An Essay a Day...

...won't keep the doctor away, or anything, but I still say a daily essay can make your life better.

How handy there is a website called "Essay Daily" to help you get your fix!

Over at Essay Daily, they periodically run a feature called "The Midwessay," featuring essays set in the Midwest, and I am extremely excited to say that they published an essay of mine last week: You Can't Go Home Again.

I've read a lot of the other Midwessays there, and they all provide a slightly different look at a region that doesn't often get a lot of love. The entire site is highly recommended!

New book about the Triangle Fire.

Talking to the girls"On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at 4:40 p.m., as the workers prepared to leave with their pay in hand, an alarm bell sounded at the Triangle Waist Company...The factory was located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the modern Asch Building (now the Brown Buildings). Workers produced shirtwaists, an iconic item of clothing for the 'new' American woman inspired by the Gibson Girl, created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson..."

This is a fairly sedate introduction to the Triangle Fire in 1911 New York City that wound up killing 146 workers, the vast majority of them women, and a lot of them teenagers. This, however, might come nearer the mark of what the terrible fire was actually like:

"...the Triangle fire was impossible to ignore. It assaulted the senses of middle- and upper-class New Yorkers. People saw smoke, bodies plunging out the windows, to be smashed on the ground below, firemen standing around helplessly with broken nets. They heard fire bells, screams from the victims, gasps from the gathering crowd, and the awful sound of bodies hitting the pavement, recorded with stunning clarity by [William Gunn] Shepherd: 'THUD-DEAD, THUD-DEAD, THUD-DEAD.'" (pp. 5 and 7.)

Both of these descriptions of this workplace disaster come from the introduction to a new anthology of essays titled Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti (and published by New Village Press). Here's the neat trick, though: the essays are not so much about the fire as they are about how the fire affected its survivors, victims' families, and countless labor activists since 1911. At first glance (especially if you're not fascinated by the Triangle Fire, as I always have been) that sounds like it might not be real exciting--but it is. Giunta and Trasciatti have both referred to this collection as a "labor of love" that they've been working on for years, and it shows. There's a wide variety of stories here--from artists who have written about and agitated for the Triangle Fire to not be forgotten and who themselves are now being gentrified out of their New York homes (which used to be tenements), to labor activists who worked with Chinatown's striking garment workers in the 1980s, to Frances Perkins's grandson, to a wide variety of people who either remember elderly relatives' stories about surviving the fire or who find out much later in their lives that their elderly family members were somehow touched by the fire or worked for the Triangle Shirtwaist company but then never, ever talked about it.

I've written a much fuller review of the book over at The Progressive, but I thought it was a really neat book and you should know about it. Also, if you've not read much about the fire to begin with, I can highly recommend both David von Drehle's Triangle: The Fire That Changed American and Leon Stein's The Triangle Fire.

Wherever You Go, Just Take Enough Books.

Last weekend I spent a night at my mom's house, as she is getting older and sometimes needs a little additional help.

It actually turned out to be kind of a nice night without the Internet (she doesn't have it at her house) and TV (which I didn't want to watch because I didn't want to be too noisy). Luckily I had planned accordingly and taken enough books. What was in my travel bag?

Edward Snowden's memoir Permanent Record, which I have read before but wanted to read again because, hello, Edward Snowden, I could read about Edward Snowden for a thousand hours and still not get bored.

Terry Brooks's The Elfstones of Shannara, because even us nonfiction kids need a little fantasy every now and then, and it's a good nostalgia read, since I haven't read any Terry Brooks since I was about twelve.

Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, because I'm reading it for background info for a novel project I'm working on, and might I just say, goddamn, Jane Jacobs even makes sociological writing interesting.

Kathy Aarons's Truffled to Death: A Chocolate Covered Mystery, because sometimes lately I just need a cozy mystery.

The essay collection Table Talk from The Threepenny Review, because I just subscribed to The Threepenny Review in print and have really been enjoying the short essays I find there. (And, let's face it, I am trying to learn how to write essays because I had a lot of essay rejections this year and I'm desperate to know what I'm doing wrong.)

Daniel Berrigan's Essential Writings, because the actor John Cusack responded to me at Twitter and suggested I read Berrigan and also Noam Chomsky. And when Lloyd Dobler talks, friends, I LISTEN.

Last but not least: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, because I want to live blog reading this bad boy next year. I'm ten pages in and it has basically explained America to me.

I also wrote in my journal and did some other work and a few hours after she first went to bed my mom woke up and had kind of a surreal conversation with me, in which I learned a few details about my own birth.

Wild times in CR Land. My hope for you this holiday season is that, wherever you are, you have enough books.*

*In other news, title links now go to my affiliate store at; anything you buy there after entering the site through these links sends a small percentage of the purchase price my way. Thank you!

Book Giveaway: Contours

Hi everyone!

So I really need to get reading some new nonfiction, but I've taken to re-reading Anne Tyler novels instead, and being horrified anew with each title I re-read. Characters who once seemed so OLD to me (when I was in my twenties) are now YOUNGER than me.

Ye Gods.

But that is all neither here nor there. What we have today is a Book Giveaway! I've got an extra copy of Contours: A Literary Landscape, New Work Collected by the Driftless Writing Center (which includes an essay by yours truly, but which also includes a ton of great essays, stories, and poems by writers who life in the "Driftless Area").

First person to email me at [email protected] gets it!

And yes. I know we're all trying to pretend autumn and winter and Continuing Coronavirus are not happening. All the same: Happy September.

I still like Meghan Daum.

The problem with everythingI've said it before, Meghan Daum is one of my favorite essayists.

I like her because she's smart but not pointlessly intellectual (I'm looking at you, David Shields), thoughtful but not sentimental. As per usual, I enjoyed her latest collection, The Problem with Everything: My Journey through the New Culture Wars. It's an essay collection that started out as a treatise on feminism and the perhaps unintended directions it has traveled. In short, feminism in the 2010s bothered her:

"What bothered me was the way the prototypical young feminist had adopted the sort of swaggering, wise-ass persona you see most often in people who deep down might not be all that swaggering or wise.* This young feminist frequently referred to herself as a badass." (p. xiii.)

I enjoyed that because I particularly hate women calling each other and their daughters "warriors," like being a wager of war is a good thing.

But then she got distracted because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election: "But the way things turned out, there was no subtlety to be found. There was no room left for left-on-left critique of any variety." (p. xiii.)

Well, if that doesn't just sum it up, I don't know what does.

Daum is also balm to my Gen X soul, because we're roughly contemporaries in age (although our lives diverge wildly in the fact that she is successful and skilled). This entire essay spoke to the way I feel lately, like I'm old even though I'm not that old. It also becomes increasingly clear to me that I am not very good at interacting with millennials (and god help us if I'm trying to communicate with anyone even younger, including my own small children) and, here's the rub, I'm not particularly interested in interacting with millennials.** Or, as Daum puts it, much more elegantly:

"Meanwhile, the pace at which the digital revolution was moving had me feeling old before my time, even physically dizzy*** on a near-daily basis. At my computer, the tweets and memes and hot takes scrolled down my screen so fast I could scarcely comprehend a fraction of them...This book still has a lot to do with the conflicted and tortured state of liberalism generally and feminism in particular. But it's now also a personal story of feeling existentially unmoored against the backdrop of a country falling apart. It's a story about aging and feeling obsolete as the world spins madly--and maddeningly--on. It's also, by dint of my age, about the particular experience of Generation Xers, the last cohort to have experienced both the analog and the digital world as adults."

I didn't love the whole book, but I read it and appreciated (as always) Daum's skill with words. It made me feel a little less alone and lonely, missing not only the pre-Covid world of routines**** but also the 1990s world of the movie Crossing Delancey, with a less-angry New York City and the idea that a smart beautiful woman could make it in Manhattan while working in a bookstore. I'm just so sad, y'all.

But I am thinking of you. Have a good weekend.

*In other words: men.

**This seems to me to be the beginnings of the cranky old person mentality of someone who can't be charmed by younger people, and I really don't want to be that cranky old person.

***Well, actually, if she's at all like me in her forties, maybe this is perimenopause. Still annoying.

****Although I'll be the first to tell you that I feel the routines of our pre-Covid world were largely bullshit and led directly to our Covid world, and we should strive to do better in the future.

Contours: A Literary Landscape, published by the Driftless Writing Center.

1contoursI am totally excited to announce that an essay of mine titled "Open Season" has been included in a regional anthology: Contours, A Literary Landscape: New Work Collected by the Driftless Writing Center.

The Driftless Writing Center is this neat place in Viroqua, Wisconsin, that "provides literary and educational opportunities, readings and discussions, writing classes and workshops, and an outlet for the presentation of original writing by area writers." They also do a lot of work helping homeschoolers, and for that I feel very warmly toward them, as I wholeheartedly believe in homeschooling.*

So the DWC has published this anthology, Contours, which includes poetry and essays and fiction and original artwork (from 64 contributors). I haven't read the whole thing yet, but every now and then I read a few chapters and just enjoy them. They truly do all have the flavor of my native state, and I enjoy that, because, let's face it, the wonders of Wisconsin are not over-explored in the national media or publishing industry.

Family members have asked me what my essay is about, and I have done a terrible job of answering them, because what my essay is about sounds vaguely stupid when I say it out loud. But I must really work on my "elevator pitches" and summaries, so here's what I'll tell you: My essay is about my brother Brian, who I loved and who was a golden god to me when I was little (he was fourteen years older than me).** He died in a farm accident in 2003, and I just realized recently that I'm older now than he ever got to be. This seems wrong, because in his outgoing way he really enjoyed the hell out of other people and out of being on earth in general. I am not like that. In short, he was a summer person, reveling in getting outside, and I am a winter person, reveling at getting back inside and locking my door behind me. But I find as I age that I want to be a little bit more like Brian, especially since he is not here to enjoy the world.

See? Terrible at summarizing. Here's an excerpt instead:

"In spring I often think of my brother Brian. Which makes no sense, because he died in July and his birthday was in November, so there's no particular reason my thoughts should turn to him more often in this season than in any other. This spring I thought about him, did the math, and realized that I am now older than he was when he died. I feel very old some days. My back is dodgy and I never stopped doing the sideways "C-section roll" out of bed in the mornings that they told me to do after my first son was born and I don't earn enough money and I feel I haven't accomplished anything even though I'm forty-two. And yet, if I were my brother, I would be gone."

I am very honored to be part of this publication. I particularly like the DWC's advertising copy for the book: "Explore the Driftless with 64 of your friends."*** Nice.

*Although I don't get to homeschool the CRjrs, because they actually like other people and seem to enjoy going to school. If someone had offered to homeschool me while I was in grade school? Holy crap. I would have been in heaven.

**Once when I was little, a neighborhood bully I rode the bus with stole a wheel off my toy car, which I was taking to school for show and tell, and which I had taken out of my backpack to show off because I was so proud of it. When he heard this story later that night, my brother Brian drove to the bully's house and demanded he return the wheel. The bully didn't have the wheel anymore, so it didn't help my car, but the bully certainly left me alone after that. No matter what faults my brother had, and he certainly had them, I will love him to my dying day (and hopefully beyond) for that act of older-brother kindness and chutzpah.

***The "Driftless" refers to the southwest corner of Wisconsin (and corners of other states), where glaciers didn't grind the landscape down, and there's a lot of beautiful ridges and woods and river valleys.

Sometimes you're just in the mood: What My Mother and I Don't Talk About.

I've never actually given my relationship with my mother a lot of thought. We were always really close and worked together in a family business and share a lot of the same opinions, so for me it's been a good relationship. When I first went to college I was really homesick for home and for her; I've kept some cards she sent me while I was a couple of hours away and they still make me laugh and tear up a little when I read them. They're not sappy or anything, they're just pure mom. She's kind of a stoic and could never really write I love you or I miss you but I know that she did. On one card she drew a little unhappy face with tears, with this written next to it: "I do this a lot."

But she is aging and I am aging. For my sisters and I, now in our forties and fifties, it seems just a bit like we are having a somewhat-delayed (thirty or forty years delayed; just somewhat) adolescent-hood. As Mom's needs change (and they have, particularly since my Dad died), we are experiencing some difficulties getting along with one another. It's all fine; it's growing pains. But it has been an eye-opening process.

All of which is a very long-winded introduction to the subject of how much I am enjoying the essay collection What My Mother and I Don't Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, edited by Michele Filgate (who is also the author of the essay of that title). Just a few years ago I probably would not have been in the right place to read this book. But now I am, and it's knocking me over. The essays are good, and they're just (almost unbearably) honest and (often) sad. But there is a strength in them, and in the writers, and in the humbling realization that we are all human and it is hard to get along, even where there is love. I continue to learn this lesson over and over, just of late. How hard it is to get along even with those you love the most. Reading a book like this makes me look at people and the human condition and just be awestruck, over and over again, that so many people get up out of bed and face each day. To do what humans do--go out and face life every day, over and over and over--with all our weaknesses?* It's incredible.

Anyway. I'm explaining it badly. But it's a good book and an interesting collection and even if you don't have any issues with your mom, you may want to check it out. I'll leave you with one of my favorite paragraphs, from the essay "Thesmophoria," by Melissa Febos:

"There is a difference between the fear of upsetting someone who loves you and the danger of losing them. For a long time, I couldn't separate them. It has taken me some work to discern the difference between the pain of hurting those I love and my fear of what I might lose. Hurting those we love is survivable. It is inevitable. I wish that I could have done less of it. But no matter how much of it I did, I would never have lost her." (p. 56.)

*And constant freaking snow and unrelenting record-setting cold in November? As if it wasn't hard enough to get up and go about your day?

Nothing I'm reading is sticking in my brain.

You ever had this problem?

At last, over the last few months of 2018, my eye/face fatigue problems* seemed to right themselves, and I actually got through quite a few books. The problem is, even though I read them and I'm pretty sure I found parts of them interesting, they mostly just didn't stand out or leave anything stuck in my brain that I just had to write about. So now I could either worry about my brain fuzziness, or I could just put it down to "reading while distracted" and move on. That's the course I'm choosing.

So what books did I read a month or two ago that I already can't remember?

Safekeeping, a memoir by Abigail Thomas. It's a memoir of a lifetime of Thomas's memories, primarily about her life as a "young, lost mother, [who had] four children, three marriages, and grandchildren." I think I maybe read something about it at The Millions that made me want to get it? Anyway, there were parts of it I enjoyed, and if you look up Abigail Thomas, wow, she's had quite a life, but overall I didn't find much in her experiences that spoke to me or provided me with insight. I think mainly I was impressed that anyone could stand being married three times, and also I was mainly just jealous that she had the energy (and started young enough) to have four kids. That's about it. Anyone else read this one and had more coherent thoughts about it?

I also read a short memoir titled Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, which I'm pretty sure I read about on Unruly's blog (yup, here it is). It was okay, but again, not really much I related to, and although I love me a good short book, this one was too short and its chapters too choppy, too unrelated. I just couldn't get into it.

I also tried an essay collection by Heather Havrilesky, titled What If This Were Enough?, that I really wanted to enjoy, but couldn't get past the first thirty pages of. I think her idea was okay, but I don't like to see my real thoughtful or "questioning the culture" essays anchored primarily by talk about TV shows (in one chapter she goes on for quite some time about Mad Men, and true to form here, I'm forgetting what point she was actually trying to make there). Don't get me wrong--I LOVE TV. TV and me is a true love story for the ages. But when I want quietly compelling essays, I kind of want them based on other things than TV. I kind of just want Wendell Berry, I'll admit it.

I did make it all the way through Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Culture and Science of Pregnancy, by Angela Garbes but again, although it was interesting, it just felt slight. Yes, yes, yes, it's a real pain to give up drinking during pregnancy, and is it really necessary? I guess I just don't care about that argument anymore. For some reason I thought this book should feel bigger--the author handled the research nicely and shared her birth story with the level of detail I expect (a lot--don't bother telling me your birth story unless you are prepared to dish the nitty AND the gritty), but it just didn't set me on fire. It was no Labor Day, or even Pushed.

Somebody, for the love of all that's holy, recommend a book I can read and actually remember 3 days later? Thanks.

*Don't ask me, had it checked out to try and make sure it wasn't previously diagnosed eye problem getting worse or, you know, sinus or brain cancer. Everything came up healthy, so I'm just marking it down to facial/eye muscle fatigue, because that seems like the sort of dumb thing I'd have. My muscles and I have never quite operated on the same wavelength.

A bit more about Roxane Gay's "Bad Feminist."

Well, I have finished as much as I am going to of Roxane Gay's essay collection Bad Feminist.

We've already had a bit of discussion on this book, and I think we're all agreed that the entire collection could have been edited a bit better (the book is 320 pages long and honestly, I think it could have been trimmed a bit, both in terms of tightening up each essay and also leaving a few out). I think we're also agreed that the book got a lot (perhaps too much?) press; and although I'm often the first to be completely bugged by a book that is overhyped, mostly that bothers me when I don't think such a book merited the hype at all. Does that make sense?

That was not the case (for me) with this collection. I've not read every single last page of the book, but what I did read in it often made me think, or helped me see things from a different angle. It even gave me moments when I could give what I call  "snorts of angry sisterhood laughter."*

As for seeing some things differently? There is her essay "What We Hunger For." Here is some of it:

"When I was in middle school, when I was young--old enough to like a boy but young enough to have no clue what that meant--there was a boy who I thought was my boyfriend and who said he was my boyfriend but who also completely ignored me at school. It's a sad, silly story lots of girls know...

When we were together, he'd tell me what he wanted to do to me. He wasn't asking permission. I was not an unwilling participant. I was not a willing participant. I felt nothing one way or the other. I wanted him to love me. I wanted to make him happy. If doing things to my body made him happy, I would let him do anything to my body. My body was nothing to me. It was just meat and bones around that void he filled by touching me. Technically, we didn't have sex, but we did everything else. The more I gave, the more he took. At school, he continued looking right through me. I was dying but I was happy. I was happy because he was happy, because if I gave enough, he might love me. As an adult, I don't understand how I allowed him to treat me like that. I don't understand how he could be so terrible. I don't understand how desperately I sacrificed myself. I was young." (p. 142.)

There is not really a happy ending to that story. But you should go and read that essay. I'm going to re-read it periodically because it is an unbelievably good essay. I'm going to re-read it periodically to remind myself how important it is that I try to raise the CRjrs to grow up to be people who won't take what women (or anyone) might be desperately sacrificing themselves to give.

Yeah. Hype and all. I liked the book, and I like Roxane Gay.

*One such moment: in her essay "The Alienable Rights of Women," there is this paragraph: "If I told you my birth control method of choice, which I kind of swear by, you'd look at me like I was slightly insane. Suffice it to say, I will take a pill every day when men have that same option. We should all be in this together, right? One of my favorite moments is when a guy, at that certain point in a relationship, says something desperately hopeful like, 'Are you on the pill?' I simply say, 'No, are you?"

To that paragraph I say: AMEN SISTER. I have been waiting for what feels like an eternity to find one other woman to speak this idea aloud. And now I've found her. No matter what else she does I'll love her forever for that paragraph.

Let's chat about 2018, shall we?

I gotta be honest with you: 2018 has been a bit of a shit show.

For me, for family members, for friends; in my small and cranky circle the feeling emphatically seems to be that none of us will be sorry to see the backside of 2018. I hope this is not the case for you. And I hope that your 2019 (and mine) is a fabulous year. It goes against my nature, but hell, I'm out of other ideas, so I'm going to think positively.

One thing that has not sucked has been our Essay Project 2018. I have enjoyed reading some different essay collections, and what I have really enjoyed is talking them over with you. Thank you so much! Keep reading suggestions and comments coming--I think we should keep reading essays in 2019. What do you think?

Now, to housekeeping. I am not yet done with the Roxane Gay and still want to talk about her a little bit more. Although I agree with several commenters here that some of her work could do with a good edit and that her book Bad Feminist was perhaps a touch over-hyped*, I am still finding much to like in her writing.

So, originally for December, we were slated to book-club Garret Keizer's small book Privacy. Frankly, kids, I don't think I have the energy this month. (I used to love baking Christmas cookies. And even that job is kicking my ass this year. Middle age is schooling me.) Would you like to read and discuss it in January? Let's do.

In other news, I took a nostalgic wander through the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018 list last week (I used to love doing that, and critiquing the list, and laughing that I had only ever read like one or two books on it). It was fun as always. More on this later, including my new budding love affair with David Sedaris and his new essay collection Calypso.

What a year: Everything's shit! I'm too lazy to bake Christmas cookies! I'm finally falling in love with David Sedaris! Up is down! Cats and dogs living together in sin!

Get here, 2019. And for chrissake be better, wouldja?

*And I hate the title, which does not really capture the essence of the collection. I think publishers just think sticking "feminist" with any combination of incendiary words in a title will sell books. Lame.

Roxane Gay.

Is anyone reading Roxane Gay's essay collection Bad Feminist? Thoughts?

I have some, but am having difficulty formulating them. For one thing, I didn't think I was going to be able to continue after reading the intro (about being a "bad feminist"). Normally if you say the word "feminist" to me, I just stop listening, because with the exception of Jessa Crispin's manifesto Why I Am Not a Feminist, I have never read anything remotely interesting to me that included the word "feminist."

But I am glad I continued on, because I am actually enjoying Gay's collection. I hope to say more about it specifically in a future post, but my overall reaction so far is that I just really like Roxane Gay. Her writing doesn't set me on fire and I haven't found a whole lot of insights in her stuff, but overall it's put together well and I think her heart is in the right place and I just like her, so I'm willing to spend some time reading her. This is high praise for me lately, as I find most people I meet or read do not improve upon closer acquaintance.*

In other news, I see now that Gay has just announced she will be leaving her professor post at Purdue University.

Oh, and might I just add? I hope that you all had a Happy Thanksgiving. Mine was nice but I'll admit a good part of the thrill is now being done with 50% of the big winter holidays. Yes, you may call me The Grinch.

*I'm sure anyone I meet says the same thing about me.

Getting my Wendell Berry in, just under the wire.

Hey everyone. Where did October go?

I know our discussion this month was supposed to be about Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community, and I'm truly sorry to report that I did not get the entire book read, or any posts done. Because I can tell it is a truly great book. I can tell that mostly because I know how Wendell Berry writes, and I know a lot about how he thinks, and he is RIGHT ON. But I can also tell that it is great because it contains paragraphs like this:

"Most of us get almost all the things we need by buying them; most of us know only vaguely, if at all, where those things come from; and most of us know not at all what damage is involved in their production. We are almost entirely dependent on an economy of which we are almost entirely ignorant. The provenance, for example, not only of the food we buy at the store but of the chemicals, fuels, metals, and other materials necessary to grow, harvest, transport, process, and package that food is almost necessarily a mystery to us. To know the full economic history of a head of supermarket cauliflower would require an immense job of research. To be so completely and so ignorantly dependent on the present abusive food economy certainly defines us as earth abusers. It also defines us as potential victims." (pp. 36-37.)

He's got something like that on almost every page. It's so true it's exhausting. But at one point he talks about "good work," and what he means by that phrase. Trust me, reading this book would be "good work." I'm still not fully back on my reading game, but I'm going to continue with this one, however long it takes me.

Welcome to October: and Wendell Berry.

I gotta be honest with you: this autumn is turning out to be a bit of a shitstorm.

I mean, it's fine and all. We're good, generally. But you've got to let me kvetch just a bit about our Midwestern autumn. It's turning out just like our Midwestern spring was this year: aggressively dreary, cold-ish, WET. Now, I live for fall. I live for autumn sunshine that is warmer than spring sunshine and autumn breezes that are crisper than spring breezes. I live for the changing colors of leaves, and the dry skittering of leaves on the road. I live for they drying out and rustling of corn, and the bright orange of pumpkins glowing in the sun. And I am getting NONE of that. Seeing as how a nice autumn season of two to three weeks of nice 65-degree weather and fall light is pretty much one of the only reasons I live in Wisconsin, this lack of a nice fall is seriously chapping my hide. (All the more so because autumn 2017 was a lot like it--wet, dreary, stupid.)

Okay. I think I have it out of my system. Thank you.

Now: to close out September? I can't say I was crazy about Leslie Jamison's The Best American Essays 2017. Too dark, even for me. But I did find one essay I liked very much, Bernard Farai Matambo's "Working the City," about how he and another friend from Harare, Zimbabwe, were accepted to universities in the United States, and then spent their time "working their city," that is, visiting every office or business or friend's house or embassy to ask for funds to help them make it to the United States. Something about it was so hopeful and so honest and so nice:

"But Cato and I have a plan. We are approaching everyone and anyone we think may have money to five our way. We have written letters of inquiry to banks, members of Parliament, government ministries, airlines, government ministers, nongovernmental organizations--both domestic and international, private and public corporations, and general citizens known for charitable works or their good economic standing, a list that includes pastors, churchgoing men and women, and the wives of army generals. Cato has even written letters to embassies all over the city...

You never know, he said. And it wasn't my destiny to stop him.

It must have been all that talk of oil wealth that gave him the nerve, that our desire to leave no stone in this city unturned. We are trying out every rock that may move." (p. 106.)

I can't describe it. But it was hopeful and scrappy and remarkably free of malice, considering the author was having to leave no stone unturned just to try and find the money to get to the country where his education was waiting. I really liked it.

But now, it is October. Is everyone ready for Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community?


September so far.

Has anyone picked up a copy of the Best American Essays 2017, our September Essay Project pick?

I have, but I have been rather scattershot in reading it. When faced with "Best" collections I first scan for names that might interest me, then titles, then I read a paragraph and decide if I'm interested. So far I have looked at about five or six essays in this collection, and decided to read one. The two I read I liked very much (Emily Maloney's "Cost of Living" and Kenneth McClane's "Sparrow Needy," about his brother), but I'll be honest, I'm having trouble dipping into the collection. I wish I didn't know it was edited by Leslie Jamison. I'm not a Leslie Jamison fan, and I think it's affecting my willingness to read what's on offer here. 

In other news I read Laura Jean Baker's memoir The Motherhood Affidavits, about her having five kids because it helped provide natural oxytocin to offset her depression, intermingled with stories from her criminal defense attorney husband's clients in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I read the whole thing, but I can't decide how I feel about it.

Last but not least I have started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to the CRjrs. They are totally addicted to it, which makes for a nice change from their Lego addiction.

Have a nice week, all.

Labor Day Reading List 2018.

Good morning! If you'll remember, Labor Day is one of my absolute favorite holidays. I am determined to enjoy it today, although for some reason I cannot sleep at all lately and so stumble around all day like a zombie. Also, it is dark out there (I live in a new monsoon zone where it is constantly dark and rainy) and we will probably not be able to play much outside; major bummer.

So every year at this time I compile a list of books that I've read that have to do with jobs and work. (Here's the prior links: 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.) This is a category of nonfiction I really enjoy, so normally this is a long list, but not this year. I've read a lot less this year, so apologies for this short list. Better luck next year, right? I hear you just feel better and get lots more time to indulge in your favorite activities as you age*, so here's looking forward to 2018-2019.

Helene Hanff, Underfoot in Show Business. A re-read, but God, this book is so awesome. About trying to make it in theatah and i New York City in general.

Michael Perry, Population 485. Another re-read, about being a writer, volunteer EMT and firefighter, and all-around decent guy.

Brian Alexander, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town. An investigative book about Ohio's Anchor Hocking Glass company, and how finance types and business people raped it for all the profit they could get, helping destroy its hometown in the process. In bold because it's one of the best books I read this year. READ IT, even if some of the financial fine print gets a bit dense and you have to skip parts of it.

Peter Maas, Serpico. About being a cop, and a whistleblower. Unbelievably great read.

Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. About Wilder's life as a farmer and author. Fantastic. Very important in these days when Wilder's reputation is taking a hit. Yes, the settlers were not nice to Native Americans. Maybe we should read about that and discuss why it was wrong rather than pretend it never happened. At least that's the way I feel about it.

Annie Spence, Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks. About books, reading, and being a librarian.

Rachel Arneson, No Apparent Distress: A Doctor's Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine. About becoming and being a doctor. It didn't set me on fire but was an interesting read.

NOW: Go forth, and have a Happy Labor Day. I wish you a good day celebrating work by not doing any.


The Essay Project 2018: Joan Didion, the right writer for this time in my life.

It's still August, which means our Essay Project assigned reading is still Joan Didion's The White Album.

Have you ever had that feeling that you've read an author for a long time, or here and there, and you generally like them, think they are good at their trade, and then one day you're reading them and you're like, WOW, I am getting this like I have never gotten this before.

This is the experience I am having with Joan Didion's The White Album.

Not so much the first essay (after which the collection is named). That is still not my favorite essay, although it is one of her best known, and I'm still wondering at the craft of it. I like the bold opening statement ("We tell ourselves stories in order to live"). I mean, that's the kind of statement you could think about and parse for a long time. And I really like her formulation of this sentence:"By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." Why "does not now seem to me an inappropriate response"? Why not simply "seems to me now an entirely appropriate response."? There must be a reason.

But anyway. Where I'm finding I'm completely in concert with Didion at this time in my life is a lot of small moments in a lot of her smaller essays. I LOVE the essay "Holy Water," when she learns about how water moves and is moved around her home state of California; I love the science of it mixed with the pragmatism and the language and imagery. I love how SHE loves learning about the water. I love that she wants to stay in the "water control center" and move the water around herself: "I had no further business in this room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens, and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still."

I can hear the desire there, for power, for control, to give life. I can feel it. So then I saw at the bottom of this essay, it was written (or published) in 1977. Didion was born in 1934. She wrote that essay when she was 43. In other words? Exactly the same age I am now. Is this why it's resonating so? Especially the essays that seem to do plenty on their surface and do even more underneath? Because that is how I feel some days on this Earth: I want to stay the day and exert some life-giving control too.

I'm knocked over by this book.

Has anyone started their Joan Didion yet?

I have!

And I think I've read the whole thing before (The White Album, I'm talking about), but periodically I seem to forget that I've read it. Then I pick it up and I read the first essay, and then I start skipping around, and while reading it, I feel all unsettled and psychically itchy and uncomfortable and it seems to me that the earlier times I've read it, I've read it the exact same way, and maybe that's why I never remember that I have actually read the whole book, several times.

Wow. And those right there are a couple of sentences that would probably make Joan Didion cry. The very opposite of good writing.

Anyway. Please let me know if you've started The White Album and how you're finding it. I started it again and came across this, which of course I remembered, because it is very memorable (when commenting on her own physical and mental state at the time):

"By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." (p. 15.)

And it strikes me that we are reading this essay fifty years on from 1968, and that is in-fucking-credible to me, how long this woman has been living and thinking and writing. (Also I couldn't agree more. An attack of vertigo and nausea seems to me an entirely appropriate response to 2018. The more things change, eh?)

The Three Davids: Last thoughts?

(A long one today; bear with me...)

July is flying by and it's time to weigh in with any thoughts or questions you might have about David Rakoff's Fraud, David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day, or David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (or any other books by any of the Davids).


Okay, I'll say this. I didn't enjoy any of the Davids quite as much as I used to (with the exception of David Sedaris--I was always pretty meh* on David Sedaris). But there were definitely moments in each of these books that made me pause or laugh or think lovingly on the David in question--and recapture a bit of the feeling of my own more wide-open and accepting younger years, during which I first read these authors. And I enjoyed that quite a lot. So maybe essays, even the dated and not-as-eternal ones, are timeless in their own ways.

Here's a tidbit from each of the books that I enjoyed.

From David Rakoff's Fraud, okay, wait, I lied, this is from Rakoff's later collection Half Full, which I also re-read for this project, in an essay about the musical Rent and its author, Jonathan Larson:

"Larson worked for years at a diner right around the corner from an apartment I once had. Restaurant work can be punishing and thankless toil, so he is to be applauded for plying his craft so steadfastly after what must have been long shifts on his feet. His is the story of almost every artist. Why, then, in transmuting his own struggle did he so completely drop the ball? (And to those of you who say that dumbing down and sugaring up is innate to musical theater, I say fuck you, homophobe. Go listen to the dark brilliance of Pal Joey or Floyd Collins and then come and talk to me.)" (p. 50.)

I have never seen the musical Rent. I really have no opinion on musical theater, one way or the other. But that entire paragraph just charmed me. There's something so succinctly dismissive about his "fuck you, homophobe" bit that I just fell a little bit in love with him all over again.

From David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day, in an essay where Sedaris is describing his younger brother Paul:

"It often seems that my brother and I were raised in two completely different households. He's eleven years younger than I am, and by the time he reached high school, the rest of us had all left home. When I was young, we weren't allowed to say 'shut up,' but once the Rooster [his brother] hit puberty it had become acceptable to shout, 'Shut your motherfucking hole.' The drug laws had changed as well. 'No smoking pot' became 'no smoking pot in the house,' before it finally petered out to 'please don't smoke any more pot in the living room.'

My mother was, for the most part, delighted with my brother and regarded him with the bemused curiosity of a brood hen discovering she has hatched a completely different species. 'I think it was very nice of Paul to get me this vase,' she once said, arranging a bouquet of wildflowers into the skull-shaped bong my brother had left on the dining-room table. 'It's nontraditional, but that's the Rooster's way. He's a free spirit, and we're lucky to have him.'" (p. 62.)

Sedaris's stories about his family are always my favorites, and that one is no exception. Seeing how different the CRjrs are from each other also helps me appreciate that story on a whole other level.

From David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Okay, all the quotes I love from the DFW are too long and too difficult to quote out of context. But I enjoyed several of these essays again, particularly the first one about tennis and the one where he visits the Illinois State Fair, and because I've listened to his commencement speech titled "This Is Water" way too many times, I can almost hear him narrating these essays. Which is kind of comforting, actually.

But after I re-read those essays I have a conversation with a friend about Wallace, in which she calls him an abuser, and I never followed up what she meant. Was he an abuser? Of others, in relationships? Of himself? Both? I don't follow it up because sometimes I just don't want to know. If he was an abuser, should he not have been? Well, of course. Can I still read him, even knowing this? And the answer is, yeah, I can. Weirdly, even though I know J.D. Salinger could be a complete shit (especially to Joyce Maynard), I still think his novel Franny and Zooey is one of my favorite spiritual books. How does that work?

I suppose it works because humans are messy (myself included), and I know that, and I try to accept it. Just because someone can put a nice sentence together doesn't mean they're going to be a nice person. They may certainly not even be a person I want to know or converse with in real life.

And there's one of the kickers about essays: I love them because, more than any other form of writing, they feel like a conversation to me. Most importantly, they are a conversation in written word form, which is my favorite type of conversation. I love essays because they allow me to converse with people--with writers, often my very favorite types of people--without, you know, having to converse with people.

Why do you love essays?

*And when I say "meh," it was more of a qualified "he's not really to my taste but I do think he's a talented writer who worked hard at his craft and indexed his own journals, which makes me love him, and his reading of his own Santaland Diaries is one of the best things ever, but still, I could largely take him or leave him," but that seemed a bit too long to type above.

Stacy Horn's Damnation Island and more essay chat.

I've not yet reviewed it here, but I have read (and loved) Stacy Horn's new book Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. I also had the good fortune to interview Stacy about the book for The Millions. But the big news this morning is that her book got a great review in the New York Times! YAY, Stacy!

The book is not a light read but I loved it for all the usual reasons I love Stacy Horn's nonfiction writing: It's thoughtful, it's well-organized, I know it's been exhaustively fact-checked. But she always brings a little something extra to her stories, even when they're about crime and horrible mistakes that all sorts of people make, not just criminals but also those seeking to reform criminals: sympathy. You finish this book and you're sad, mostly because if you read enough books like this you realize there have never really been any "good old days," but also because you can't believe how much how many people have suffered down through the ages. But at the same time, she never really seems to give up. I like her tenacity. In her last pages she points out how the struggle to figure out how best to incarcerate people still goes on, and that we first have to learn about these problems to start to consider how to approach them.

In other Essay Project news I'm now in David Sedaris's We Talk Pretty One Day. Anyone else read the Sedaris? What are your thoughts? In reading (re-reading? I think I've read it before but can't remember--never a good sign) I find that I'm feeling the same way about Sedaris that I have always felt about him: I largely don't understand the appeal. I think he's a good writer, and he sometimes makes me laugh (mainly when telling stories about his very...ahem...interesting family), but I've never quite understood why he became a huge best-selling essayist. Can someone explain the appeal?

The Essay Project 2018: Do essays age well?

So, I've decided just to go with this new loosey-goosey thing we have going at Citizen Reader. Sure, we have an actual Essay Project Schedule (look over in the sidebar), but other than that this reading of certain essay collections and talking about them has been a pretty free-form affair.

And I'm kind of liking it!

So I'm just going to pose questions as I have them. At the moment I am reading, in a very leisurely manner, David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (which is funny, because reading that book was a supposedly fun thing that I never thought I'd be doing again), as well as David Rakoff's collections Fraud and Half Empty.

Now the first thought I had about these books was, holy shit, I forgot how dense and long that DFW book was. So here's your official Get Out of Essay Reading Free card: don't read the whole thing. Let's just suggest the essay that matches the title, shall we? (Although, actually, I think the first essay, on tennis, is my favorite).

And the second thought I had, while re-reading Fraud, is that I just wasn't enjoying it as much as I did the first time around**. Is that because they are essays that didn't stand the test of time, or (the more likely option) am I just such a different person reading this collection that it's actually like reading a completely different collection?

I know. I actually blew my own mind a little bit, but I don't have a lot of mind to blow so it's easily done.

So my question is this: Do you think, as a general rule, that essay collections "age" very well? What makes an essay (or collection of them) "timeless"?

*No, Half Empty was not assigned reading. I just wasn't feeling Fraud and thought I'd try another collection of Rakoff's to see how that felt.

**This is no slap at Rakoff. If I wasn't enjoying the actual essays or the subjects of the essays as much, I was still loving the person it seemed Rakoff was.