Friday, November 29, 2013

giving thanks for stupid bullshit, and what i read in october and november

I keep thinking I should post something about gratitude—‘tis the season—but where would I even start? Almost my entire existence is a big scrap bag of other people’s kindness and the good luck of living in the time and place I do. Which is why I’m not a Republican, because it seems so thoroughly self-aggrandizing to proclaim that the self has much to do with the self. Bootstraps are a mythological creature.

It’s only because of kindness and luck that I’m alive to be grouchy that our adoption agency isn’t getting us a baby fast enough. It’s because of luck and kindness (and, okay, a certain amount of hard work—that is not a mythological creature) that there is our experience with the agency (financed by my dad), that there is an “our” (because AK has stuck it out through the hard times), that we are allowed to be parents (time and place and civil rights movements), that there is an “I” (Dr. Irina Jasper and her vigilance of my boobs, City of Hope taking it from there).

All of you with naturally made bio babies? That’s all luck and kindness too, so much of it that it’s easy to forget it wasn’t destiny or birthright. It was time and place and prenatal care. It was heterosexuality and high sperm count. It was your mom who flew out to help you, it was your friends who chipped in for the fancy stroller. I suspect there are times you feel all of this and are so grateful it brings you to your knees. I suspect there are other times when it feels like destiny and birthright, and you’re annoyed that even the fancy stroller snags on doorways and is covered in kid puke.

Looks like a spaceship, costs $850.
It’s only because I live in a time and place of abundant food that I’m here to be neurotically contemplating—possibly like you—that I should lose five pounds. Not because I’m overweight, but because the American Cancer Society’s web page said, with specific regard to breast cancer prevention, I should be “as thin as possible without being underweight.” Other cancers got a nice, middle-of-the-road “maintain a healthy body weight.” (Hold me accountable, blog readers: This holiday season, the sugarplums need to dance in my head only.)

We were so innocent back before we ate that apple!
So I’m grateful for opportunities to be angry and petty. After September 11, 2001, The Onion ran a story with the headline “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” The accompanying picture included Britney Spears with a snake on her shoulders. Sometimes I really don’t care about stupid bullshit the way I used to, pre-three-years-of-drama, and I’m grateful for that. Other times I love getting worked up about tacky people on Facebook, or the possibly-too-helmet-like look of my hair, or the fact that Starbucks still doesn’t offer almond milk.

Because it’s the little things that make life beautiful.

Here’s what I read in October and November:

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin: There's a particular kind of queer kid--and okay, maybe I was one--who knows he and/or she has something troubling to compensate for long before he/she/etc. even understands what that thing is. Max, one of a handful of narrators in this thoughtful, believable, freshly voiced YA novel, has spent the first sixteen years of his life trying to be the perfect straight-A, soccer-playing golden boy to make up for the fact that he is intersex, a condition that caused his parents much stress in the beginning. But this notion of personal deficit is a damning kind of math, as we all learn eventually (it took me till my thirties, but Max is both luckier and unluckier).

Abigail Tarttelin--glamorous and fortunate, but at least she's given a lot of thought to the arbitrary origins of glamour and good fortune.
Tarttelin juggles lots of very-special-episode issues: sexuality, gender, rape, teen pregnancy and divorce, and there are many places the novel could have gone terribly wrong. To be honest, I went in with a small chip on my shoulder simply because Tarttelin is young and glamorous-seeming, and I wondered if the book was getting overly hyped because of it. But she embodies all her characters with love and unflinching honesty, from Max's quirky little brother to the GP who is more caring than the many medical specialists Max sees. The plot unrolls tightly but not overly neatly. The issue of abortion is treated with more openness and complexity that it is in the U.S., where both sides of the debate have a death-grip on their respective narratives. For all its serious topics, the book is something of a page-turner, and never feels heavy. It is young in the best way--lithe and spirited and real.

Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin by Kathy Griffin: A while ago I read an article by a published-but-unfamous fiction writer who described herself as a "ham and eggs" writer (a baseball term, apparently; who knew these things?)--a hard worker, a solid contributor, not a genius people lose their shit over. I see myself as the same. So it was fun to read a memoir by someone who, for much of her career, was a ham and eggs comedian. Even when her other friends were getting super famous. Kathy Griffin *is* incredibly funny and talented, mostly because she's brutally honest about her own limitations, from her inability to do characters to her habit of being "always on" (for better and worse) to her kind of tragic marriage. I came away with even more respect for her. Even if this book isn't as tightly crafted as Mindy Kaling's or Tina Fey's, it's a little more human.

Shirley Wins by Todd Taylor: Given that the title tells us the ending (Shirley wins a local pumpkin-launching contest after months of trial-and-error catapult-making), it seems fair to say this isn't a plot-oriented book. Rather, it's about the process--of birthing, making, laboring, engineering your thing (whether it's art or science) into existence. Shirley is a quiet sixty-year-old with a government job and a granddaughter she's raised from birth. It's nice to see such an uncommon protagonist, and Taylor clearly has a lot of love for her, even though he drops bowling balls and cans of paint on her. He describes her work in sharp, artful detail that reminds me of Ron Carlson and makes me think Taylor has built a thing or two in his time. The book will appeal to the mechanically minded and to those mystified by those little plastic anchors that come with Ikea shelves (guess which category I fall into). The novel illuminates the simple and complex pleasures of hands-on tasks and problem-solving like few others I've read. I also enjoyed the flashbacks to other parts of Shriley's life, and could have used a few more, in addition to more conflict--I wondered if Taylor's love for Shirley also made him a bit too protective of her. But this is one of those novels whose kindness and elegant language I find staying with me well after finishing it.
 
Shirley's punk rock granddaughter.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson: As with her memoir The Red Parts, Nelson combines brutal personal honesty about life's darkest threads with scholarly historical research in this collection of what might be called short essays or prose poems, although "bluets" seems like the truly perfect word, and I will always think of each as a bluet. As I read, I found myself highlighting many passages and, when I'd put the book down, seeing and craving blue like never before. Blue is a metaphor for sexual desire (think of comedians who "work blue"), depression ("the blues") and one specific relationship she's mourning, as well as the color itself. Nothing is just one thing. Although I came to the end abruptly, feeling slightly unfulfilled--as if there was an arc here that petered out--maybe that's part of the point. Either way, Nelson is among those writers whose work has an indescribably meaty quality for me that's as riveting and crave-able as the color blue.

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell: The mystery--who caused the dancehall fire that killed twenty-some people in a small Ozarks town during Prohibition?--kept me turning pages, although the many characters, zigzagging chronology and dense language don't make for a particularly quick read, despite the book's novella length. But I mean that in a good way--this story is as rich as the meat bones heroine Alma smuggles home after her employer has discarded them. Woodrell wants us to take a second look at everything, to see that the good guys aren't as good as they seem, and the bad guys aren't as bad.

The fire that one time.
The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress by Scott Nadelson: Like me, Scott Nadelson fears he's cursed his cat with a disease that runs in his family. Like me, Scott Nadelson sometimes believes himself to be a doomed loser and sometimes believes he's a genius. He has this thought, which I have also had: "I woke to face another day and thought, with relief, It could be worse. And then I thought, with a chill rising from the very depths of my being, It could be worse."

So maybe I am the next Scott Nadelson?

I loved this memoir, a collection of connected essays about reading and loneliness and the ideas people have about themselves. (Unlike Scott Nadelson, I don't spend four hours a day reading Kafka. But I like the idea of myself as someone who might.) He's simultaneously very self-conscious and very sincere; he's ruthless in documenting his own pretensions and flights of fancy, whether trying to impress a girl in his documentary filmmaking class or imagining the impact he's made on a Ukrainian student. The connections--with women and students--do come, but never in the ways or at the times literature has taught him to expect. This is a story about getting tripped up by your own stories about yourself, and being saved by stories about others. It is exactly what I needed.

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