Personal Essay

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!

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