Reader’s Journal: The Seas

The SeasSometimes I feel like a mystery even to myself. When I went to the library a few weeks ago to pick up a bunch of holds, I thought for sure that the one book I had waited for the longest would knock my socks off (turns out I was wrong). If anything, I was probably most dubious about Samantha Hunt’s The Seas. Her most recent novel, Mr. Splitfoot, is one of the more unusual books I’ve read, and it was one of my favorites last year. I was kicking around the idea of re-reading that one when I decided to put The Seas, her debut novel, on hold at the library. The book jacket probably has the shortest description I’ve ever seen:

A lovesick and awkward young woman, haunted by the ocean that her father disappeared into years before, convinces herself she is a mermaid to escape her dreary, small town life and find her true identity.

It’s short, but it smacks of the fantastical. It practically screams EXPERIMENTAL. From that description, you probably would expect at least a few sections with run-on sentences that go on for several pages at a time. After all, nothing says EXPERIMENTAL like stream-of-consciousness, amirite? She convinces herself she’s a mermaid…why did I check this out again? I’m not a big fan of fantasy, after all.

Here’s how it begins:

The highway only goes south from here. That’s how far north we live. There aren’t many roads out of town, which explains why so few people ever leave. Things that are unfamiliar are a long way off and there is no direct route to these things. Rather it’s a street to a street to a road across a causeway to a road across a bridge to a road to another road before you reach the highway.

The narrator is nineteen, living in a house with her mother and paternal grandfather. Her father disappeared into the ocean when she was eight. Before he left, at the breakfast table, he told her she was a mermaid. She believes now he was telling her they were from the ocean, and she awaits his return:

People often suggest that it would be better if we knew for certain whether or not my father is dead rather than just disappeared. That to me seems cruel, as if they want me to abandon all hope. That is how dreary people try to keep things here on dry land.

Despite them, I remain hopeful. Even though the way I remember my father and these things he once said is becoming more and more like the way a page of paper yellows with time or the way a dream slips ahead of the waking dreamer or the way people get hard-skinned with age and use that hard skin like a file to toughen up their children. Am I mermaid? I once was certain. But now the older I get, the vaguer things become.

She loves a man named Jude, and Iraq war veteran who is fourteen years older than she is, but although Jude cares for her he does not return her romantic feelings. The thing about this book, about Hunt’s writing, is that she normalizes the fantastical. The narrator—who is isolated and lonely, with no friends her own age—for a good portion of the story seems simply quirky and naïve, a young woman who has held on too long to childhood because she’s unsure how to become an adult, especially in a place with so few opportunities for her, so few models to follow. With little else to occupy her time, she thinks about Jude. She follows him around town. The shifts are subtle. She’s quirky. And then maybe she’s depressed. And then when things take a turn the full reality becomes apparent to the reader, who is maybe just invested enough to wonder: what part is real, and what part is a fantasy? In hindsight, everything seems clear. But in the telling, not so much.

Hunt has said she wrote The Seas originally as a book of poems. She said in a Powell’s interview, “I learned to write by hanging out with poets, and I’ve never abandoned the idea that every word should be handled and adored. Making the world from 26 letters is my delight.” I love that so much: every word should be handled and adored. What a difference that is from taking words, shoving them into cheap, shiny gowns, painting their faces, and then pushing them onto a stage and forcing them to perform.

When I finished The Seas, overall I thought it was pretty good for a debut novel. But in the few days since I finished it, and then sitting down to write this post, I am starting to realize just how well-crafted this novel really is. When I was about two-thirds through the novel, I had written in my notebook, “Fever dream?” But by the end I realized that was wrong. Hunt has clear empathy for the narrator. I suppose what I mean is this: the best stories about madness show us that madness isn’t really absence of reason; it’s just that the reasons don’t make sense to the outside world. Hunt makes us see the sense. And she has this talent not just in fiction—just consider this from her 2015 article on One Direction:

Tonight the mass of girls before me in the arena, swarming like insects, raises a question of economy. How many waitressing shifts, humid summer jobs, and hours babysitting does it take to hold these five boys aloft, to lard the fiefdom? How better might these girls’ energies be spent in humanitarian projects and education? And how best to understand their mania without dismissing it as a fault of their youth or gender?

I think I have a new favorite author for my list.

Those Books I Cannot Deny

Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and The Bookish) this week asks us to list the top ten things that will make us instantly want to read a book. This is a tough one—I think next week’s topic about what makes us NOT want to pick up a book is easier—but I’ll give it a shot.

RunawayIt’s by a favorite author. Okay, that’s such a no-brainer, right? Obviously, we all look forward to books from favorite authors, but maybe we get to some a bit faster than others. As much as I love Lorrie Moore—and even though I had preordered a copy—it took me almost a year to read her most recent story collection. And I love Mary Gaitskill but haven’t read The Mare yet. But a new Alice Munro, Tana French, Donna Tartt, or Marisha Pessl? I want that book in my hands on pub day, if not before.

It’s a campus novel. I’m a huge sucker for any book set at a boarding school or a university. I blame The Official Preppy Handbook, which was published when I was in seventh grade. It’s the source of all my fantasies about wearing blue blazers and knee socks and carrying a beat-up leather messenger bag and driving an old Volvo station wagon and attending classes in grey-stone buildings covered with ivy. What? Oh, right, like you don’t have a dream. The Secret History, Prep, The Headmaster’s Wife, Skippy Dies

It’s set west of the Mississippi. Hello, Larry McMurtry. Hello, Kent Haruf. Hello, Wallace Stegner. Wait…those were all men. Hello, Louise Erdrich. Hello, Molly Gloss. Hello, Willa Cather.

LandfallsIt involves any sort of seafaring. I’m fascinated by the Dutch East India Trading Company, the age of exploration, the migration of people….as long as it’s happening on a ship. For someone who’s terrified of the ocean, I have enough books about sailing the wide open seas on my TBR list that you’d never guess. Landfalls, Ship Fever, Servants of the Map, Master and Commander

It involves cowboys/pioneers/people settling the Western US. Technically this could be considered a subset of number three, I guess, but it’s a particular one that always draws me. The Jump-Off Creek, The Son, Lonesome Dove, The News of the West

It features a WASPy New York family. You can keep your navel-gazing Brooklyn hipsters who all want to write books about being writers. I’m way more interested in the Upper East Side, particularly if the book is set before, say, 1970. The Rules of Civility, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Catcher in the Rye, The Nest

It’s compared favorably (by someone I trust) to a book/writer I love. No, not looking at you, Gone Girl. You’re over your limit. But if a book is compared to, say, The Secret History, The Goldfinch, Commonwealth, Empire Falls, The Likeness…Somebody stop me before I list all my favorite books. You get the picture. Although sometimes these comparisons make me leary (still not looking at you, Gone Girl). I’m sorry, but if I saw a book that said, “For readers who love Alice Munro,” I might be afraid I was going to get a cheap imitation, because honestly, who can compare?

Seating ArrangementsIt’s set anywhere from coastal New England up to Newfoundland. I’m talking rocky coast, sea spray, the Atlantic, whales, fishermen, creaky old cottages with worn shingles, lighthouses—the whole shebang. So anything from Seating Arrangements to Olive Kitteridge to Sweetland to The Shipping News. The gamut of the northern US/Canadian East Coast, if you will.

It involves a clever twist. I’ve gotten a bit more wary about this one. (Okay, Gone Girl, I’m looking at you now.) Still, I do like a good twist. I really thought Gone Girl was masterfully done. And Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (who’s twisting who?). John Fowles’s The Magus (twisty involving teacher at secluded Greek boarding school). E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (twisty/New England combo).

So, where do we line up? Any recommendations? Where do we differ? (I’d love to hear from you if you have a real comment! If you are just here to spam your own link, move on.)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Yoga

Bear with me. This is a long one.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about yoga since a few people expressed interest in it when I wrote this post…last year. Oops. People may not be so interested now, but maybe? What if I promise this post contains no yoga selfies? I swear. Not that kind of post. I also promise not to take myself too seriously and refer to myself as a yogi. (I do own two Manduka mats, so obviously I am practically an expert…) You’re welcome.

Honestly, for a long time I was not interested in yoga. About 15 years ago I went to a few classes, but they were a sort of gentle stretching thing. Nothing wrong with that kind of yoga (I went with a friend who was still recovering from surgery resulting from breast cancer), but at the time I didn’t know of any other option besides Bikram, where you hold the same sequence of 26 static postures over several hours in a room heated somewhere between 95 and 108 degrees. I grew up in that kind of heat, so you might think I have a high tolerance for it. No. That kind of heat makes me feel claustrophobic, and I’m perfectly okay with being too mentally weak to shore myself up and deal with it.

When I started running in 2009, I found a bunch of running bloggers to follow. Almost all of them used yoga as recovery. (I still follow one, Peanut Butter Runner, who teaches yoga—although not Ashtanga—and now owns a yoga studio. She’s been through a lot, and I find her posts inspiring.) My interest was piqued, but aside from trying a few Yoga Download videos, I stuck to my weights and running routine. Eventually I got lazier and lazier…I stopped the weights, and then the running, and in 2015 when I wanted to get back shape I went to a trainer who suggested I supplement my workouts with yoga. The gym I go to offers lots of yoga classes, so many I wasn’t sure where to start, so I picked a class listed on the schedule as “Yoga Basics” that was at a good time for my schedule.

I came out of that first class completely impressed and totally hooked. It was like going for a run, if going for a run meant moving yourself around on a mat and breathing deeply for an hour. I went back the following week and the week after that. I was so lost in class most of the time that it took me a while to realize we were basically doing the same postures over and over again, with a few variations toward the end of class. And then one day my instructor sat up at the front and said the style of yoga we were doing was called Ashtanga, and it was founded by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He explained the deep breathing with sound that he asked us to do during the class. He explained why the room should never be heated (so you build your own inner heat, which helps you to heal).

Overall, Ashtanga is much more than a series of postures. If you’re interested in the history and background, you can read more about it here. You may be familiar with the term power yoga; Ashtanga was the basis for that, but they aren’t the same thing. I’m not really here to give you a lesson on Ashtanga, but here are the bare-bones basics: In Ashtanga, there are six series (or levels). You begin with Primary Series (duh), which is called Yoga Therapy or Yoga Chikitsa (how cute is that?) and is intended to help your body heal itself internally. The Second, or Intermediate, Series is called Nadi Shodhana, or the nerve-cleansing series. After that, students move into more deeply complicated postures in the next four Advanced Series, or the Strength Series (this refers to both mental and physical strength). Forget about Advanced Series for now. It’s amazing, but it looks like some serious Cirque du Soleil action. I’m not trying to scare you.

Back to Primary Series. It’s a 90-minute series, and it follows the same sequence every time. We hold each pose for five breaths. Between postures (asanas), you do a vinyasa (chaturanga, upward dog, downward dog); in the seated part of the series, you do a vinyasa between each side. There are also transitions in and out of asanas and into vinyasa. This creates the flow and ensures you keep the heart rate at a certain level. You breathe deeply through your nose, making a sort of Darth Vader sound, and on each pose you focus your gaze on a specific point (called a drishti). You practice in relative silence, with only the instructor’s voice and the sound of breathing to fill the room. (If you’re curious, you can watch the first half of Primary Series here. This is where beginners generally start.)

I tried a few Vinyasa Flow classes, just to compare. Generally in these classes, the room is heated, and the instructor tells you what comes next in the flow. It’s never the same twice, and sometimes the instructor just…uh, lets you do you. These classes also tend to have music, either all through or at various points in class. At least, that’s how it happened in the classes I took. I felt too hot and mostly lost. I had no idea what to do when the teacher said, “Do what you feel is right for your body,” and everyone started doing completely different things. I didn’t like that there seemed to be no order, and I found the music distracting (by contrast, I love music when I run).

I prefer Ashtanga. I like the silence. I like knowing the sequence. Each posture builds on the last one, preparing you for what’s next (and also for what’s to come in Second Series). You might think doing the same thing over and over is boring or easy. I assure you, it isn’t. Tuning into what you’re doing and releasing attention on everything else is not easy, but that’s the reason for doing the postures in the same order each time and focusing the gaze on a specific point. Primary series starts with Sun Salutations and then moves through a series of standing postures that include forward folds and balancing postures. After that you move into a seated series that contains a lot of forward folds and binds. Yes, it helps to be flexible, but so much of what it also requires is strength. Or at least, it requires you to work on developing these things equally. I’m sure there’s a rule somewhere that says we aren’t supposed to favor one pose over all the others, but my favorite is utthita hasta padangushtasana:

Some days my balance is awesome and other days I teeter right over. If I ever went back to a Vinyasa Flow class and was told to do my own thing, I’d probably just stand around holding my toe until the instructor told me to stop.

Truth: a very flexible person could walk into class and probably do almost every posture. Some, like garbha pindasana, where you thread our hands through your legs in lotus and then rock and then balance on your hands in kukkutasana (that’s what Sharath Jois is doing on the cover of that book in the picture, by the way), may take even a very flexible person some practice, especially if he or she is weak. But even the most flexible people tend to struggle with the flow and the transitions, and they find it hard to concentrate and keep up, and most importantly, many of them struggle with the strength required…and a lot of the time, they don’t come back. What’s interesting is who shows up week after week: men and women of all ages, of all sizes, some of us not very flexible or graceful, but we all continue to come to class and put in the work. 

Truth: Ashtanga is not supposed to be competitive. In fact, the most traditional style is Mysore, after the place in India where Pattabhi Jois lived and where his son Sharath Jois lives now and runs the school his father founded, where all Ashtanga teachers go to get authorized/certified to teach. There are only 80 certified teachers in the world, and maybe three times that are authorized. In Mysore style, you practice alone, moving through the full series. You are supposed to focus on your mat, yourself, your breathing, your drishti. But doing Ashtanga in the real world, at a gym, it feels competitive. Let’s face it: it’s a yoga class at a gym, and many people are at the gym because they want to look a certain way. It can be very difficult not to compare yourself to other people in the class. People believe they should not sit at the front until they reach a certain level. (I sit at the front, but in a far corner, because I like not being able to see anyone else.) It can be tough when you see someone getting into a bind like marichyasana D after a few months, when you know that posture is still probably a year or more away for you. It can feel disheartening when it feels like the instructor gives the most attention to a very specific clique of people (and easy to forget there are 40-50 people in class, so it’s probably not personal).

But for me, the transformation has been amazing. I started practicing four or five times a week in February 2016. When I say “transformation,” I don’t mean how I look. As far as flexibility goes, I’m somewhere in the middle. As strength goes, on the weaker side of middle. I naturally have a lot of anxiety. In the classes I take, I am firmly in the middle of the pack. My forward folds are awesome, but I struggle with anything that requires open shoulders, and I cannot do a headstand very well on my own. In fact, I was just about to get there last summer when I fell out of one and broke my three little toes (oh, that makes it sound like I have three feet; three little toes on my right foot). A couple of remarkable things happened: one was that I fell and immediately went to class and practiced, not realizing the severity of my injury. I promise you if that had happened the year before and I hadn’t even really been injured, I probably wouldn’t have even gone to class, instead declaring I needed to take it easy. The second thing was that I was back on my mat two months to the day after my injury, and I swear my foot healed faster because of it. And I also attempted the headstand. For me, this is a huge mental transition. Before, I would have given up. I’m not a very disciplined person. I’ll almost always choose what’s comfortable.

Don’t think I don’t cry. And sometimes I consider quitting. Running never made me cry. (I probably will start running again; it’s the only thing I love as much.) Lifting weights didn’t either. But there have been times I’ve been so frustrated during class, when a posture that was easy the week before is suddenly gone, or when I fall over (happens all the time), or when I feel like I don’t belong because I’m not young or thin or flexible enough. But those days are far and few between (except for the falling over part), and they also mean I am showing up and facing those things every time. The truth is, I am somewhat less anxious. I am more confident, not in how I look but how I feel. I’ve been in much better shape in the past and I’m a little overweight, but every time class brings me something new, I feel strong and capable, and I carry that out into the world with me. That’s the thing that keeps me going back, more than anything. A few weeks ago I had one of those days where nothing was right in class, and I felt foolish, like I should just give up. But I told myself, my practice is my practice. Whatever it is today is all it is. What I did yesterday doesn’t matter, and what’s to come is irrelevant. And I went back to class the next day, and did a 15-breath-count headstand. (No joke…and then haven’t done it since!) My practice is my practice. And there you have it.

Sometimes I Just Can’t

Last Friday I picked up a book from the library that I put on hold five months ago. I was surprised to find it in my stack. (I may or may not have done a small fist pump of victory as I was leaving the library. I’m not a sporting person, so fist pumps go for things like scoring books and the first day of summer that my favorite Mediterranean restaurant has gazpacho on the menu.) In November and December of last year, everyone seemed to be raving about this impressive debut novel. It was all over favorite and best-of lists.

When I got home I didn’t start the novel right away because I wanted to read Carrie Brownstein’s memoir first, but on Sunday night I tucked myself in and opened it to the first page. Not going to lie, I wasn’t crazy about the first-person narrator’s voice, mainly because it didn’t sound like a voice. It sounded like someone writing a voice. And then, on page five (page five!), I got to this:

“The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.”

No, I thought. I can’t. I can’t spend another 347 pages with this person. But I tried. I made it all the way to page 12, and then I closed the book and set it aside.

To masticate is to chew food. So the man chewed the narrator (a female, if that helps for context) with his eyes. And so, “He chewed me up with his eyes.” As metaphors go, it’s a bit of a stretch but not too bad. It’s the word masticate that stops me. It sounds like writing, not like telling. There’s something visceral about the word chew; masticate sounds…medical, like palpate instead of touch. And maybe it’s the former writing teacher in me, but all I can picture is the author going through the manuscript with a thesaurus and making the prose sound writerly. You know, like people who say utilize instead of use because they think it makes them sound more intelligent or important. (It doesn’t. Stop doing that.) I wondered, is it the first-person thing that bothers me? That it just doesn’t sound like a female from the Midwest in her early 20s on her way to a big city would say that someone masticated her with his eyes? Not that I want a generic sound for that, but maybe I just don’t know enough about this narrator yet to know why she’d use the word masticate instead of chew? But do I want to find out?

And then I wondered, is this style what people who typically read for plot think of as literary? And when does writing become over-writing? Do we all have our limits? A lot of people would accuse Donna Tartt of overwriting—I’m not one of them. To me her first-person narratives sound like they come from actual people (that she has made up), not direct from her own brain. So is over-writing when it sounds like what we’re really hearing is the author pretending to be a character? I don’t know. But I know this: the words matter. At least they do for me.

I cannot question why so many people loved this book because I didn’t read it. I won’t be giving it some crappy review on Goodreads (“I gave it one star but really it barely deserves HALF A STAR!!!!!!”) like people who take it rather personally when a book is just not right for them, as opposed to being a bad book. “Is there a difference?” you might wonder. I think so. I don’t know if this is a bad book or a good book. I just know that I would not be able to turn off the editor in my head, and I’d probably have a severe headache from constantly rolling my eyes. Maybe I’m just a bitch, maybe I’m just picky (or maybe both). I guess certain voices, like certain people, just rub me the wrong way. And so the book goes back to the library, and I have quietly removed it from my TBR shelf.

How about you? I know a lot of people set aside books because they’re too boring, slow, or violent, but have you ever set aside a book because the words just didn’t ring true for you? I’m curious to know if I’m the only one!

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Hunger Makes Me a Modern GirlI can’t seem to get it together to write a full post about any one thing, so I thought I’d just jot down a few thoughts about what I’ve read over the last few weeks. (I guess, technically, one does not “jot” using a keyboard, but whatever.) Lately fiction is not doing much for me, which is highly unusual. I’m much more likely to set aside something nonfiction to start a new novel, but these last few weeks I’ve started four or five novels and stopped because I felt sort of bored. I picked up a stack of books at the library on Friday, so I felt pretty hopeful about that. I read one book right away, not a novel but Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I resisted picking it up when it was published in 2015 because I was worried about it being too…I don’t know. Gossipy? Self-aggrandizing? Navel-gazing? (It’s none of these.) The truth is I’m not big on celebrity memoirs, but a couple of weeks ago I read Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and enjoyed reading about Sonic Youth, so I thought I’d give Brownstein’s book a chance. I really like Sonic Youth, but Sleater-Kinney is one of my favorite bands. Both Gordon and Brownstein talk some about their childhood and their families and how those things shaped their worldviews and desires (Gordon had a schizophrenic older brother; Brownstein’s mother battled anorexia and left the family when Brownstein was 14, and her father eventually came out as gay), but in both cases they focus primarily on the evolution of their bands and of making music. Gordon’s book is more bittersweet, especially given her split with husband and band mate Thurston Moore, and she seems to still be working through much of her heartache on the page, yet without becoming maudlin. Brownstein is often laugh-out-loud funny and self-effacing, especially when discussing her childhood:Girl in a Band

The dance I choreographed—and I use the term “choreography” loosely, the way you’d call adding milk to cereal “cooking—was a combination of marching and punching, and probably resembled aerobics being done by a penguin.

Still, most of the book is about the band. She clearly loves and admires Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss. Amazing some of the hits these women take in reviews of their books, especially for revealing that much of the time they don’t feel particularly cool, that they landed on things like a look or a sound more by trial and error than through some innate sense of fashion or sound. Yet other reviewers go after them both for being too intellectual, too distanced, not emotional or gossipy enough. And then in Brownstein’s case there are a slew of reviews from people who’ve never heard of or never liked Sleater-Kinney. Sorry if this is a spoiler, but Brownstein barely talks all about Portlandia, the show she created with Fred Armisen. Some reviewers were clearly disappointed that the show didn’t feature more in the book, because that was primarily how they knew her. I thought that was kind of odd—why would someone write a memoir about doing a few years on a cable television show? (Okay, six years, but Sleater-Kinney has been around for more than 20 years, so whatever)—until I remembered that it’s 2017 and if you’ve made it to the age of 22 and appeared in a commercial for a local tire store, you’ve probably written a memoir.

Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American SpaceflightAnother memoir (!) I read and enjoyed was Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Dean Lazarus. Lazarus becomes interested in spaceflight after doing a bunch of research for her first novel, which is about a girl whose father works for NASA and the Challenger disaster. She continues researching even after publishing the novel, reading everything from astronaut autobiographies to early journalistic accounts from Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. She befriends a NASA employee on Facebook and eventually decides to write about the final flights of the three working space shuttles. The book is as much about the history of spaceflight as what it means to write about it, to stand outside and experience other people responsible for making something truly otherworldly happen. If you’re looking for an objective history of the American space program, this might not be your book. Mostly, Dean spends a great deal of time (rightly) worrying about the future of NASA. She has serious doubts about private space programs like SpaceX (which, since the book’s publication, has launched multiple rockets headed for the International Space Station, and just recently successfully re-used both rocket and launcher, something that was also intended for the shuttle program). She spends a lot of time discussing something I wonder about a lot myself, which is how and when America fell out of love with the idea of space, of getting to Mars, of creating something that transcends petty earthly “accomplishments.” (Seriously, I’ve seen The Martian at least ten times, and I cry every time, not from joy but because of the alternate present and all the lost opportunity it represents. Don’t even get me started on Star Trek.)

Finally, I read a terrific personal essay collection, Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio, which definitely left me wanting to read more personal essays, so I picked up Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti, which I’m looking forward to reading. On the fiction front, right now I’m reading Louise Penny’s second Inspector Gamache book, A Fatal Grace, and I’ve got C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings and Samantha Hunt’s The Seas out from the library, so who knows? Maybe my fiction slump will end.

How about you? Have you read any of these? Any good nonfiction to recommend? Happy reading!

Freestyle Friday: Some recent thoughts on reading

Books for LivingI just picked up Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living a few days ago, and I’ve almost finished it. I highly recommend it for anyone who loves to read. He shares some interesting and sometimes profound thoughts, and I can see it being a book I could pick up and read again, flipping through chapters at random. I love a good book about books and reading.

Books for Living isn’t a compilation of reviews. Every chapter references a specific book, but often the book is tangential to other stories about reading or life. For example, in his chapter about The Odyssey (you know the one), he tells a story about a paper he wrote for his high school Greek class, a paper for which he believed he deserved an A but on which he received a C. When he tells his teacher, Mr. Tracy, that he believed he at least deserved a B, his teacher takes a red pen, crosses out the C, and writes in a B. Then he asks, “Are you sure you don’t want an A?” While Schwalbe struggles to determine just exactly what might be happening, the teacher continues:

It’s a C paper. No matter what grade I put on it, it’s still a C paper. But I’m happy to give it a B or even an A. In fact, why don’t you just tell me what grade you want when you hand in each paper for the rest of the term and save me the trouble of grading them.

Mind you, this takes place in the 1970s, decades before the trend of everybody deserves an A for effort. Looking back, Schwalbe says:

Great teachers help us see ourselves in the broadest perspective possible. Mr. Tracy may have wanted to teach me a lesson about my own arrogance, but he certainly wasn’t trying to discourage me: He was trying to get me to see things as they really are. Encouragement comes in many forms, but excessive or unwarranted praise isn’t encouragement.

Hear, hear.

So what does that have to do with thoughts on reading, besides being a passage in a book about reading? Well, because I’ve been beating myself up about not writing reviews of what I’ve been reading. Some people are terrific at reviewing everything, but only a very few write anything worth reading, at least in my opinion. First, everyone’s reading and reviewing the same books. Second, a plot synopsis (sometimes copied directly from the book jacket) followed by a list of pros and cons and a grade or star ranking does nothing for me, but then again neither do “reviews” that basically take five paragraphs to outline a book’s plot (but not the end!) followed by a few sentences about the reviewer’s opinion and a rating. That’s a book report. I’ve been guilty of the latter myself, when I can’t think of what I want to say, or when I’m trying to write a post about a book that was just fine thanks, but really…doesn’t deserve a lot of my time beyond the cursory “That’s worth picking up” or a decent star rating on Goodreads. It’s like this: Some books are Chipotle. It’s good and a lot of people enjoy it, but my god do we need a thousand reviews about a burrito? No. No, we don’t.

It’s amazing to me the time I spend thinking about this space and what to write here. I think about it so much I tend to forget it’s basically sitting idle. I’m still not ready to give up, but I’m not sure what I want this to be. A place to talk about books, yes. A place to write reviews such as the aforementioned…don’t hold your breath. But I still realize that this is a C-grade blog, and I’m okay with that. Like Schwalbe notes: “When you embrace mediocrity, you embrace humility—you learn to see that no matter how good you are at something, the world probably has people who are more talented at it than you.” (Oh yeah, look at me being all worried about the future of my blog as everything goes to hell around us. Priorities.)

Anyway, if you’re still with me, I’m going to change gears for a second and talk about something about readers that irritates the ever-living hell out of me. I follow a style blogger who sometimes posts about what she’s reading. Recently, she’s been reading Tana French. If you’ve spent any time here, you know I love Tana French, so no, I’m not objective about this at all. But the thing is, this blogger goes on about how she loves mysteries, but more of the P.D. James or Agatha Christie kind: more plot-driven, more whodoneit/howdoneit and less whydoneit. And that’s all good. We all have our preferences. But then she goes on to complain about how French spends so much time on the detectives and their lives and problems. She’s on her third French volume now and gripe, moan, complain. It takes everything I have not to leave a comment that says, Please, just stop reading them. You are not her audience. The whole point of the Dublin Murder Squad series is the Dublin Murder Squad—not the crimes. It drives me batty when people pick up a type of book they typically don’t care for and then blame the author. It’s one thing to say the writing is bad (in fairness, she hasn’t said this), but it’s another to be all, “I don’t really like books about quilting, so I picked up a book about quilting and oh my god when will the author stop with the quilts.” Quilts are the point. But otherwise, you know, I really enjoy her blog.

God, I sound crazy.

Heat & LightIn other news, I broke my TBR Double Dare pledge for the first time in five years. I was scrolling through something somewhere and I came upon a review (not on a blog…I think it was Nancy Pearl) of Jennifer Haigh’s Heat & Light and decided I had to read it right away, so I used some Google Play credit I had and read it in a couple of days. Oh, it was so good. And then I remembered that back in 2010 when I first got my Kindle I had purchased her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, so I read that, too (take that, TBR). Very interesting to read her latest and then her debut; she’s a terrific writer, completely engaging.

Another book I read recently that I highly recommend is The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney. It tracks two completely unrelated mysteries in the same city, which shouldn’t work but somehow works beautifully. Place and atmosphere seem to bring everything together, and it’s set in Oklahoma City which just somehow works.

That’s it for now. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and happy weekend!

January Reading Wrap-Up

Over the last few years, January has been one of my better months for blogging. This year, even though I’ve been reading steadily, the idea of sitting down and writing about books has seemed kind of pointless. Many other book bloggers have expressed this same anxiety and heart-heaviness and wonder about the use of it all, so I know I’m not alone. For myself, I find avoiding Twitter and Facebook helps. For a while scrolling and scrolling made me feel connected, but it started to take on a life of its own, and I’d reach the end of the day with nothing accomplished—no work, no exercise, nothing. The only reason I read as much as I did was because I made it a point to get up in the morning and NOT to look at any headlines or social media but to open my book instead.

Alys, AlwaysI picked up Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl on New Year’s Eve and finished it quickly. You can read my thoughts about it here, or you can just trust me when I say I highly recommend it and you should get to it sooner rather than later. I’m doing the TBR Dare again this year, but in December I had also put a bunch of books on hold at the library that came available that first week of January: Version Control by Dexter Palmer, Tomorrow Will Be Different by Maria Semple, The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel, and Alys, Always by Harriet Lane. The only one I managed to read was Alys, Always. It’s a dark little book, with a wry, somewhat sociopathic heroine who carefully inserts herself into the lives of a famous writer and his family after she witnesses a tragic accident. I tried with all the others, but I just wasn’t hooked and decided not to force it.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of PunkInstead, I moved on to Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. I’ve always liked punk rock (you would never know it to look at me, now or then), the raw energy and the cheek of it. Please Kill Me focuses primarily on the New York scene, which was heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground, but also by the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges out of Detroit. It’s basically an anthology of collected interviews with people on the scene (including Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, David Johansen of the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Debbie Harry, Richard Hell from Television, along with artists and journalists and other folks on the scene), arranged chronologically and by topic. It was interesting to read this book from a sociological standpoint at this point in time. The rise of punk followed the decline of utopian hippie idealism and the rise of economic instability. A lot of these kids were blue collar; they were disillusioned and disaffected. Very few of them had any musical training at all. Serious drug addiction, especially heroin addiction, was rampant. I think if you transported a lot of these people into the here and now, they would be like a lot of people who voted in our current president: angry and overlooked, with a lot of uncertainty about the country. They saw no easy future, they saw their friends dying in Vietnam, they saw all the institutions they had previously trusted as corrupt. That said, the music wasn’t a political statement—it was an escape, and in a weird way a highly romantic one at that. If you’re not familiar with much punk music, or at least the kind coming out of New York in the early 1970s, you might not know how much of it was influenced by the rock and roll of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. They hated all the commercial, progressive rock, the long guitar solos, the post-hippie syrup. In a lot of ways they were children. The one thing they all agreed on: Patti Smith was the real deal, the true queen of punk, always true to herself and her vision (and for the record, not a drug addict). If you’re interested in music history at all, it’s an interesting read, and it’s amazing to consider their influence all these years later. So many of them died too young, some long before they got to understand what a profound influence they had.

What with Please Kill Me and all the bad news in my Twitter feed, I decided next I needed something light to read, so I picked up the first book in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, Still Life. I found it well-paced, smart, and surprisingly funny. I don’t often commit to reading series, but as soon as the TBR Dare is over I’m putting these on hold at the library. Brain candy, with all-natural ingredients.

The Atomic Weight of LoveAfter Still Life, I picked up The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church. Not going to kid you, the cover attracted me. It’s the story of a woman who marries a scientist involved in the Manhattan project, and how his life takes over her own plans and ambitions, and how she finds love and life in Los Alamos. Overall I really enjoyed it. The writing was beautiful, although I had some weird quibbles with it while I was reading that I had ultimately let go by the end. For one thing, the main character, Meri, goes to the University of Chicago to study science, but all of the conversations she has with her professor and things she thinks about come across as elementary. Another strange quirk I noticed was that almost all the female characters were described in terms of their weight (“ a red-headed woman with a thickened waist”; “Anorexic Peggy Hilson dressed only in Beatnik black”; “the crisp presentation of the fat-free stewardesses”). Silly things, I know, but sometimes it’s like having a tiny rock in your shoe, one that’s not really worth it to dig out but bothers you from time to time just the same.

Most recently I started reading a book a publisher sent me back in 2010 (ouch) called Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells–Our Ride to the Renewable Future. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner, because the author Amanda Little takes a close look at how incredibly dependent we are on petroleum products and what sort of alternative energy sources might help us break that dependence. It’s crazy to think, but some of the book is already dated (the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla were not then on the market, for example). On the other hand, since we’re about to see massive deregulation and drilling and fracking…well, I’m just going to stop here. This one really deserves its own post.

And finally, I had a few more books on my hold list come up at the library: Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I’m reading now, and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, about the migration of black Americans from the South to North from 1915 to 1970, which I plan to read next. After that I may pick up more non-fiction, because it’s just seemed more appealing lately, but we’ll see.

Wow, that was a long one! Going forward I’ll manage all this through individual posts or a weekly wrap-up. Stay safe out there, stay strong, #resist, and tell me what you’re reading!