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LitMonkey – March 2014

March 4, 2014

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the sixteenth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Read:

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

  • “The Reenactments”
  • “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” (ebook)
  • “Dept. of Speculation”

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If I was writing a cheesy television commercial tagline for this edition of LitMonkey, it would be this: “February is Februemoir month over at LitMonkey!” See what I did there, combining February and memoir into a single word? Yeah, that’s why I generally don’t like television commercials.

A little less than a year ago I wrote about an article I read in the New Republic titled, “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The Essay as Reality Television”, by Adam Kirsch. Kirsch writes about the state of the contemporary essayist, pointing to David Sedaris as the master of the form, noting that “we are living in a golden age of essays, or of ruminative writings that call themselves essays.” What February proved to me is that perhaps we are not in a golden age of essays, but more an age of the essay/memoir hybrid, which include new forms of writing that aren’t technically essays (and in many cases aren’t even structurally close to the essay) but whose spirit evokes the autobiographical essay and whose evolution can be directly linked back to Sedaris.

Of the books listed in the “I Read” column above, the closest in kind to Sedaris’ work is the late David Rakoff’s Half Empty. This makes sense, as both write from the perspective of a cynical, middle-aged, homosexual man with a lifetime of diverse experiences, some good, many not so good. Moreover, Rakoff got his inspiration from hearing Sedaris and then befriending him and his producer Ira Glass, with Sedaris and Glass eventually helping Rakoff launch and develop his career as a writer. The critical difference between Sedaris’ work and Rakoff’s is that while Sedaris comes off as a bit of a curmudgeon and overall unhappy camper, he also manages to mix in a fair amount of light humor and many – though not all – of his stories have a bit of sweetness to them. Rakoff, by contrast, is rarely funny except in a darkly comedic way and his stories are filled with pain. He said in an interview that Half Empty is “essentially about pessimism and melancholy: all the other less than pleasant to feel emotions that because they are less than pleasant to feel have been more or less stricken from the public discourse but in fact have their uses and even a certain beauty to them.” I agree that there is a certain beauty to his writing, but the bleakness of it made it somewhat of a chore for even me to get through. (In Rakoff’s defense, there is a warning label right on the book cover. I proceeded at my own risk.) I think I would have been better off starting with one of his earlier essay collections, Fraud or Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and I recommend to other readers looking for a good alternative to Sedaris that they do the same.

Next closest would be Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. (Also, second book in a row with an animal on the cover.) Her stories are bitingly funny but I’m not sure whether in this case it’s the storyteller or the stories themselves. Everyone has a messed up childhood – well, everyone who writes a decent and humorous memoir. But Lawson’s was seriously messed up. She impregnated a cow in a high school class that she wasn’t even enrolled in. She set off something called “The Great Turkey Shit-off of 1983.” Her father threw a live bobcat on her boyfriend … in an act of friendship. She accepted her then-boyfriend’s (the bobcat guy) marriage proposal because she really had to pee. And this is just the stuff that happened to set up a wildly entertaining adult life. There is literally no way Lawson could have made these stories anything less than hilarious, and so her pain is our gain. As one blogger wrote, “A literary masterpiece this is not. A f*cking good time this is indeed.” I couldn’t agree more.

Jenny Lawson and Allie Brosh go hand in hand. (And not just because this is the third book in a row with an animal on the cover! Maybe the theme of this month isn’t funny memoirs after all.) Both are women who made their big splash on the Internet (Lawson is known as “The Bloggess”) before writing a book/blog hybrid. Quite naturally, Lawson wrote one of the cover blurbs for Brosh’s book, Hyperbole and a Half. Unlike Lawson though, Brosh’s issues seem to be far more internally than externally driven. Her childhood had the “normal” amount of crazy, but generally her stories don’t stand out as something others may not have faced in their own past. There are no flying bobcats here. Where Brosh excels is in her ability to tell her stories. Her book – deservedly a huge success – is literally laugh-out-loud funny at times, and deeply emotional at others (and sometimes both). Brosh went through severe depression and, after posting about it on her blog, disappeared from the site and public view for over a year. Her lengthy 2-part post about her depression (part 2 here) – a very different subject matter from her normal rants about her dysfunctional dogs or eating lots of cake – got her national acclaim and is some of the best writing on this topic that I’ve ever come across. It may be her highly unusual style that gives her the confidence to share her stories. Brosh doesn’t write essays; she describes her writing as “stand-up comedy in book form.” To do this she dedicates as much space to her intentionally, carefully perfected, crude drawings as she does to her writing. These drawings are critical to her work, as she explained in an NPR interview: “I was very frustrated when I first started writing that there wasn’t that physicality to it. It was more one-dimensional than stand-up comedy, in which you can rely on tone and facial expressions, body posture.” All in all, Allie Brosh is someone who just gets it, and isn’t afraid to share it with the world. I highly recommend visiting the website, and if any of the material even remotely resonates, pick up this book as quickly as you can.

Nick Flynn writes a memoir about the making of the movie being made about his first memoir. Is there anything more 21st century than that? Oddly, this is the second book I’ve recently read about the making of a movie that I haven’t seen, but for the second time I can confirm that there is absolutely no need to see the movie to get the full benefit of everything the book has to offer. In fact, I wouldn’t even say that I have any desire to see the movie Being Flynn despite falling in love with this book (though I did purchase the book Being Flynn less than a week after finishing The Reenactments when I luckily came across if for $1). That’s because The Reenactments is about much more than the making of a movie – it’s a memoir explicitly meant to get the reader to think philosophically about the meaning of life and existence. By watching the making of his own life, Flynn is able to consider issues like the function of memory, what it means to see and relive past experiences – good and bad – and whether a person should witness these if they can, and what happens when art imitates life so closely that it becomes life itself. Flynn writes in a deeply poetic and metaphoric manner, switching gears on a dime between gritty real-life depictions, vague episodic memories, exploration of neurobiology through the studies of famed scientists like Dr. V.S. Ramachandran and other diversions deep into the recesses of his mind. By standing on set while re-watching the suicide of his mother, Flynn relives an experience that is literally impossible to live through twice and comes out the other end with a perspective that is unique and highly thought provoking.

Venturing further from the world of essay writers, I move to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Technically this isn’t a memoir, though I think that the sub-title “Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman” isn’t quite right either. Not because these “works” are anything less brilliant – Feynman was a genius and his ability to communicate to non-scientists without condescending was extraordinary. I just don’t think of these pieces as his “short works”. They are a collection of speeches and interviews that Feynman gave over his many years – many to non-scientific audiences – which could be said to add up to a memoir. We learn about Feynman’s critical role in the Manhattan Project (and his moral judgment about his role, both then and now), how his father helped mold him into a scientist, his thoughts about religion, his interactions with other preeminent scientists, and much more about his life. For a man who hated talking about philosophy (but loved talking about science) his writings made me think more philosophically than any of the above, including even Flynn’s. This is a deep collection by a brilliant man that is somehow easily accessible to a layman like me. Let there be no ambiguity – I know next to nothing about science. I read this book because I wanted to know what makes a man like Feynman – a man with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge for its own sake – tick. I learned that and so much more. Feynman was the smartest guy in the room, yet he never stopped learning because he found the process of discovery fun. He was enthusiastic, funny, humble without being self-deprecating, and of course, brilliant. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how the best of human minds works.

Finally, there’s the memoir that’s packaged as something else. One of the earlier volumes in the 33-1/3 series was “about” the Replacements’ album Let It Be. It – the book, not the record – was written by the lead singer of the Decemberists, Colin Meloy. Meloy must have been given more latitude than a typical 33-1/3 author because this entry in the series is quite different than most. Meloy – very early in his musical career when he wrote the short book – uses this platform as an opportunity to tell his story, the one about a boy growing up in Montana, a bit of a music nerd, with a cool young uncle who taught him all about college rock. The story is interesting, if not too dissimilar from most music nerds growing-up story. I know this simply from the many similarities between Meloy’s adolescent years in Montana and  my own in New York. It’s missing one critical element though – the Replacements! Meloy mentions Let It Be several times – it was the album he loved most of the ones he listened to growing up – but that’s as far as the book goes in getting into the band. What I thought was a must-read for ‘Mats fans is actually a must-read for Decemberists fans. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a strange way to publish your memoir.

The final book I want to discuss this month is not actually a memoir, but it feels like one. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is a breathtaking work that is meant to be consumed in a single reading; once you begin, it’s hard to do with it anything else. Offill’s ability to convey the life of this woman, “the wife”, and make the reader understand fully her thoughts, emotions, fears, and desires, in so few words is remarkable. It isn’t technically poetry, but Dept. of Speculation is not a traditional novel either by any means, and in terms of the way it presents itself to the reader it feels a lot more like a 177 page poem than a novel. Offill only presents small pieces of the narrative to the reader; we are meant to fill in the blanks, which anyone who has lived through just a bit of life can do. Bursting with raw emotion she takes us through all of her most critical relationships – with her husband, her child, her best friend the philosopher, her sister, and her ex-boyfriend, while presenting more than enough to tell a complete story but leaving enough room for the reader to interject their own lives into hers. In addition, she is able to show how as one ages their perspective changes, using subtle word choices – pronouns like me, you, she, us, have ever been so deftly used to illustrate a shifting emotional landscape. 177 sparse pages … a 2-hour read … little to no plot … yet this charming book provides more story than in some of the most comprehensive memoirs on the library shelves.

OK, I lied. There is one more book I should mention, the short story collection Machine of Death. 34 different stories based around the idea that there is a machine that can tell people how they will die. The machine doesn’t give you the date or specifics – just a simple (often ambiguous) word or phrase like “cancer” or “starvation” or even “vegetables”. This gives the authors a lot of room from which to work, with different stories going in different directions – some humorous, some shocking, and many philosophical. Frankly, I expected the book overall to be a lot funnier than it is. Several of the stories have some laugh out loud moments, but not nearly enough. Generally the stories were unpredictable, but predictably unpredictable, which is ultimately kind of boring. As for the philosophy explored – questions like “How would the world be different if we knew how we would die? What would it all mean” – like the humor, I found the “lessons” to be a bit obvious. That said, the later stories were better than the earlier ones, and since there is no connection from one to the next one can feel free to download the ebook (available for free at the Machine of Death website) and read from back to front or cherry-pick randomly. For what its worth, “Almond” is my favorite, while later stories “Cocaine and Painkillers” and “Prison Knife Fight” are pretty good as well.

So there you go. Ruminations on depression, science, philosophy, music, life and death, and flying bobcats. All in the shortest month of the year. Next month … how about a little Sugar?

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