Saturday, March 12, 2016

Two essays on language

Hi friends! I'm excited to have a feature piece in Guernica's special issue on the future of language. It's about translation across language, culture, and time, and touches on color perception, emoji, fictive details as cultural signifiers and lots of other stuff. You will like it! Here's a taste:
Thought experiment: try to imagine an untranslatable color, a color term from Swedish or Swahili that English has no equivalent concept for. It’s hard because there’s only one spectrum of visible light, and humans all have the same color receptors (red, green, and blue). Once you have a robust color vocabulary it’s easy to describe, or “translate,” any color you can imagine – like X but lighter; like Y but more blue. (Birds’ eyes have a fourth receptor, for ultraviolet; perhaps owls and hawks see untranslatable colors.) 
There is such a thing as an “impossible color,” and ways to trick yourself into “seeing” a shade like “reddish green.” They involve optical illusions, not the kinds of mental gymnastics some people do to visualize multi-dimensional objects like hypercubes. I don’t follow the Twitter account @everycolorbot because—when I see the swatches retweeted into my stream—I often have the jarring, even horrifying impression that the colors are impossible, that my eyes are being forced to process, say, yellow and purple at the same time. I don’t know why this is (subpar screen resolution?), but I wonder if the effect would be lessened if the hues were identified by name versus RGB code, as “celery flake” versus “0xd4d88e.”
You can read the whole thing here. (The rest of the issue is going up this week.)

As a kind of side project to this essay, I wrote a little piece called "Fair Usage" on the politics of dictionaries and the naivete of descriptivism:
However, in the 15 years that have passed since I completed my linguistics degree, I’ve realized that descriptivism can quickly succumb to its own kind of smugness; it forms its own set of shibboleths and rules. There’s often an insider-y smirk lurking behind the declaration that “language changes.” Yes, language changes — everything changes, Q.E.D. But there’s room in the middle for language moderates who can tell the difference between, on the one hand, arbitrary, baseless, unenforceable rules and, on the other, a refusal to correct even obfuscating or harmful errors.

Bye!

Friday, January 8, 2016

New Blunt Instrument, new interview at The Rumpus

My longtime Twitter friend, now an editor at Catapult, Mensah Demary interviewed me for the Rumpus; we talked about poetry, essays, politics in publishing, how much I know about Drake and other interesting stuff:

Rumpus: What was your initial thought to the National Review commenting on your column on white male poets over at Electric Literature, in which you wrote, in part, that the literary community “no longer accepts the white male perspective as default” ? 
Gabbert: Fear. Seriously. It wasn’t a thought so much as an autonomic reaction. I had to get on a plane that day, and I anticipated landing and checking my phone to find my inbox flooded with death threats. But people who read the National Review would apparently rather talk amongst themselves. A friend (a white male!) read the comments for me and reported, “The comments on your piece are obviously terrible, but they are nothing compared to the cesspool of horrors that is the comments to the National Review article.” Anyway, once I realized that I wasn’t going to have to shut down my Twitter account, I relaxed. Being an enemy of the nut-job far-right feels kind of good. 
Rumpus: You sent me a draft of the column before you published it, and I gave my opinion on it (the column was spot on, and it still is). I feel a little culpable though. Maybe I could’ve given better advice? Is there anything you think you could’ve done differently?  
Gabbert: No way. I stand behind my advice. I think it’s (so, so) telling that I’ve never seen anyone react angrily to the advice that women/POC should submit more and pitch more—but look at the insane amount of ire I inspired by suggesting that white men slightly modify their behavior. (And in the direction of less work! Not more work!) Of course, of course—of course it’s on us to conform to the system that oppresses us.

Read the whole thing here.


I also have a new Blunt Instrument column up, in which I talk about what fiction is supposed to do:

I’m sure you’ve heard the idea that “literary fiction” is just another genre, like science fiction or romance, as opposed to, as some would have it, “better fiction.” Let’s just say for the sake of argument that it is—what features distinguish literary fiction from other genres? Often people say that literary fiction foregrounds language over plot, but that’s not always the case. (For example, I don’t think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing as particularly “languagey.”) To my mind, one of the main reasons we call something “literary” is because you can talk about what it’s “about” without recounting the plot.

If you have a writing question for me, send it to blunt@electricliterature.com.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

EVERY BOOK I READ IN 2015! WITH COMMENTARY!!!

I've been excited to post this ALL YEAR!: The complete list of every book I read in 2015, with brief commentary, plus my favorites at the end.


But first, some notes on the list and what is and isn't included:
  • I decided to try keeping track of all the books I read around March or April, which is why the books toward the beginning of the lists have sketchier notes; I wrote more extensive commentary for later books because I did it right after I read them. It's possible I forgot a couple of books from the beginning of the year. Books earlier in the two lists are probably not in the order I read them.
  • I only included books that I read in full, from beginning to end. I did read some (not a ton) poetry this year but generally skipped around and didn't finish the books, so those aren't included. I also start and abandon a lot of books; in 2016, I'm considering keeping a list of books that I abandon and why. The reasons are actually quite a bit more varied than just "I didn't like it." (I mentioned the possibility of doing this on Twitter and surprisingly got a lot of encouragement.) Maybe I'll also note articles (found online or in magazines) that I especially love; not sure, we'll see.
  • There were a few books that I originally had on this list, but through a bit of email/Twitter search sleuthing I was able to determine that I actually read them in late December of 2014. So I am excluding them from eligibility for my favorite reads of the year, but nonetheless, here are those books, all of which I really enjoyed:
    • Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken - Just great. I rarely read short story collections in full, but read this front to back. I am famous for hating similes but this lady can write a dang simile. 
    • The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker - Funny, light, a one-afternoon read. Actually includes some good tips for writing poetry!
    • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - Very good, one of those mainstream bestseller books that is completely successful as "literature" too (meaning, you can get sucked into the plotting without resenting the writing); my mother and John both read it immediately after me and loved it as well.
  • I also wanted to mention that John read two long short stories out loud to me on the drive through New Mexico last week: "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson and "Bartleby, the Scrivener." The former is arguably a novella and would maybe count except I don't feel like I truly read it since I didn't look at any of the words on the page. IDK, feels like cheating. I loved both, though.
  • I really liked keeping this list and am going to keep doing it. It both encourages me to read more books and makes it very easy to respond when people ask me about what I've been reading. I can also see at a glance if what I'm reading slants too male (not a chance) or too white (yeah, probably).
OK. On to the list, starting with nonfiction:

1. How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg - I love this book! It's about math. The writing is terrific, I learned a lot, I sort of didn't want it to end.

2. 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl - Loved this too. Ruhl is a playwright. Lots of interesting thoughts about theater and art in general.

3. Dataclysm by Christian Rudder - This is the guy from OkCupid. Better than I thought it would be, has some really interesting data on race and gender. I recommend Jordan Ellenberg's review of it.

4. Selected Tweets by Mira Gonzalez - So good I didn't want it to end; luckily she's still tweeting.

5. The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum - Essays. I quite liked this, but the idea that she's writing about "unspeakable" controversial issues is oversold. I mean, there’s an essay about how she really likes dogs. Also one about Joni Mitchell. See what I mean?

6. Yonder by Siri Hustvedt - Essays. We are interested in many of the same things and I really like her writing, but she has a semi-anti-feminist bent that shows up in this book and bugs me. I know she recently wrote a popular feminist essay. Go figure.

7. No Man's Land by Eula Biss - Essays. Many on race/class. Very good. If you liked her recent piece in the NYT mag on "white guilt," you'll like this.

8. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande - A wise and useful book about end-of-life care (assisted living, nursing homes, multi-generational living, aggressive interventional therapies, hospice, etc.). I happened to finish this right before John's grandmother died, at 98. A few months later my own grandmother died, at 94. If you’re around my age, you probably have a grandparent that will die soon...read this book.

9. The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits - A diary-style memoir or collection of essays covering a few years. The entries are dated, sort of, but not arranged in order. I adored it. Neurotic and relentlessly self-examining. Contains many interesting thoughts on marriage, friendship, and female beauty.

10. I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell - Essays. A total dude book, but I liked it anyway, quite a lot in fact. He alternates journalistic pieces on Weird Subcultures (Juggalos, Amish baseball players) and Singular Freaks (a guy who self-"vaccinates" himself against venomous snakes) with a long essay in parts about his dad and their relationship. More and more affecting as you go. He has a knack for descriptive image, like when he describes a snake's body and head as it leaps to bite like a rope trailing after a harpoon. Isn't that good?

11. Unmastered by Katherine Angel - A loose, or perhaps open, diaristic kind of long essay on the same subject Nothing Natural tackles in fiction (see below): the interactions and (supposed?) conflicts between desire and feminism.

12. The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison - Famously disturbing memoir about a writer's affair with her father in her early 20s; not as disturbing as I expected (hoped???) TBH, in that it's not depicted as a true "affair" (she's more under the spell of a manipulative narcissist).

13. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates - This is either a short book (~150 pages) or one long essay about what it means to be a black man (or, to a much lesser extent, a black woman) in America, framed as a letter to his son. You learn early on in the book that it was written (not just published) this year, and at first it seems kind of rambly and hastily edited, but about 50 pages in it starts to feel much more focused and therefore more powerful. Lots to think about, like the toll, specifically, on the body that a culture of fear takes; "the body" is the main theme here. Coates is an atheist, so he takes no comfort in an afterlife for the soul. The soul IS the body he says, and once you destroy someone's body he is gone.

14. How We Learn by Benedict Carey - Interesting pop-cog-sci book about what study and learning techniques are most effective for learning new disciplines or tasks (such as learning Spanish, memorizing poetry or lines, or improving your tennis serve) as well as solving problems and completing creative projects. The science here is really quite applicable to daily life. The major themes are basically: Distractions are good, take lots of breaks, don't think about the problem directly, play video games. Once you're motivated to complete a goal, you not only don't need to focus consciously on it all the time, your conscious mind actually gets in the way! It's better if some of the work happens "offline" when you don't realize you're thinking about it. To me, this is why, when I sit around trying to think of good lines of poetry, it comes out forced, but if I go on a walk and let my mind wander, brilliant lines just pop into my mind.

Some quotes: "Percolation is a matter of vigilance, of finding ways to tune the mind so that it collects a mix of external perceptions and internal thoughts that are relevant to the project at hand." "It suggests that we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting." "We spend a third of our life sleeping, which seem so maladaptive. Another way of looking at it is that unnecessary wakefulness is a bigger mistake."

15. The Odd Woman & the City by Vivian Gornick - Sweet little memoir about city life and friendship and human connection. Made me wish I had grown up in New York but then, what doesn't?

16. Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer - Prose pieces by a poet. For the most part not airy and lyrical but dense and theoretical. Illness as metaphor, capital as metaphor. Feels intense but resigned (like prison writing?). I feel that she's one of the most important working poets right now.

17. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola - Addiction memoirs are the closest I come to “guilty pleasure” reading; it’s like reading about shameless debauchery feels a little shameless and debauched itself. The writing in this one is pretty good, but toward the end the realizations were laid on pretty thick. I got tired of all the blanket statements about what drinkers and ex-drinkers are like.

18. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard - I saw this on a listicle where writers named “the book that changed their life” (no idea how I’d answer this question). Well, it didn’t change my life but it is very good. It’s billed as “autobiographical essays” which I thought was a weird distinction (why not personal essays?) but it’s more like a memoir in chapters, except the events aren’t sequential. It felt like reading fiction in that all the “action” is rendered in an interesting, forward-driving way and there is very little editorializing, the kinds of realizations and epiphanies that often litter up personal essays. My favorites were “The Fourth State of Matter” (especially relevant now that we have multiple mass shootings per day) and “The Family Hour.”

19. Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938 by Mary McCarthy - Can you tell I’ve been reading short books in December to pad my year-end count? I wanted to read about a writer in New York again, having enjoyed the Gornick memoir so much, however McCarthy comes off as incredibly status-conscious and a snob. She regularly disses women, including Dorothy Parker, for looking “dumpy.” The name-dropping is unremitting, it’s full of passages like this: “John and I had gone up to Rokeby, in the country, for Maddie Aldrich’s wedding to Christopher Rand, a Yale classics major and an Emmet on his mother’s side whom Maddie had met, hunting, on weekends. At the wedding, Maddie’s cousin Chanler Chapman (A Bad Boy at a Good School, son of John Jay Chapman and model, in due course, for Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King) had spiked Mrs. Aldrich’s awful grape-juice 'libation' and got some of the ushers drunk.” Half the people she knows served as models for characters in modernist classics. It’s really something.

And now, fiction:

1. Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb - Beautiful. Wonderful. Full of fascinating ideas and good jokes. Highly, highly recommended. I stretched the reading of this out over a number of months; I'd keep putting it down, reading other things, and coming back to it, knowing it would continue to hold my interest. I wrote a little more about it here and here.

2. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro - I think I read this after the McCracken, feeling uncharacteristically in the mood for short stories. I like Munro but I don't remember much about it, except for the extra-long, almost novella story at the end, about the mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya, and the story that I wanted to re-read, which was originally in either Harper's or the New Yorker, about a woman remembering a friend from camp and the joint enemy they formed.

3. Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester - A very quick read, organized into short, essay-like chapters, but on the forgettable side.

4. How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti - This felt a bit like intellectual candy. I read it in a day or so; it's smart but undemanding. I wrote much more about it here.

5. Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offil - Meh. As far as fragmentary metafiction goes, I felt this one was a little overrated. It's not bad at all, but I had the distinct feeling that it could have been better if she'd worked on it longer. (Interesting tidbit -- J. Robert Lennon told me he read this book on his Kindle with the breaks between paragraphs removed, since he thought that was a formatting error. Seems like it would really change your experience of reading the book.)

6. The First Bad Man by Miranda July - Extremely funny and cute. The title is completely wrong for it. (I was expecting some kind of dark fable, ugh.) I felt like the book kept changing and subverting my expectations, but it didn’t feel like arbitrary nonsense, either. (Months later, I read an interesting interview with July in The Believer where she talks about why/how she works in very different artforms. It’s online.)

7. Dancing in the Dark by Janet Hobhouse - This was about straight and gay culture mixing at discos in the 80s. The prose took some getting used to, but all in all I liked it. Somewhat in the vein of Alan Hollinghurst. I believe this is one of the recommendations I received when looking for good “party fiction.”

8. Castle by J. Robert Lennon - Feels like a cross between Kafka and Stephen King. Has one strikingly essayistic chapter toward the end that I found quite moving and brilliant.

9. Here's to You, Rachel Robinson by Judy Blume - This was a waste of time. I got nostalgic about Judy Blume and tried to read a YA book from the 90s that I was too old for at the time. Guess what, I'm too old for it now, too, but I also think it sucks even by YA standards, meaning, I wouldn't have loved it at 13 either.

10. Pym by Mat Johnson - Very weird fantastical novel inspired by Poe. Very funny. I intend to read more by this dude.

11. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce - I kept toying with abandoning this one, but pushed through. The protagonist has that Play It As It Lays zombie slut thing going on. I’m not into that in general, but this wasn't bad.

12. The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink - A little silly but quite funny; reminded me of a George Saunders story, but novel-length. Although I enjoyed it I don't feel especially compelled to read her second novel any time soon.

13. Nothing Natural by Jenny Diski - Interesting feminist novel about a woman who falls into an affair with a masochist. Constructed almost perfectly like a movie, I realized toward the end, and might even make a better movie than a book, in that Diski tends to let her protagonist think too much (or rather she shows us her thinking too much); it would be nice to just SEE/imagine this thinking. Jane Campion should do it. Has a fascinating ending.

14. Women by Chloe Caldwell - Read it on a plane to Seattle. I believe this is what Emily Keeler calls "reality fiction." Made me realize the novella is almost uniquely suited to the story of a love affair.

15. Find Me by Laura van den Berg - Really interesting to see Laura's work evolve into novel length (if you know her work, you'll recognize many of the same themes from her stories). I grew quite affectionate toward the protagonist (who, perhaps inevitably, I imagined as Laura....little more on this phenomenon here. Also, I interviewed her about the book here.).

16. Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont - Extremely readable family/"domestic" novel. Kind of in the vein of Nicole Krauss.

17. Familiar by J. Robert Lennon - Fascinating, creepy conceit: The protagonist (whose name is Elisa!!!) has either suddenly switched to a parallel universe where her son isn't dead, or she's had a psychopathic break. Like A Pale View of Hills, it's irresolvably ambiguous. Highly recommended.

18. Walks with Men by Ann Beattie - Another love affair novella. Had some nice moments but I wished for more of them.

19. The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy - Very like Jean Rhys (American in Paris behaves badly) but played as farce rather than tragedy. Extremely amusing but also cutting. I loved this bit: "I don't have the faintest idea why I do talk the way I do. I probably didn't do it in America. After all, I hardly ever read the funny papers as a child or anything like that. Maybe I just assumed it in Paris for whatever the opposite is of protective coloring: for war paint, I guess."

20. Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser - This starts off feeling like a YA novel and then gets weird (as in consciously not "realistic") at the end; it's obsessed with hair. I like unlikeable characters but I sometimes felt Glaser felt actual contempt for hers. By the end, you are rooting desperately for them and then are perversely denied satisfaction. (I talked about it with Zach Schomburg and we agreed it gave us reader’s blue balls.) Not really my thing (I read a short story of hers in Uncanny Valley once that I found more powerful), but there is some great writing in here. There's a bit about earplugs that I suspect I will remember for the rest of my life, every time I put in earplugs.

21. Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour - A 9/11 novel about Iranian Americans. This reminded me of the kind of big, ambitious, exuberant novels I used to read all the time in college -- flashes of Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth. Lots of interrobangs, which I never stopped being slightly shocked by.

22. After the Circus by Patrick Modiano - Nobody had ever heard of this dude before he won the Nobel Prize, right? A nice, moody little noir/romance novella. (More on this here.)

23. The Door by Magda Szabo - Another Hungarian novel from NYRB, translated by the same guy who did Journey by Moonlight, which is why it caught my eye. A very sad (but not relentlessly sad) novel about the complex relationship between a busy writer and her housekeeper, which comes to a disturbing climax when the old woman, who has little family left, falls ill. I probably missed a lot by not knowing much about Hungarian history, but still got very into it. I just love these NYRB classics so much.

24. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson - Finally got around to reading this. It’s one of those books that I really should have read as a kid, as I did with Salinger and Vonnegut. Good, strange, creepy, interesting, just not at an adult reading level IMO.
25. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman - This novel got me feeling very think-piecey. There is a lot of really good writing and fascinating ideas in here, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was overly engineered. It’s TEEMING with “aboutness” -- the epigraphs, the blurbs, and something on just about every page are there to tell you THIS BOOK IS ABOUT CONSUMPTION. Like, does it have to be so obvious? I don’t know, I feel like my favorite novels don’t slam me over the head with their theme(s). It’s almost like she tried to control how critics would respond to it (which is how I felt about 10:04).

That said, I wouldn’t have kept reading if there wasn’t compelling stuff in there, great lines, blah blah. The last section is pretty obviously a send-up of Scientology; the main character joins a cult/”Church” whose members move up through ranks from “darkness” to “brightness” (a la going clear). I would say this belongs to the same micro-genre as Laura van den Berg’s novel, a kind of semi-dystopic pseudo-realism with unreliability. In sum, a writer to watch, but I don’t exactly recommend this particular book.

26. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark - My friend Kathleen (Rooney) has been raving about Spark for a while and we have a lot of her books, but I just finally got around to reading one. This is really a novella and yes, it’s sort of about a love affair but more complicated than that. Amusing, sad, touching; has a poetic kind of refraining prose, full of its own mournful spoilers. Most memorable for the characters of Jean Brodie and her student Sandy who are sympathetic and detestable in surprisingly equal measures.

27. The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck - This mostly excellent book is billed as “autofiction” (AKA reality fiction) but aside from being told in the third person, which I guess conveniently removes the authorial pressure to self-analyze, it really feels more like nonfiction/autobiography than a novel (unlike, say, The Door, which is supposedly highly autobiographical but still feels very much like a novel). In any case, very interesting, in large part because it’s as much about her family history as her own life, and her relatives are fascinating.

For those counting/adding, that makes 46 full books total. That doesn't sound like a lot to me (less than a book per week), but then, I'm not a super-fast reader, I read a lot of stuff that wasn't "books," and I traveled a lot this year, and I rarely have time to read much when I travel. I'll try to beat my count next year.

And now, at long last, my favorites!!!!!!!!!!!!! (To be crystal clear, these are my favorite books I read this year, not necessarily my favorite books that were published this year, though a couple of them were.)

My top three favorite nonfiction reads of the year: 
  1. How Not to Be Wrong
  2. The Folded Clock
  3. I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son
My top three favorite fiction reads of the year:
  1. Journey by Moonlight
  2. Familiar
  3. The First Bad Man
(I realize now that my little collage at the top gave these away...but I didn't do that on purpose. I just grabbed images of the first six books I thought of, which on reflection turned out to be my favorites. Sorry guys.)

What were the best books you read this year?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Livetweet Love, Actually; read my stuff

Hey guys, sorry I haven't posted anything since September, but who blogs?

Some news and recent links:

Sommer and I are finally doing another movie live-tweet, and this time it's your favorite awful holiday movie, Love, Actually. Next Thursday, December 17, watch and tweet along with us (it's streaming on Netflix and Amazon) and don't forget the hashtag: #liveactually (ha.ha.)


Over at the Smart Set, I wrote about how and why we visualize people and places when reading fiction:

My whole life, I have always imagined the houses in books as my own house or a house I’m familiar with. Rich families always get assigned to my childhood best friend’s house, since it’s the largest house I know well. As a kid most houses were my parents’ house, and now I automatically picture either my current apartment or an apartment from my recent past, even when it doesn’t fit the descriptions. Sometimes, I’ll try to “stretch” the apartment to house proportions, or modify the architecture — move a door, add a staircase. But when I’m not concentrating on it, I’ll go right back to picturing the real apartment.


I also have a couple of new Blunt Instrument columns up, one on how you know when your book is finished (covering both when to stop working on it and send it out, and when to abandon it completely), and one on the practicality of starting a blog to promote your writing.

I have a Judy poem at the Harvard Review.

At the Critical Flame, I interviewed Laura van den Berg about uncertainty, ambiguity and trauma in her novel Find Me.

I told The Collapsar about a couple of books I read lately.

And later this month I'm going to post a full list of all the books I read this year, with commentary and lists of my top favorites. EXCITING!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Upcoming readings

Hello, muchachos! If you are in either Denver or New York, I'M COMING TO YOUR TOWN!


This Saturday, September 19, I'm reading as part of the Denver Small Press Fest, along with Sommer Browning, Brian Foley, Eric Baus, Aby Kapaung and others. The reading is at 5 pm at Metroboom (1231 35th St. Dever 80205).


And next Sunday, September 27, I'm reading in Brooklyn along with Sommer Browning, Chris Tonelli and others, again at 5 pm at Over the Eight in Brooklyn (594 Union Ave). (Apparently Happy Hour in NY is from 6 to 8:30? Amazing; happy hour always ends at 6 here.) Please come and say hi!

Speaking of Chris Tonelli, we had a long conversation over email this spring and summer about poetry and all things related to poetry, such as buildings and clouds; you can read it at the Conversant.

Also, I wrote an essay for the Smart Set about the word "pretty."

Bye.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Lately

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the day I met J. Last weekend, as a kind of celebration but mostly just because I really wanted to, we went on a brief road trip around southwestern South Dakota; we saw Mount Rushmore (so surreal; why did we do this?), Badlands (completely sublime!) and Crazy Horse (depressing af; seeing the plans for what it's supposed to look like feels like looking at paintings of cities on Mars from the 1950s).


I have wanted to visit South Dakota for years. Two thumbs up!

Here's some other stuff I've been up to:

Writing

I wrote an essay on the overuse of uncertainty in literature:
Recently, I have noticed an overabundance of uncertainty in literature – across genres, but especially in essays. The tricks we use to appear uncertain – asking questions instead of making definitive, declarative statements, for example – have become tics. Overuse these tricks and the piece assumes a pose of ignorant wonder – What is such & such abstract concept? Who can say? How can we ever know? 
I have been thinking about this since reading an essay on necronyms by Jeannie Vanasco, in the Summer 2015 issue of The Believer. Vanasco was named after a half-sister, Jeanne, who died before she was born – that’s what necronym means; they were common when many children died in birth or shortly after. In the essay, she weaves personal narrative with research on other artists with necronyms, including Ludwig van Beethoven, Salvador Dali, and Vincent van Gogh. I loved this essay, but felt unsatisfied by the ending: “Is that why my father added an i to my name? To remind me that I was my own person?” 
The British technology journalist Ian Betteridge is credited with the adage “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the wordno.” I want to make a similar claim: Any question at the end of an essay can be answered with the word yes. (Same goes, most likely, for poems, short stories, etc.) The question is a kind of weasel syntax that lets the author have it both ways: make a gesture toward profundity without having to commit to it.
I also have a new Blunt Instrument up; this one is on finding work/life balance as a writer:
The second approach is driven by urgency: Find the thing you want to write so much you don’t even have to schedule time for it. I have another friend, a novelist, who said he solved the problem of “writer’s block” by abandoning the high-minded projects he felt he should be working on and started writing the novel he desperately wanted to write. Suddenly he couldn’t wait to get home from his job to work on his novel. Previously, he had had to schedule time for writing and it still felt like a slog. I take a similar approach to reading—I surround myself with books (mostly from the library) and abandon them freely. If I force myself to finish a book just because I’ve started it, I’ll find something to do other than reading, but if I only read what I really want to read, when I want to read it, I’ll make time for reading almost every day.
I am in need of new questions for my column, so if you have any questions about writing, please send them to blunt@electricliterature.com!


Reading

Here are the books I've read since I compiled a list last month:

Fiction

Nothing Natural by Jenny Diski - Interesting feminist novel about a woman who sort of falls into an affair with a masochist. Constructed almost perfectly like a movie, I realized toward the end, and might even make a better movie than a book, in that Diski tends to let her protagonist think too much (or rather she shows us her thinking too much); it would be nice to just SEE/imagine this thinking. Jane Campion should do it. Has a fascinating ending. 

Women by Chloe Caldwell - Read it on a plane to Seattle. I believe this is what Emily Keeler calls "reality fiction." Made me realize the novella is almost uniquely suited to the story of a love affair.

Find Me by Laura van den Berg - Really interesting to see Laura's work evolve into novel length (if you know her work, you'll recognize many of the same themes from her stories). I grew quite affectionate toward the protagonist (who, perhaps inevitably, I imagined as Laura....)

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont - Extremely readable family/"domestic" novel. In the vein of Nicole Krauss. 


Familiar by J. Robert Lennon - Fascinating, creepy conceit: The protagonist (whose name is Elisa!!!) has either suddenly switched to a parallel universe where her son isn't dead, or she's had a psychopathic break. Like A Pale View of Hills, it's irresolvably ambiguous. One of my favorites so far this year.


Nonfiction

I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell - Essays. A total dude book, but I liked it anyway, very much in fact. He alternates journalistic pieces on Weird Subcultures (Juggalos, Amish baseball players) and Singular Freaks (a guy who self-"vaccinates" himself against venomous snakes) with a long essay in parts about his dad and their relationship. More and more affecting as you go. He has a knack for a descriptive image, like when he describes a snake's body and head as it leaps to bite like a rope trailing after a harpoon.

Unmastered by Katherine Angel - A loose, or perhaps open, diaristic kind of long essay on the subject Nothing Natural tackles in fiction: the (supposed?) conflicts between desire and feminism. 

The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison - Famously disturbing memoir about a writer's affair with her father in her early 20s; not as disturbing as I expected TBH, in that it's not depicted as a true "affair" (she's more under the spell of a manipulative narcissist).

Between Me and the World by Ta-Nehisi Coates - This is either a short book (~150 pages) or one long essay about what it means to be a black man (or, to a much lesser extent, a black woman) in America, framed as a letter to his son. You learn early on in the book that it was written (not just published) this year, and at first it seems kind of rambly and hastily edited, but about 50 pages in it starts to feel much more focused and therefore more powerful. Lots to think about, like the toll on the body that a culture of fear takes; "the body" is the main theme here. Coates is an atheist, so he takes no comfort in an afterlife for the soul. The soul IS the body he says, and once you destroy someone's body he is gone. I'm glad I read it.


Eating/Drinking

Earlier this summer I was starting to feel like I was in a cooking rut and making the same things all the time (i.e. MOSTLY TACOS), so I've been trying to shake it up. I remembered this recipe for kimchi relish, which I make in the food processor and use like salsa (I add cilantro). It's freaking delicious, great on eggs or any kind of meat. J had some lousy chicken piccata in Rapid City (NOT a food town), so I made a better version this week. I have also been making a curried lentil soup using split red lentils (which cook super fast) and coconut milk. Oh, and I made enchilada sauce with fresh green chiles and then used it for stacked (New Mexico style) enchiladas with shredded chicken and kale as the filling, no cheese (J is off dairy) and was surprised to find that I really didn't miss the cheese.

I haven't made it in a couple of weeks, but my "house cocktail" this summer was tequila, lime juice, simple syrup and a few slices of jalapeno, shaken. You can add other citrus (grapefruit, orange, etc) and cilantro if desired. MMM.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The books I've read this year so far (with commentary)

We're about halfway through the year! It's my mother's birthday! I'm trying a new thing where I keep track of the books I'm reading. This list is mostly reconstructed from memory, so I may have missed a few, but going forward I hope for it to be all-inclusive. Here are the books I've finished so far (I frequently start and abandon books), in no particular order:

NONFICTION

How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg - I love this book! It's about math. The writing is terrific, I learned a lot, I sort of didn't want it to end.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande - A wise and useful book about end-of-life care (assisted living, nursing homes, multi-generational living, aggressive interventional therapies, hospice, etc.). I happened to finish this right before John's grandmother died, at 98. She was still living in her own house: amazing.

The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits - A diary-style memoir covering a few years. I adored it. Neurotic and relentlessly self-examining, never self-flattering. Contains many interesting thoughts on marriage, friendship, and female beauty. 

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl - Loved this too. Ruhl is a playwright. Lots of interesting thoughts about theater and art in general and some on motherhood, if you're into that (ditto the Julavits actually). 

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder - This is the guy from OkCupid. Better than I thought it would be, has some really interesting data on race and gender. I recommend Jordan Ellenberg's review of it.

Selected Tweets by Mira Gonzalez - So good. Didn't want it to end, luckily she's still tweeting.

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum - Essays. I liked this, but the idea that she's writing about "unspeakable" controversial issues is oversold.

Yonder by Siri Hustvedt - Essays. We are interested in many of the same things, but she has a semi-anti-feminist bent that bugs me.

No Man's Land by Eula Biss - Essays. Many on race/class. Very good.


FICTION

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb - Translated from Hungarian. Beautiful. Wonderful. Full of fascinating ideas and good jokes. Highly recommended.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - I finished this just before the new year but I'm including it anyway. Very good, one of those mainstream bestseller books that is completely successful as "literature" too (meaning, you can get sucked into the plot without resenting the writing); my mother and John both read it immediately after me and loved it as well. 

The First Bad Man by Miranda July - Extremely funny and cute. The title is completely wrong for it. It's not about men or badness.

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offil - Meh. As far as fragmentary metafiction goes, I felt this one was a little overrated. It's not bad at all, but I had the distinct feeling that it could have been better if she'd worked on it longer.

Dancing in the Dark by Janet Hobhouse - This is about straight and gay culture mixing at discos in the 80s. The prose took some getting used to, but all in all I liked it. Somewhat in the vein of Alan Hollinghurst. 

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester - A very quick read, organized into short, essay-like chapters, but on the forgettable side. 

Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken - Just great. I rarely read short stories, but read this front to back. This lady can write a fucking simile. 

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker - Funny, light, a one-afternoon read. Actually includes some good tips for writing poetry!

How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti - This felt a bit like intellectual candy. I read it in a day or so; it's smart but undemanding. I wrote more about it here.

Castle by J. Robert Lennon - Weirdly feels like a cross between Kafka and Stephen King. Has one kind of essayistic chapter toward the end that I found rather moving and brilliant. 

Here's to You, Rachel Robinson by Judy Blume - This was a mistake/waste of time. I got nostalgic about Judy Blume and tried to read a YA book from the 90s that I was too old for at the time. Guess what, I'm too old for it now, too, but I also think it sucks even by YA standards, meaning, I wouldn't have loved it at 13 either.

Pym by Mat Johnson - Very weird fantastical novel inspired by Poe, very funny, I want to read more by him. 

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce - I kept toying with abandoning this one, but pushed through. The protagonist has that Play It As It Lays zombie slut thing going on. Not bad, but not entirely my thing.
 
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro - I think I read this after the McCracken, feeling in the mood for short stories. I like Munro but I don't remember much about it, except for the extra-long, almost-novella story at the end. 

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink - Just finished this. A little silly but quite funny; reminded me of a George Saunders story, but novel-length. Like McCracken, worth it almost for the similes alone. (I assume Franzen liked it because it's about birders?!)

Monday, June 1, 2015

"Ornithological Blogpoem" for voice and mobile device

HI GUYS! I wanted to share something cool with you, plus a few new links. First, the cool announcement: an experimental/digital artist/composer named Ben Houge has adapted one of my poems, "Ornithological Blogpoem" (from The French Exit and, before that, the chapbook Thanks for Sending the Engine) into a performance piece for voice and mobile devices. The piece will be performed this Thursday, June 4, premiered by the Berklee Valencia App Choir, which he directs, at the Vox Festival in Valencia, Spain.

Here is a page from the score:


And here's a quick statement from Ben on the piece:
One of the things I like about “Ornithological Blogpoem” is that the structure of it is really evocative of a tree full of birds twittering away (which is a great metaphor for internet communication, e.g., the blogosphere in which these poems first appeared), and I’m hoping to capture that in my setting. The paper score exists for rehearsal purposes, but at the performance, each singer will be reading the music from a web app that will cue when each phrase happens, resulting in the singers all singing in their own independent rhythms. The audience will be able to join in via a different web app that they can run on their mobile devices, which will present the voices of the singers, manipulated to evoke birds chirping. So the performance itself becomes another kind of internet communication. 
Unfortunately I can't be there for the performance, but it's going to be recorded, so if I can share a snippet with you later, I will! 

More stuff:

Title TK: An essay on titles:

Another quality I dislike in titles: a rhythmic sing-songiness, as in Then We Came to the End. All the Light We Cannot See. I Know This Much Is True. (Wally Lamb used the exact same three-foot iamb pattern twice: The Hour I First Believed.) These titles are suspiciously regular in their meter. I distrust them. As far as meter goes I think spondees make for the best, snappiest titles: White Noise. Jane Eyre. Bleak House.

I’ve noticed that people will look at me longer if I’m wearing sunglasses — with my eyes hidden, they forget I can see them looking. Is it still eye contact when something in between obscures the gaze? The sunglasses act like a one-way mirror — I know when we’re making eye contact, but the other person does not. If both parties are wearing sunglasses, the atmosphere becomes louche and permissive as a masked ball, and we can stare at each other all we like, since neither one of us is sure that the other is looking.

Dream Logic: An essay on dreams:

More recurring themes: I am very, very tired and can’t get to sleep. I have to pee and can’t find a bathroom, or when I do there’s no door on the stall and I’m too embarrassed to use it. I’m late for an international flight but I’ve left my bag somewhere in the airport and can’t find it, or I’ve left my boarding pass in the automated machine. I need to get between floors in a hotel or airport or mall but the elevators are rickety or missing a wall or the stairs don’t extend all the way. (Elevators are a dream fear; I’m not afraid of them in waking life.) I’m trying to stop my car but although I’m pressing the brake as hard as I can it won’t stop completely and I crash (very slowly) into a building or another car. I’m very angry at someone and trying to physically hurt them but I’m too weak; my blows are ineffectual and don’t land where they should. Sometimes I’m fighting a woman—my mother, occasionally—and, unable to do any damage with punches, I dig into her face with my nails. Everyone I’ve ever known or cared about is mad at me.


What's up with you? 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

MORE NEW THINGS


"Since last we spoke," I've written a couple of new essays for The Smart Set (which just got an attractive redesign). Here's one on "the mind of poetry" (the mental state I require in order to read it) and the difference between poetry and prose:
There are probably people who go through life with a permanent mind of poetry. I am not one of those people. I fall in and out of it, and not at will. As I write this, I am not in it, and have not been for three or four months, which is to say, I have not been able to focus on or become absorbed in any book of poetry. Oddly, I have continued to write poetry. I continue to think about poetry, almost daily. As my Twitter feed reveals, one doesn’t need a mind of poetry to talk about poetry. 
But I don’t want to read it. Or – and this is how it feels, when I’ve lost my mind for poetry – poetry doesn’t want me to read it. I can look at the words on the page and feel fairly certain that they represent good poetry, but I remain unmoved and unengaged. It’s like looking at an attractive person when you’re freshly in love with someone else: an empty appreciation that leads nowhere. When I’m in the mood for poetry, it’s not a seduction on my part; it’s more like the poem and I have chemistry.
And another on the art of the paragraph:
In nonfiction, I’m obsessed with what I’ve come to think of as the invisible transition, where there is no clear, necessary connection between two paragraphs, and yet – something happens. The juxtaposition isn’t as jarring as a non sequitur, but it could have been otherwise. In fact I’d argue that what’s mostly “lyric” about a so-called lyric essay are these transitions, these leaps, more so than some inherently “poetic” quality of the language. Invisible transitions make a text feel more open, and inside these openings, essays gesture toward poetry. (Gertrude Stein said “Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are,” though who knows if she meant it.)
Further, I am going to be doing an advice column for writers over at Electric Literature, called The Blunt Instrument (so named because I will not pull punches; duh).
In this new monthly advice column, I’ll respond to real questions (anonymous or not; your choice) about writing. Questions will be selected based on relevance to the Electric Literature audience and my personal whims. I may not be gentle, but I will endeavor to be useful. You can send your questions to blunt@electricliterature.com.
Also at Electric Lit, a piece about translation and the role of expertise in criticism, "Who Gets to Review?":
Who should review Ishiguro? His novels frequently incorporate elements of fantasy or science fiction without committing fully to the conventions of those genres. Is it better or worse, when picking up an Ishiguro book, to have expertise in fantasy and science fiction? Could that expertise actually prejudice you against the work? In theory expertise should help. It should also help to have knowledge of Japanese folk tales, of post-war exile, of collective consciousness, of the science of memory. I know a little about neuroscience; does it help? I suppose it only helps if you’re sympathetic in the first place to the author’s intentions. It doesn’t help if you come to it wanting either a faithful representation of the world as it is, or a fully imagined fictional world, instead of something in between, a world full of holes. Your eyes don’t collect all the information necessary to rebuild the world in your head; it would be a waste of resources. Instead they collect just enough data to get a sketch, and your mind fills in the rest. (Obviously, there’s a wall over there, and a ceiling above us.) Ishiguro seems interested in allowing us to experience that world in the middle, between the outside reality we have no direct access to, and the internal world, with all our assumptions comfortably in place.
And finally, this little squib (did you know "squib" can refer to a small explosive device or a half-wizard or almost anything?) that I found in my Gmail drafts, intending to use it in one of my Real Pants style columns, but I never did:
One of my mantras is "style isn't personal." I believe that, like taste, style is more a result of your socioeconomic status, your education, your age, your peer group than something carefully constructed out of a variation of free will. Free will isn't really free but it might as well be; it certainly feels free. Similarly, style feels personal.
Bye! 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Some essays, essaylets, essay-things

I wrote an essay on crying (joyous crying, proud crying, frustrated crying, sympathy crying, pain crying) for The Butter. (Thank you to Roxane Gay for publishing it.) Here's an excerpt:

I have always hated Sundays. Everything seems worse on Sunday nights, just like everything seems worse when you wake up at 3 a.m., each obligation and annoyance in your life a heavier burden. The worst kind of tears are frustration tears, when you cross the can’t-take-it-anymore threshold for some usually trivial reason, an inaccurate medical bill or horrible customer service agent. I’d rather cry from physical pain than frustration, though I can’t remember the last time I was injured badly enough to cry. I cried a little when I sprained my ankle doing long jump in high school, but I’ve never broken a bone. When I was 26, I got 13 stitches in my chin after fainting toward a French door and breaking a pane of glass with my face. Amazingly, this did not hurt at all. Not at the time, when I was unconscious, and not later, at any point during the stitching up or removal of stitches. The lack of pain, and the fact that I didn’t actually experience the fall, makes the “memory” cinematic; I picture it happening from the vantage point of the bed in the room; I see me stumble from the bathroom to the French door and down to the hardwood floor, where I later woke up, or was shaken awake.

I wrote an essay about punctuation (arcane commas, wrong commas, double equals, interrobangs, James Salter, Mary Norris, etc.) for the Smart Set. (Thanks to Richard Abowitz for publishing it.) Here's an excerpt:

I read Light Years just over a decade ago, when I was in grad school, during what turned out to be the last year of living with the first love of my life. I remember, as I often do, the room in which I read it, since I inevitably pictured the events of the novel happening in that room. (This creates cognitive dissonance, since Nedra and Viri would have had nothing to do with the cheap futon we used for a couch.) Beyond the languid quality of the prose, the suburban narrative like a dressmaker’s dummy on which to hang all that lush, sensual description, I only remember one scene from the novel, a fragment of a scene, where a man luxuriatingly humps a woman from behind. A cuckolding, with pillows. (One gets an impression of Salter as a man who enjoys sex most especially in the past tense, retelling it to himself.) I can’t help picturing this scene superimposed over that futon, which was only pulled out to serve as a bed when my boyfriend and I were no longer sleeping together, literally or figuratively, since he’d begun sleeping with somebody else.

Also, I wrapped up my Style Guide column for Real Pants. Thank you to Adam Robinson and Amy McDaniel for inviting me to write there. You can find all the columns here.


Here's a bit from the latest one, on youth and beauty

I’m convinced I hit peak beauty at age 25. My husband sweetly insists I look better now, but the numbers are on my side: According to data from millions of users on OkCupid, the men that women rate as most attractive age along with them; at 40, they like 38-year-old men. Men, on the other hand, continue to rate 20- to 22-year-olds as most attractive until they’re 50. (This is called the Wooderson Rule, after the character in Dazed in Confused who says “I get older, but they stay the same age.” Check out Dataclysm by Christian Rudder for more insights along these lines.) Recently I ran across a stack of old pictures from my grad school graduation. “I sure was pretty when I was 25,” I tweeted, and a friend replied, “Just about all young people are pretty.” Certainly everyone looks good in old photographs, with their dated hair and silly clothes and bigger smiles. When I think of old photos, I think of people looking happier.

Thanks for reading! XOXO, Gossip Girl