prove invaluable to everyone who wants to shore up their writing skills, mandatory for people who spend their time editing and shaping other people’s prose, and–perhaps best of all–an utter treat for anyone who simply revels in language.

Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English had the honor of being the first book I finished for the 24in48 Readathon!

As my staff rec card says: Do you need a new style guide? YES. Dreyer is the chief copyeditor at Random House and knows his business. He’s also sly and droll and has a way with a footnote or a turn-of-phrase. (He’s also a proponent of the Oxford comma, meaning I didn’t have to break up with either this book or his Twitter, and he’s got an adorable doggo on his Twitter.)

If you want to read an entertaining book about something useful – like learning to write well – that is not even remotely like our school nemesis, the wretched Strunk & White, then you need this book. Grammar nerd bookyes! Copy-editing nerd book, yes! Book with many funny footnotes, yes!

Dreyer’s English is out tomorrow wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I read a ditigal galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. And I have a copy on pre-order, too.

stuff I read

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

35959632Summary from Goodreads:
By the New York Times bestselling author of The Empathy Exams, an exploration of addiction, and the stories we tell about it, that reinvents the traditional recovery memoir.

With its deeply personal and seamless blend of memoir, cultural history, literary criticism, and journalistic reportage, The Recovering turns our understanding of the traditional addiction narrative on its head, demonstrating that the story of recovery can be every bit as electrifying as the train wreck itself. Leslie Jamison deftly excavates the stories we tell about addiction–both her own and others’–and examines what we want these stories to do, and what happens when they fail us.

All the while, she offers a fascinating look at the larger history of the recovery movement, and at the literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence, including John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, David Foster Wallace, and Denis Johnson, as well as brilliant figures lost to obscurity but newly illuminated here.

For the power of her striking language and the sharpness of her piercing observations, Jamison has been compared to such iconic writers as Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. Yet her utterly singular voice also offers something new. With enormous empathy and wisdom, Jamison has given us nothing less than the story of addiction and recovery in America writ large, a definitive and revelatory account that will resonate for years to come.

I really enjoyed Leslie Jamison’s memoir/history of alcoholic writers/ideas about “sober genius.” I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was most interested in all the parts that took place in my town (look, there’s The Foxhead! Java House! I know where that bakery is!). There are a lot of personal stories in this book and I think Jamison does all of them justice.

That said, I do think that Jamison doesn’t quite make her point – that getting sober doesn’t stifle creativity. Her examples, Carver aside since I’ve never really liked Gordon Lish and I’m with Carver on Lish basically rewriting Carver’s stories, are almost all writers who really failed at sobriety or never managed to capture the magic again while sober (Berryman, Rhys, Jackson, etc.). But she doesn’t focus very much on Denis Johnson, also an Iowa alum who not only got famous not only for his writing but for how spectacularly wasted he could get. But he did clean up, and become a writing teacher, and continued to write – he was sober (I think, I’m not solid on timeline) when Tree of Smoke won the NBA and his last collection of stories is stunning. I wonder if she had at all been given an early copy of Denis Johnson’s last story collection since he died last May as he finished that collection and she would have been finishing the final draft of this book. I think it would have helped her thesis that getting sober doesn’t kill genius.

I think also she could have put more of her Author’s Note – where she talks about how AA is not the only way and that medication-aided sobriety is also a good and necessary thing – into the body of the book. Because it comes off a bit as AA is the only way. It’s the focus since AA worked for her, and a lot of the writers she researched did AA, too, but the book maybe needed a broader treatment focus.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book because I super-love Leslie Jamison’s writing.

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).

Austenesque · mini-review · stuff I read

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved Novelist by Rebecca Smith

28260537Summary from Goodreads:
Jane Austen is one of the most beloved writers in the English literary canon. Her novels changed the landscape of fiction forever, and her writing remains as fresh, entertaining and witty as the day her books were first published. Now, with this illuminating and entertaining new book, you can learn Jane Austen’s methods, tips and tricks – and how to live well as a writer. Filled with useful exercises, beautiful illustrations and illuminating quotations from the great author’s novels and letters, The Jane Austen Writers’ Club explores the techniques of plotting and characterisation, through to dialogue and suspense. Whether you’re a creative writing enthusiast looking to publish your first novel, a teacher searching for further inspiration for students, or an Austen fan looking for insight into her daily rituals, this is an essential companion, guaranteed to satisfy, inform and delight all.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Jane Austen Writers’ Club (I acquired it in a book exchange at Book Riot Live in 2016 and it had “Jane Austen” in the title, ok? Lol forever) but I was on a Jane Austen tear so I just went with it. This is a nice little book about writing and craft that takes its cues from Austen’s work and written by an Austen descendant who is herself a published author. It was fun to revisit key scenes (or minor ones, in some cases) using a writer’s eye for analysis. I didn’t try any of the writing exercises but there are MANY to attempt later.

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