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.

Advertisements
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.