The Year of the Overdue Library Book–What I Read in 2018

I ended up returning a lot of books to the library unread this year, which always makes me rueful as the digital scanner checks them back in with that cheery ding.

Honestly, it wasn’t a good year, period. I ended up sick for more than a month over the summer, then the cat got sick, then again, then again. I also had a plethora of 8 a.m. classes, which doesn’t lend itself to a reading and writing life. Pat on Back

So perhaps given the year I had, I should consider it “job well-done” that I read 44 books so far in 2018. I’ll probably end up with 45 or 46, depending. And when I look over my list at Goodreads I feel a rather full sense of kinship with many of the books that I read. So good work, Lynn (See Fig. 1).

Without further ado, my top five books of 2018 in reverse order:

5. Tie: THERE THERE by Tommy Orange and THE DOG STARS by Peter Heller.

Dog StarsOkay, so I’m already starting off with a technicality. But no one was more surprised than me to realize that I was still thinking of Peter Heller’s THE DOG STARS at the end of the year. A former MFAer recommended it to me, noting my penchant for apocalyptic scenarios. I love them. Oh, yes, yes I do.

Still, when I read the book, I didn’t think it had much of an impact on me. Fast forward to now, and I’m surprised at how fond I am of this story and its characters: Hig and Jasper and the stars and the way this world ends, our world. Also I haven’t cried so hard while reading in, frankly, at least a decade. Maybe more. The book is likely to have a bit of a niche audience–there’s lyrical prose that might drive some people batty, and if you’re tired of end-of-the-world reads, this one is going to exhaust you. But overall I recommend it. There are books that you know have made their mark on you when you turn the last page and then books that sorta build on you long after. For a myriad of reasons, THE DOG STARS was the latter for me.

THERE THERE by Tommy OrangeThere There

So much has already been said about this book that I hardly feel the need to add much more. (See here for a review on The Guardian. Or read here for an excerpt from The New Yorker.) The book, in some ways, is more like a collection of shorts than a novel, but don’t let that stop you. Read it for the fabulous character building. If you’re a writer, you’ll be jealous from the first page.

4. CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata

I loved this book. It’s quirky. It’s original. And it’s ODD, in a beautifully satisfying way. Our heroine, Keiko Furakura, is thirty six years old and still working at a Japanese convenience store, long after family and friends believe the job appropriate. She’s under enormous pressure to get a better job and a husband. You end up falling in love with Furakura as she attempts to live life on her own terms. Hopefully, the book’s success will lead to more Murata translations in the future.

Plus, I really want to visit a Japanese convenience store now.

Days of Abandonment3. THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante

Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels (all four–weighing in at a hefty 1,700 pages) get a lot of attention these days, especially now that there is a new HBO series called “My Brilliant Friend” opening her work to new audiences. But her earlier novel, THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, has all the Ferrante genius you crave, in a much shorter package.

Ostensibly, the book is about a woman unraveling after the end of her marriage, but when you reach the final pages, and the character begins to re-evaluate her life–what it means to be with and without someone–the book takes on even greater meaning. The ending itself? Perhaps perhaps a little too tidy, but no matter. The pages do themselves justice:

“The whole future—I thought—will be that way, life lives together with the damp odor of the land of the dead, attention with inattention, passionate leaps of the heart along with abrupt losses of meaning. But it won’t be worse than the past.”The Wall

2. THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer

I came across this book after Debbie Urbanski, a writer whose work I’ve admired for a while now, tweeted about it. I fell deeply, hopelessly under Haushofer’s written spell. Published in 1999, the book is another apocalyptic scenario. An unnamed main character is the last woman on Earth after she wakes to find everyone gone one morning. A wall has descended on the world, killing everyone in some kind of freak accident. The woman is middle aged, average. There are no fancy heroine maneuvers. Just an attempt at life after the impossible occurs. What greater metaphor for living could you find?

Voices from Chernobyl1. VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL by Svetlana Alexievich

I remember when Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature; I couldn’t believe a nonfiction book had won. Foolish me. Alexievich, if she hadn’t been such a damn fine journalist, should have been a poet. This book reads like poetry, and you find yourself marveling again and again at the horrifying realities of modern life. I learned so much about Chernobyl, and as a writer, this book made me want to write like nothing else I read this year. You’ll be horrified. You’ll be furious. You’ll be inspired.

Honorable mentions: The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Hurrera, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (everyone’s read that, right?), Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, and Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash–I still can’t get that damn kid’s voice out of my head.

The Huntress

Homesick for Another WorldI’m reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection of short stories “Homesick for Another World.” While I had some trouble settling into the stories in the beginning, I’m glad I stumbled across the book at my library. I love it when women write dark, troubled, non-sexy characters–and this book? Yeah. It fits that build.

And then some.

“Homesick” is not a rewarding read in the traditional sense where a story is finished and the reader feels a sense of accomplishment, of closure. Nope. If anything Moshfegh’s strength is leaving you more unsettled, more worried than before. She really is a great writer–even if she is a tough writer to love because her characters are so tough to love.

(Incidentally, I happen to agree with Roxane Gay’s review of this book on Goodreads–the way fat characters are described gets to be too much. Sadistic. Phobic. I also thought the story “Mr. Wu” was problematic.)

I came across this passage, however, in the story “The Surrogate.” And it stopped me as all good passages that touch on our lives in intimate ways do.

“Gigi said, ‘Don’t worry about finding a husband. When the woman is the hunter, she can only see the weak men. All strong men disappear. So you don’t need to hunt, Stephanie Reilly. You can live on a higher level. Just float around and you will find someone. That is how I found Lao Ting. It was as if there were a spotlight on him and he walked on air about two feet off the ground. I saw him from a mile away.'”

Well, I’m here to say, no, Stephanie Reilly, that is terrible advice, as my current single life can attest.

I’m pretty sure I have been floating around for a long time now. Hoping things just somehow work out.

Which is why when a friend of mine suggested that I start dating like a *man in 2019, I thought, yeah, this is good advice. I need to hunt. I need to seek what I want. We all do. Because floating ain’t getting me anything but dark clouds.

Photograph-of-Vivien-Leigh- 1207732_hr
Sure, she’s a fairy, but she looks pretty certain of what she wants.

It’s not that I don’t know that feeling of meeting someone that Gigi describes. That slow-frame pause on a moment. I can still remember the feel of my first love’s handshake when we met. The way he held on, the papery warmth of his palm, his strength, his closeness, his scent. Everything stopped. Everything focused in on him. He didn’t want to let go of me, he told me later.

But first loves are first loves. Most pass. And believe me when I say this: Thank God for that. There have been other moments since then. But none for a long time.

So, Gigi, I’m going hunting.

 

 

*I recognize the stereotype, but if you’ve spent ANY time with online dating, then you will see the stereotype still mostly rings true. Men do a lot of messaging to usually younger women.

 

That’s Nice

Lately, one of my neighbors likes to talk about how nice I am. She sees how well I take care of my elderly cat, and hey, that’s fine, but I can’t help but feel there’s a degree of malice in her pronouncements.

“Oh, you’re so nice.”

Right.

I hate when people say I’m nice. Kind? Sure, I’ll take kind. Though I think kindness implies an action of goodwill, like giving money to the homeless or maybe donating your time to seniors. That sort of thing. And I haven’t done much of that.

But nice? To me, it implies submission, a rule player. The kind of woman who marries the patriarchy and smiles all the way through.

A nice woman is a conformist.

I am not that woman. Never have been. And I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of material comforts because I’m not.

So, hey, don’t call me nice.

The Determinism Apparent in a Series of Unfortunate Events … Or In Spite of.

Dear Reader,

It’s important to be forgiving. It’s important to love the writing process. It’s important to understand this THING … this NOVEL in PROGRESS … is the journey I seek.

It’s also important to realize that writing can be frustrating as fuck.

On Monday, my 50,000 word, self-imposed deadline is about to go whooshing past. Quite frankly with prep for my fall classes and grading and …  well, I’m not going to make the deadline.

I could choose:

A. Screaming at my cursed existence.

B. Screaming, crying, AND cursing.

C. Blaming my cat. Again.*

D. Forgiving myself and getting back to work.

Obviously D. Always D.

I could tell you why this missed writing goal isn’t my fault. See *. But who cares? I need to plow through. Because I have goals. Real goals. I want to start my own writing business. I want my novel published. I want … phew, I’m a Buddhist nightmare.

But whatever. I want. I’m writing.

Now back to work. IN SPITE OF.

 

 

*My cat is the loveliest lemon you’d ever have the privilege of snuggling with if you were lucky enough to meet him.

On my way to work this morning …

I saw a rabbit scampering across the campus lawn, a stripe of white down its side like a lightning bolt.

Still alive. Still here. Still breathing.

Today marks twenty days of … something. I don’t even know what. Poor health, for sure. Something brought on by a virus that morphed my usual autoimmune symptoms into something new, something I’m working my way through.

But I’m getting better.

 

deep breath

the morning dew

glistens

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Tidying Up Book.jpgClutter is a part of my life. Always has been, probably always will be. I tend to rationalize it, as in I tell myself I’m smart enough not to waste time on unnecessary cleaning. And there is some science to back me up on this. See article here: https://curiousmindmagazine.com/science-says-highly-intelligent-people-messy-profane-night-owls/

So it’s funny that I’ve been wanting to read Marie Kondo’s THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP since I first heard of it some years back. Fast forward to about a month ago, I happened to remember the book while searching for a different book at the public library. I put my name on the wait list, and it arrived the other day. (Side note: It’s impressive that there is still a wait list for this book more than two years after publication.)

Books have a way of entering your life at the right time, and Kondo’s is no exception. Lately, I’ve been telling myself I need to get ready for a move, even though I have no idea when or how that will be. I haven’t really wanted to leave Albuquerque. I love the area. The great food, the Sandia Mountains to the east, the volcanoes to the west. It’s just beautiful here. But I need a better job. And I haven’t been making much progress on sending out my memoir. Albuquerque’s been feeling less like home.

Kondo’s method involves chucking anything you own that doesn’t “spark joy.” When I started sorting my clothes first like she recommends, I didn’t think I’d have much to get rid of, and in the scheme of things, I didn’t—certainly not trash bags full like some of her clients. But I did find clothes that I’d force myself to wear in spite of feeling frumpy and old in them. She’s right. Trashing these materials is actually freeing. It’s like a tamer form of Chuck Palahniuk’s blow-up-your-apartment-and-leave method. It feels better to wear something you like and are comfortable in, even if it means wearing the same outfit frequently. While I can’t get rid of every piece of clothing that doesn’t spark joy, a certain income is required for that, I’m more conscious of the clothes I still have.

Over these last days, I’ve been culling more and more stuff, and it’s sorta addicting. Like, what can I get rid of next?!? But then this morning, I noticed a calendar I hung above my writing desk and stopped. My dad’s calendar. It’s one of those free calendars you get in the mail from the Nature Conservancy. I took it from his desk a couple of nights before his funeral. I wanted something of his to hold onto, I told myself, but I think now I was literally trying to stop time. When I hung it up in my apartment, I declared I wouldn’t take it down until I moved out of the city. That’s a lot of mental baggage to hang on yourself, and I realized it needed to go.

But I couldn’t do it.

So I stared at it throughout the day, giving it the beady eye. When I finally took it down this evening, I could feel the frown on my face as I held it. The constriction in my chest. And I missed my father again. I placed it on a chair next to the trash first, and then finally in the trash. Time has moved on. And so must I.

The whole point of this discarding extravaganza is that by ridding yourself of things that don’t make you happy or “spark joy”  you bring about the things you really do want. Hm. An actual writing career? A better paying job? Kondo’s got her work cut out for her. Or, really, I do since she never actually does the sorting for her clients.

Next up on my discard pile: Socks. I have about 30 mismatched pairs. Time to rectify that.

 

 

On Deserving the Purple Chair

I have a new purple chair, which is really an old purple chair, a hand-me-down from a neighbor. She tells me the chair is from a hotel in town, though she doesn’t know which one. It’s a swayback (I think) with those long unfurling arms, and it is incredibly comfortable. The neighbor just says, “Good lumbar support.” I’d agree.

Here’s a picture. I cropped it as close as possible—my apartment is in a STATE right now. As you can probably see, the chair is worn. A lot of tushes have sat in that seat, I’d bet, if what my neighbor said is true.Purple Chair (1)

About fifty eclectic people call my apartment complex home. We’re joined together by a landlord who generally picks tenants who are quiet and stable. A good thing. There are college students, the middle-aged, lots of single hermetic types, (myself?!) and a few older, closer-to-retired-than-not folks. It’s a quiet place, rare for Albuquerque, and even rarer for complexes in general. On the whole, it’s been a good place to live these last four years, though I find myself wanting to leave now for the first time since I moved here. But that’s another post.

A fair number of people in the complex know who I am, and I tend to get a lot of offers for furniture castoffs from neighbors who are moving or redecorating, including the table I’m writing on. (Which is originally from Neil Patrick Harris’s family restaurant in New Mexico before it closed. Provenance!) Sometimes these offers are great, like the chair and table. Other times they’re annoying. When I’ve been offered clearly used mattresses and frames, broken down TVs, electronic gadgets that don’t work, I think, really? What universe made you think I’d dispose of your trash for you?

But my neighbors really know me for my cat, Vincent. Vinny Walking (1)

Vincent and I stroll the neighborhood, aka, the apartment complex courtyard, together most days. Vinny has had a lot of health problems, which my neighbors ask about. He’s in renal failure and we do subq fluids twice a day. When he doesn’t show up in the courtyard for a few days in a row, people worry, ask if he’s all right. And that’s nice. Vinny likes it too.

The thing is: My cat loves people. He has the brain of a cat, but the heart of a dog, and he always tries to walk with whomever comes and goes. When someone ignores him, I admit it, I judge. There’s one guy who always pays Vinny all sorts of attention when his girlfriend is around and then whizzes on past when he’s without her, breaking my little guy’s heart.

At any rate, because people often think of me when moving, I have quite a mismatch of furniture that fits my lifestyle right now. In addition to the chair and table, I have a cornflower blue loveseat with white snowflakes, and a weird 1975 vinyl chair and table set. (Want it? I hope to sell it. It was made by Madison Industries in Kansas, MS. The same place that made Kirk’s captain chair all those years ago.)

And though I am seated on the purple chair as I type this post, the chair is already more Vinny’s than mine. He often jumps up while I’m trying to read and worms behind me, effectively pushing me off.

He looks like this afterwards:purple chair cat.jpg

But I don’t mind. I think to love a cat is to love that part of its personality that owns you. That owns the chair. That owns the simple love of a good life, and an expectation that the good stuff should be yours. A cat knows to deserve the purple chair.

 

 

 

 

 

Bolaño on other evenings

LEOEGetting caught up on reading this week. According to Goodreads’ book counter, I’m six books behind in my goal of 100 books for the year. Gulp. (Go here if you want to see what I’ve read so far.) But I’ve finished the semester’s grading, so …

In my search for WHAT TO READ, I stumbled upon Roberto Bolaño’s short story collection: Last Evenings on Earth. (Such a good title, eh? I got the book from a fellow MFAer two years ago, stuffed it in my bookshelf, and let it grow a healthy layer of dust until now.)

What I like about the book? Much. Each story hooks you with a nose ring, leads you around for a while, and then mashes your face into the ending/nonending. HA, you thought the story would do THIS?!?

The experience is much more pleasing than it sounds.

Also: It’s interesting to see a writer’s obsessions developing. Many of the same ideas in these short stories are carried through to his magnum opus 2666: murders, movies, Santa Teresa, Sonora, unhappy writers, etc., etc.

But what I really like about the book right now? The down-on-your-luck artists/characters. They live with mothers and sisters, they sell drugs, they work odd jobs, they live poorly. As a fellow inhabitant of not-enough-funds, the characters are satisfying an itch to see other writers/artists NOT making it.

Schadenfreude, you are an unsightly beast.

(The artist shrugs. Takes another careful sip of her coffee—there isn’t much left in the pot.)

Of course Bolaño was incredibly successful. So I wonder if these explorations of less than successful artists really were explorations of his own fears of mediocrity and failure. I wouldn’t be surprised.

The Third Draft–motivation in an unlikely source

I finally started the third draft of my memoir, The Warmth of a Winter Sun. I planned to work on it all winter break, but I couldn’t get motivated. I didn’t want to think about my father anymore. I’ve moved on since his suicide, and I believe writing the first drafts played a large role in that.

Then BAM: the start of the spring semester and the Drump inauguration. The holy shitshow that has been the first days of his administration. And, suddenly, I don’t want to stop working on my memoir. I’ve been putting in 7 and 8 hour editing days when I can.

Why? Plain ol’ insecurity. As an adjunct and single person, I’m constantly walking the money-fence, never knowing if I’m going to have enough cash to pay my bills each month. It’s a frightening place to be some days. The start of the Drump administration has only ratcheted my fears. I can’t help but think: If I can get this book done and published, maybe, just maybe, my job prospects will improve.

(Did I emphasize maybe enough? I realize all the seemingly insurmountable odds in that statement.)

As for the writing: It appears this round is about cutting. The second draft bloated to 295 pages, and I’m down to 277. I like the cuts I’ve made. I had a few moments of angst over some lost passages, but right now I feel like this draft is a lot more focused.

I’d like to get some beta readers after the third draft, but I don’t know if that will actually happen. People are busy. Either way, I’m thinking one more draft at the end of the semester and then I might try and send this thing out.