Writers in Person: Stalking the Essay

Unspeakable Sometimes it seems a little silly to get so excited about seeing authors I love in person. They are just people, right? They are just people who put words on a page. But whatever, I get excited about it. And today was a particularly great day. My husband agreed to watch our toddler so I could head into New York City to Columbia University, which hosted a conference called Stalking the Essay. They had a similar conference two years ago, which I got to go to and which was amazing. This time around, it was even better. It started off with an all-women panel (which is something that makes me happy even though it shouldn’t be a big deal — but it is a big deal) including Leslie Jamison, of The Empathy Exams, and Meghan Daum of The Unspeakable, a book I fell in love with and am recommending to everyone I know. Also on the panel was a new-to-me writer Lia Purpura. Their topic was the “new essay,” a concept everyone seemed rightly skeptical of. Daum was the star of the panel; the other talks were very good, but Daum’s was very good plus very funny, which is always a plus when you’re at a conference on the essay. She made an argument against calling writers “brave” for revealing personal things in their writing or making controversial arguments. It’s the writer’s job to be honest and to write something worthy of the time the reader puts into it, and if that involves revealing personal things about oneself, well, then that’s just part of the job. If it involves saying something that might be unpopular, then so be it. Also part of the job.

The next panel included Geoff Dyer, which was, after seeing Daum, the highlight of the day. I’ve been wanting to see Dyer — who is one of my most important writers — for ages. Ages! He does events in NYC fairly regularly, but I’d never been able to make one before. This time, though, I wasn’t going to miss it. Also on the panel were Wayne Koestenbaum and Laura Kipnis, whose book Against Love is another favorite. All the speakers this time around were both smart and funny, and I didn’t want it to end. Their topic was the book-length essay, so they talked a lot about genre distinctions, which is something people always do when they get on panels about the essay. No one knows what it is exactly. Dyer’s definition was pretty good, though: what makes a book-length work an essay is that the writer can never be definitive on the subject and that his or her essay-book doesn’t replace previous books on the subject, nor does it rule out future books. Regular book-books, though, tend to be definitive, as in a definitive biography, which, if it’s good enough, replaces all previous biographies and remains the final word, until someone digs up new information and there is a need for a new definitive biography.

White Girls The last panel was kind of strange, although it was hard to tell if it really wasn’t as successful as the others or if I was just getting tired. It had some big names, though: Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, and Hilton Als. I liked Als’s talk very much, although I was too tired to take notes so I could remember it. Lethem’s, though, was disjointed and wandering, and a little too long. Robinson’s was interesting, but not at all on the topic of the day. She talked at length about the disturbing habit that Americans have of forgetting their own history, and I fully agreed with her, but kept wondering when she was going to talk about the essay. It never really happened. Still, she’s a hugely important figure in American literature, so I guess she can talk about whatever she wants to. There was no formal book signing time, but during that period after the panels where everyone mills around talking to people they know, I worked up the courage to ask both Daum and Dyer if they would sign their books for me, which they did. And I’m so excited about it! The whole thing was free and open to the public; all I had to do was register beforehand. Really, does it get any better than that?


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First, I’ve had a few reviews published elsewhere in the last months. In February, I reviewed Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green for Necessary Fiction, which I enjoyed very much and was glad to spend the time thinking about it in depth. Another was of Robert Dessaix’s book What Days Are For, which I reviewed for Bookslut, and the last is Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I reviewed for The Quarterly Conversation. These last two books were satisfying to think and write about, even though my reviews of both are mixed (to different degrees).

I have also, of course, been following the Tournament of Books closely, and was disappointed to see that judge Victor LaValle chose Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation over my beloved Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I didn’t agree with LaValle’s assessment of Offill’s book, but he does do a good job writing about his decision, and it’s a decision I can respect even if I don’t like it. I listened to Annihilation on audio and enjoyed the experience very much, but it didn’t measure up to Offill’s accomplishment. LaValle was dissatisfied with Offill’s ending, but for me, the ending was pretty much beside the point; the point was the sharp, incisive, witty writing. But hope for this book hasn’t entirely died, as two books that have been eliminated come back in the zombie round, the two books with the most reader votes.

I was also a little disappointed that Evie Wyld’s novel All the Birds, Singing lost, although I haven’t read its competitor, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. I loved the Wyld novel, which was haunting, both harsh and beautiful. The other match-ups from last week I didn’t have strong feelings about. I’m looking forward to seeing what people make of Jesse Ball’s Silence Upon Begun this coming week, though, as I recently read it and loved it. It’s an unusual book, based on a real story, or at least that’s what it says, with letters, transcripts of interviews, transcripts of interrogations, and other documents telling the story. It also contains many photographs that add to the atmosphere and mood. It’s beautifully done, and I hope it does well in the tournament.

Finally, I promised a while back to follow up on my post about using Scribd, a subscription ebook and audiobook service. I’ve been happy with it so far, and it’s worth the money, which is something like $9 a month. For that, you can read as many ebooks and listen to as many audiobooks as you want to. At first I found the audiobooks a little difficult to get downloaded and a little buggy, but more recent experiences have gone well. I listened to three books from the tournament on Scribd, All the Birds, Singing; Annihilation; and Everything I Never Told You. I have more books and audiobooks than I can possibly read any time soon set aside in my “library” on the site, so there are plenty of good books to choose from. Overall, it’s a nice addition to my reading options, which … well, I probably don’t need more reading options, but I want them and am glad to have them!


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The Tournament of Books 2015

It’s late February, so if you are at all like me, your mind may be on the Tournament of Books, which begins on March 9th. What is it about the Tournament that is so much fun? Why do people get so obsessed with it, including me and all the people in the Tournament discussion group on Goodreads? It’s such a silly enterprise, but everyone who runs it knows it’s silly, which makes the silliness just fine. Maybe it’s that there are so many things to think about — which books will get chosen to participate? Which ones will get paired to compete against each other? How will they be seeded? (Seeded!? It really IS silly.) Who are the judges and is it possible to guess how they will decide? What type of book will make it to the end?

These last few years I’ve taken the opportunity to read as many books from the tournament as I can that I find interesting. I can’t and won’t read them all because they don’t all appeal, but many of them have already caught my eye, and others I may not have known about before but now I realize I might like them. This year I’m doing very well in my tournament reading: out of 16 books total, I’ve read seven and am listening to another. I may even add one or two more in the next couple weeks. For me, that’s not a bad record.

Here are this year’s books, in alphabetical order, along with my very personal, very biased commentary:

  • Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball. I haven’t read this, but I have it checked out of the library and it looks super-interesting. It seems to be at least somewhat experimental, and a good story too. That right there is pretty much my thing.
  • A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor. I hadn’t heard of this one before the tournament. The organizers always include one or two small press books that haven’t gotten much attention, and I’ve learned about great authors such as Kate Zambreno this way.
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I read this one and admired it. I didn’t fall in love as many other people have, but it’s a very good story, and beautifully written. This one has a chance to win.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. I want to read this eventually, but it’s the third book in a trilogy, which makes it an odd choice for the tournament. I plan on reading the trilogy in order, but that will take me a while.
  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I read this last summer and had mixed feelings, but many readers have unequivocally loved it. This one might have a chance to win.
  • Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer. I haven’t read this, but I thought his earlier novel Spurious was very good.
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Not read yet, but it’s on my list to check out eventually. I’ve heard it’s an important, powerful book.
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay. Not read yet, and I’m not sure it’s my thing. But again, I’ve heard very good things.
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Not read yet, but my husband read and liked it, so we’ll see. Maybe. I can see our copy on the bookcase across the room from me, so maybe it will call out one day and demand to be read.
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Nope. At least not any time soon. I like Mitchell a whole lot, but this one is long and complicated with fantasy elements, and it’s just not my thing right now. I think I prefer the realist version of Mitchell (Black Swan Green for example).
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I listened to this on audio, and I enjoyed it. It’s a great story, an absorbing family drama. I’m not sure it has what it takes to win the tournament, though.
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I want this one to win. It was my favorite book of last year and I think it’s just amazing. I’ve read it twice and plan to read it again.
  • Adam by Ariel Schrag. This one was a good read, an interesting story. It’s a coming-of-age novel focusing on LGBTQ young people, and Schrag does a good job with her characters. I read it happily. I’m pretty sure it won’t win, though.
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. This one was another fun read, very absorbing, but I didn’t fall in love with it. Not one of Waters best, I think (for that, turn to Fingersmith).
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I listened to this on audio, and I plan to get to the two other books in the trilogy on audio eventually. I liked it; it was an unusual venture into science fiction for me, and I’m glad I tried it out.
  • All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. I’m listening to this one on audio right now, and so far I’m very impressed. I may even want to read it on paper at some point.

So, go Dept. of Speculation! I’m hoping the tournament is fun and the discussion is lively. Have you read any of these? Which ones are you rooting for?


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Pioneer Girl

Two books have recently been published called Pioneer Girl, one of which is the “annotated autobiography” of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I haven’t gotten my hands on this book yet, but as I understand it, the book consists of Wilder’s manuscript on which the Little House books are based as well as other manuscripts, diaries, and letters. Clearly, as one who was obsessed with the Little House books as a child (and I mean the BOOKS, not the television show, although I watched that too), I’m going to be reading this.

But I wanted to mention how much I enjoyed the other Pioneer Girl: a novel by Bich Minh Nguyen. This one is also about the Little House books but from an entirely different perspective. It tells the story of Lee Lien, child of Vietnamese immigrants, who has moved back in with her mother and grandfather after finishing graduate school. She helps them run their restaurant while she half-heartedly looks for an academic job. In her mother’s house she comes across a gold pin that has always been a part of family lore: an American woman named Rose left it or gave it — it was unclear which — to her grandfather back in Saigon in the 1960s. When Lee discovers the pin, she realizes that it’s exactly like the one described in These Happy Golden Years, the one that Almanzo gives to Laura as a gift. Well, those of you who know the books will realize what Lee realizes — that it’s possible the woman named Rose was Rose Wilder Lane and that the pin was actually the one in the Little House books. Of course, Lee, with all her recent research training, has to investigate further.

The novel takes Lee deep into the history of Laura and Rose, and along the way she thinks about the parallels between their lives and her own. Lee’s family is a pioneer family in its own way, as immigrants to the U.S., and while not a pioneer in the sense her mother was, Lee too has to forge her own way as a member of the first American generation. Lee finds comfort in the complicated relationship between Laura and Rose as she tries to make sense of her own relationship with her difficult mother. As with so many other readers, Lee finds that the Little House books have shaped the way she thinks about the world and about her life. However, in her case, it’s possible that she has a much closer connection to Laura, through Rose, than any of the rest of us. It’s enough to make any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan very jealous.

So, for all you readers as obsessed with the Little House books as I was, here are two more books to enjoy!


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Recent Nonfiction

First of all, if you’re at all interested in participating in the next Slaves of Golconda group read, make sure to head on over and vote for your selection. The list of books for us to vote on is great. Anyone is welcome to participate, and you don’t even need a blog. We welcome new people!

I recently finished Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer and (unsurprisingly, given my history with Malcolm and the fame of this book) loved it. I’d wanted to read it for a long time and even more so after listening to the Serial podcast and hearing people talk about how relevant The Journalist and the Murderer is to everything that happened there. So the time was right. Her opening line is famous: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” From there she tells the story of a convicted murderer who sues a journalist for writing a book that makes the case that the convicted murderer did indeed commit murder. Although the trial ended in a hung jury, it went surprisingly badly for the journalist. Malcolm shows how this happened and along the way explores the nature of journalism and the fraught question of whether and to what extent it’s acceptable for a journalist to mislead an interview subject. In typical Malcolm fashion, she is in the book herself, her own reactions and emotions as much a subject of her investigation as the lawsuit. It’s all wonderfully layered and complex. And Malcolm is such a brilliant writer. This book is now sharing a place along with The Silent Woman:Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes for my favorite Malcolm book (out of the four I’ve read).

If you like nonfiction, READ JANET MALCOLM. That’s all there is to it.

I also recently finished MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, an essay collection edited by Chad Harbach. The essays were generally very good. A couple were very academic in tone, but most of them were personal and informal — personal essays about people’s experiences in writing workshops or as teachers on the one hand, or as editors, agents, publicists, and NYC writers on the other. The book’s central dichotomy doesn’t stand up under scrutiny — the world of American fiction is much more complicated than MFA vs. NYC, but that doesn’t detract from the interest of the pieces. If you like reading about the publishing world and where your fiction comes from, it’s fun.

Finally, there are some recent or forthcoming nonfiction works I want to get my hands on ASAP. The first is the new Maggie Nelson book, The Argonauts. I adore Nelson’s book Bluets and have high hopes for the new one. And then there is Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. I admired Manguso’s earlier book The Guardians very much. Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen is poetry, not nonfiction, but I’m going to add it to this list anyway. Also on my radar are H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Excavation by Wendy Ortiz, Savage Park, by Amy Fusselman, Bulletproof Vest, by Maria Venegas. I could go on and on.

So many books!!!


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Shiny New Books

The new issue of Shiny New Books is up! There’s lots of good stuff to dive into over there, plus two reviews of my own, one of Michelle Bailat-Jones’s novel Fog Island Mountains and one of Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped. Both books are fabulous. Go check out the site!


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Reading updates

I thought I’d give a few reading updates here, between checking the weather forecast, as tomorrow we are getting a storm they are calling potentially historic in its horribleness. Tomorrow is also my first day of class for the spring semester, and I have no idea if I’ll be able to meet my classes or not. Fun times!

First, I want to mention a short story collection, The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns. I don’t usually accept review copies these days, but this collection looked intriguing, partly because they are linked short stories, and I’ve had very good luck with that form. There’s something about it that works for me; I like how you get a wide-ranging view of a community or group of people, with stories that can connect in satisfying ways but that also offer variety. Figuring out all the connections among the pieces is fun. Burns’s collection did not stand out as far as the writing went; I thought some parts were awkward or confusing, but I found myself drawn into the world Burns describes and not wanting to put the book down. The stories are set in New Zealand and tell about life during colonial times. They mostly describe the British settlers’ experiences, with an emphasis on domestic life. Some of the stories give a glimpse into Maori response to the British presence as well. The writing, while not impressive, didn’t get in the way of the stories, so I think anyone who is interested in the place and time would appreciate this.

Then I want to recommend strongly that everyone go out and get yourselves a copy of Meghan Daum’s essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. I LOVED this book. If you like essays, you need to read this. If you like good nonfiction writing, read this. If you like good writing, read this. Daum is entertaining, funny, and brutally honest about herself and her thoughts/feelings/opinions. She is a writer who can make any subject interesting. Her essay about her mother is devastating (it’s called “Matricide”). Her essay about not wanting to have children describes the kind of ambivalence I wish it were easier to discuss. Her essay on Joni Mitchell is just … amazing (as is Zadie Smith’s essay on Joni Mitchell, “Some Notes on Attunement” — maybe Joni Mitchell is someone I should like??). Her essay on brushes with celebrity in L.A. is so funny. We need to hear more from Daum. More, please!

Also, The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld was very good; I didn’t quite get the point of … well … the enchanted part, but it deals with prison life and death row beautifully. It’s a novel very much about an issue, but it didn’t feel reductive or oversimplified or preachy. That was surely hard to pull off. I listened to Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You on audio and liked it very much; she captures complex family life extremely well.

And finally, Ruth Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone was enjoyable, although perhaps not Rendell’s best? Do any Rendell fans have a sense of whether this one was typical? It has a chatty narrator who comments directly on the action and hypothesizes on characters’ motivations. This is highly unusual in contemporary crime fiction, and I liked it, to an extent, but at times all the commentary seemed to go too far. At times it felt just a little gimmicky. But still, it was a good story, very creepy, and I do like chatty narrators. I’ll be reading more Rendell, and also Rendell as Barbara Vine, in the future.

Happy reading everyone!


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