My Year in Books

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I had an epic reading year in 2019. I set a goal in Goodreads to read a book a month. I’m not a fast reader, but I do read a lot. Still I don’t usually set a reading goal so I wanted it to be attainable. I got a message half way through March that I had met my goal. I slowed down a little after the weather warmed up, but I still finished 30 books over the last twelve months. And so many of them were amazing, I need to recommend a few of my favorites here.  I also got a bunch of books for Christmas and I’m ready to snuggle in for my version of Jolabokaflod, which I’m calling “Janubokaflod” (instead of a one day Icelandic readathon, it’s a month of tea and snuggling with books).

Okay, here are my year’s most notables, divided by fiction and nonfiction but in no particular order.

Fiction

The Goldfinch
The Line of Beauty
White Teeth*
Invisible
Less

Nonfiction

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
The Glass Castle*

And, a bit of both:
Lincoln in the Bardo

*Full disclosure: I don’t want to imply that I read more than I do. I actually I listen to a look of books through the Overdrive App that I have connected to my public library. The asterisks indicate books I listened to.

If you are interested in my thoughts on any of these titles, I’m going to list a few below. Feel free to take the titles and run, however. And if you have any book recommendations for me, please leave them in the comments! I’m always looking for my next book fix.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.  Probably silly to recommend a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, as most have already heard of it. But I’m doing it because this was my companion on a summer trip to the Oregon coast and it was everything I wanted it to be. There are ways that this book feels like a trilogy stuffed into one book, as it unfolds over three distinct chapters of a young man’s life. It’s a great beach or plane book. I haven’t seen the film that came out this year, but I’m not planning on it, as it didn’t get good reviews.

The Line of Beauty: A Novel, by Alan Hollinghurst. This was, hands down, one of the best books I have ever read. I got it from my favorite uncle for Christmas last year and I just devoured it. I will admit, I was a bit shocked by the sex scenes (not because of the gay sex but because the writing was explicit, and I’m from Utah and it is easy to shock us), but I was over it after the first quarter of the book. Not long after I finished it, Fareed Zakaria recommended it on GPS as one of his books of the week and that made me feel quite brainy and Cosmopolitan.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. People were raving about this book back in 2000 when it came out and I was still working as a bookseller. I have been meaning to read it ever since. I saw it on the Overdrive App and downloaded it to listen to on my daily walks and it was perfection. I’m even glad that I didn’t read it and waited to listen because the performances of the voice actors are superb. I don’t want to try to summarize it (because it would be impossible in a few sentences), but the thing I keep coming back to when I think about it was how many cultures and families and historical events are explored in loving depth the pages. It’s so ambitious and the execution is flawless. The fact that Smith wrote it her early twenties as a college student and published it when she was 25 seems astounding and unfair to me as a writer, but she is a Goddess and deserves all the rave reviews she gets.

Invisible, by Paul Auster. This was my introduction to Paul Auster. It was sent to my by my college friend, Demetria, and her recommendations never fail. The story structure is nontraditional. There are multiple narrators and there is a feel of cutting and pasting of slightly over-lapping narratives, but it worked in the end for me. I have a theory about the title and the way the pieces come together, but I can’t explain it and it would be a bit of a spoiler, so I’ll keep it to myself. Just know that this book does not follow a formula. If you are like me, you will find that refreshing.

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. I bought this book because I went to a see David Sedaris read and he told me to. Well, he was talking to an audience crammed with people. But I was there. And he was right. This book also won a Pulitzer Prize and is just a delight. Also, it is the perfect length for a long flight. I don’t know why I just wrote that, as I read it on the couch over several nights, as slowly as possible, savoring it. But it seems like it would be good on a flight, too.

On to nonfiction…

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple. This probably sounds like a snore, but it is well paced and interesting to read this in the current moment. Though there was one moment where Andrew Johnson started referring to himself in the third person and it was too much for me. I had to put it down and go for a walk. As much as I liked it, I will admit that you don’t really need to read it. You could just listed to one of the great interviews that Wineapple has done this year promoting the book. I heard one with Chris Hayes (where I first learned about the book) and a more recent one with Ezra Klein. She will tell you all you need to know about the parallels. I did have one interesting thought while watching Fiona Hill’s testimony last month when I was still reading this book and that was this: The impeachment of Andrew Johnson was an attempt to prevent the president from limiting the impact of the loss of the Civil War on the South. They failed. In many ways, the impeachment of the current president is an attempt to prevent Trump from reversing the impact of the loss of the Cold War on Russia. And we are set to fail. So… that sucks.

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston. I’ve written about this book before, but that was when I hadn’t yet read it. There is stunning writing in this book. The type where every once in a while you read a sentence that hits you so hard you have  to put the book down on your chest for a minute while you take it in. I think it would be particularly enjoyable to my creative nonfiction friends.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls. I realize I am probably the last person on earth to read this book, so there is no point in recommending it. But damn. This book. Was intense. Here is the one thing I want to say about it. If I had read this book before I became a stepparent, I would have been jealous of Walls insane childhood and the perfect book it provided. But I read it as a stepparent, and it made me want to murder one or both of her parents on every other page. “I know they had birth control in the seventies!” I yelled at these people as I listened to the book in my kitchen while cooking one night.  “Go back in time and get some!”

Lincoln at the Bardo, by George Saunders. This weird and crazy book is the first novel by Saunders, who is a well known poet (or so I’ve read; I hadn’t heard of him before I picked this up at BookPeople in Austin because I flew out for a conference and accidentally finished the book I packed while still on the plane). I tried to bring it up in my creative nonfiction writing group because, while this is a work of fiction, there is a significant nonfiction component. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to start the discussion I wanted to have because as soon as I said, “I just read Lincoln at the…” the middle aged lawyer in the group shouted, “THAT BOOK WAS SO STUPID!” and I lost the floor. Here is the thing – this book is not for everyone. It’s quite nuts in general and there are a number of scenes centered around absurdly horny ghosts. Saunders seems particularly concerned with the idea of spirit boners. (Stiffs with stiffies, if you will.) BUT! What I found so interesting, was that book was inspired by a story about Abraham Lincoln becoming so grieved by the death of his son Willie, that he went to the crypt to hold his corpse. (I’ve tried to find out if this is true (not hard, but I tried). According to this article in the New Yorker, he did go to the crypt “but did not handle the body.”) Saunders starts with this detail but then he takes snips and quotes from letters, diaries and historical documents and weaves them together with his fictional ghosts to create a strange Edward Gorey meets Salvidor Dali world and wandering through it is a total trip.

 

Okay – that’s the end of that. Time to go pick the book that I want to read next, to kick off 2020. Happy New Year, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s Envy

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For most of my life, I used the words “envy” and “jealousy” interchangeably. Sometime in the last year, however, I learned that there is a distinct difference between the two emotions.

Envy is the feeling of inadequacy that one feels when faced with another person’s success or status that you wish you had.  Jealousy, on the other hand, is the inadequacy you feel when faced with the threat of losing something you already have (such as a partner or a position) to someone else.

In short, they are both crappy feelings that derive from a sense of insecurity. But they are not quite the same crappy feeling.

I learned yesterday that I friend of mine got her memoir published. I don’t mean that she got a book contract, mind you. I got an invitation to a reading and book signing event next week. So… that shit’s for real.

I want to be happy for her. On some level I think I am. She’s a wonderful person who has lived a hard life and has taken those breaks and bruises and courageously made them into art. I have loved what I have read of her manuscript in our workshops. It is funny and heartbreaking and written with stark beauty and raw power.

And yet… I am also a writer. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find I’m totally vulnerable to feeling this kind of covetous burning, but I’ve been feeling it. Envy. Ugly and viscous envy, stinking and as slow to push through as primordial pond sludge.

I’m in a lot of writing groups and I have, over the years, seen many people break through various layers of success. They land agents and book contracts. I even have another friend who is on book tour right now, as a matter of fact. I haven’t felt this way about them, though, and I’m trying to figure out why. My best guess is that those friends don’t write in my genre, so I never felt like I was competing with them in the first place.

A funny and heartbreaking memoir, on the other hand? That’s what I am going for. Maybe I feel like there are only so many of those that will get published (which is not untrue) and that gap just narrowed a bit for me.

The last time I felt this way was about four years ago, when someone I know had a play produced through a local theatre company. I knew him back in my twenties when we worked together at a large national chain bookstore. Based on that two-year experience, you should just assume that most of the people who work in bookstores are aspiring writers of one genre or another. Back then, this guy was a journalist and I was a playwright. That said, imagine my surprise when, fifteen years later, I saw in the paper that he had written a comedic play about disgruntled intellectuals working at a large bookstore during the Christmas season, which was totally a play I was totally going to get around to writing one of these decades!

It hit me like a punch, but I swallowed my pride and went to see it. (After all, didn’t Liz Gilbert warn us all about what happens when you don’t act on inspiration?) About half way through the play , there was a bit where the brainy booksellers are having a deep conversation in the break room and you hear a girl ask for back-up at the “cash/wrap.” As in, cash register and wrapping area at the front of the store. They ignore her and keep talking. The third time we hear her voice, she says, “Cashiers to the cash/wrap, for the love of God, cashiers to the cash/wrap.”

That was me! I totally did that! And it was perfect, because it made all the cranky holiday shoppers in that long-ass-line laugh, which is exactly what the moment called for. And then, once they got up to my cash register, they were so nice to me because they saw how hard I tried to get them out the door as quickly as possible.

I did get in a little trouble with my manager. I didn’t get “written up” or whatever. But he did give me one of those eye-brow defined expressions and a stern voice that said, “Not funny, Rachel,” the next time he walked by. But it was. It was really funny. In fact, it was funny enough to make it into a comedy written fifteen years later, and I don’t mind saying, it got a good laugh from the live audience.

I got home from the performance and I sent the playwright a message through Facebook, ostensibly to congratulate him on his accomplishment, but mostly to take credit for the line I contributed.

He wrote back an hour or so later to say thanks but that he didn’t remember me doing that. He kindly added that of course that didn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it was such a long time ago, and maybe it just lodged itself in his subconscious the way things do.

Which is, I am certain, the truth. It was not, however, what I wanted to hear. Then I switched over to his personal page to do some Facebook stalking while I was at it, because why not? I was already obsessing. Might as well do it properly.

I knew he was married to an adorable wife with an adorable toddler and had another little one on the way. The discovery I made that night was he had just surprised his little nuclear family with the world’s cutest puppy as an early Christmas gift, and the photos of his toddler and the puppy were beating me over the head like a yule log, which was quickly getting covered in blood and hair.

To add a little context, at the time my relationship status was in limbo. I was with a man who moved in with me and then had to go back to South Carolina to work things out with a property he had there, “for a little while.” That was the previous March. I held out through the summer without any clarification, and then the summer turned to fall, and the temperature steadily dropped. Suddenly, it was the holidays I was forced to accept that I had been abandoned. I wanted to break up with him and get back on the dating market, but my 1,500 square foot house was chockablock full of his shit. Not only that, he left two cars in my driveway. I tried to think of a story that would make sense to some dude that I brought back to my place to explain my excessive love of automobiles, but I hadn’t come up with a good one yet. And I needed to get laid.

In addition (and needless to say) I didn’t have a new play or a baby or a puppy or any such bundle of joy to keep my mind occupied that Christmas. I had a mortgage and abandonment issues. Also, I had the new revelation that even when I do manage to do something truly funny, I’m so forgettable that people assume that they, themselves, must have been the one to come up with it.

Oh, envy. You are so gross and mean. The worst part of that envious feeling, that ugly swamp hag trying to pull herself out of the bog feeling, is the fact that the person I was losing to wasn’t even aware that I thought I was competing with him! He was too busy reading his play reviews in the newspaper, most likely by the fireplace in a wing-backed chair with an ottoman and matching plaid robe and slippers, with the stockings hung on the mantle and robust puppy snores rumbling at his feet, like a goddamned Norman Rockwell illustration from 19 fucking 26.

Or maybe he did suspect. God, that’s actually worse. Writer’s envy is common. He must have been tuned in to it. What if there was an edge in my message that he picked up on? I wonder if my friend with the upcoming signing suspects me or any of her other writing friends of covetousness? That would make me sad.

It is a rainy afternoon and as I write this I am sitting on my couch ruminating on envy and the way it seems to come up in different situations, and I’m strangely remembering something long lost in memory.

Many years ago (though after the bookstore years), my ex-husband and I bought a house. I remember the first time my parents came to see it, I was excited to show my mother the kitchen because it had this beautiful view of the Wasatch Mountains. It also had a convection oven and a marble island and loads of counter-space, but I wasn’t thinking about those things. Not until Mom walked in, took it in, then had to walk back out to another room to hide the tears in her eyes.

My parents have lived in a Victorian house from the 1850s my entire life. My dad worked as an architect and was always “going to get around to fixing it up,” but somehow that never happened. My mom, therefore, has spent the last fifty years in a house without a functional oven, range, or dishwasher. The plumbing barely works for Chrissakes. The thing that makes me really sad, something I learned just a few years ago, was that she was still working in Oregon back in the 70s when my dad came out to Utah to look for a job and he bought the house without consulting her. By the time she saw it, they owned it. I think she hoped it would be temporary, but they still live there as I write this in late 2019.

I’m sure on some level my mother was happy for me when we moved into that beautiful house. But we can’t control the emotions that come up in those situations, any more than I can help feeling the way I do about my friend’s book. I don’t like it, though. Which is why I’m writing this: to work through the silliness of it and maybe to confess my sins. Regardless, I know I’m in the wrong. And for the record I plan to be over it soon so that I can be earnest in my elation for my friend at her reading. It is really important to me to go and help her celebrate this amazing accomplishment.

Unless she also gets a puppy. If that happens, that bitch is dead to me.