Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Reading, not so lately

I've been on an extremely non-literary reading binge lately so there isn't much to discuss from the last few weeks (polished off Justin Cronin's The Twelve and then followed it up with a massive amount of re-reading from my mystery shelf).

But before that, I read two books back to back and my reactions were so strong that it's taken me a while to get my thoughts down.

{images from publishers}

We the Animals had been heavily hyped but the excerpts I'd heard were so gorgeous I couldn't resist. I'm not sure what I was expecting but it blew me away. Torres whisks you through a childhood that's rough and messy and pierced with moments of intense beauty.

I'm a sucker for stories about childhood but writing about your life is difficult and writing about that time is particularly tricky. There's a tendency to simplify your emotions and, in some cases, to work to solicit sympathy. The book was powerfully lyrical which initially made me nervous. Overly lyrical writing can so easily veer into gimicky territory and it sometimes obscures weaknesses that might otherwise get called out. But here the form furthers the function, allowing Torres to describe the brutality and tenderness of his family without judgement. He doesn't let his parents off the hook but neither does he vilify them and the result is honest and remarkably touching. I devoured the book in one sitting and then immediately wanted to read it again.

It's probably pure bad timing that the next book I read was Joan Didion's Blue Nights. It was a sharp contrast and it suffered by comparison. Both works deal with childhood, although Didion's book has a very different perspective because she is writing about her daughter's childhood in the wake of her death, which really means she's talking about herself as a parent. I'm not sure how to explain how uncomfortable it made me. The pain and loss are evident, but the lyricism of her writing, with short spare sentences and frequent repetition, serves to make the emotions feel at once strangely distant and too close for real reflection. It seemed overwrought and circular. I'm squirming as I write this, but self-indulgent was the word that kept coming to mind. I know critics have praised it as honest, but I felt like I was an observer being held at arm's length throughout.

The frequent name dropping (of people, brands and places) didn't help. Didion, apparently aware of the impact this will have, spends a lot of time trying to refute the implication that her daughter was privileged and that happens to be a pet peeve of mine. Tangent - I don't understand the reluctance to admit privilege. It isn't a crime. Privilege doesn't mean you are guaranteed a charmed life. It does mean that when bad things happen you at least have a few more resources than other people might. The world isn't divided into two categories, privileged or not. There is a vast scale along which we all fall and most of us reading here are already in the upper echelons compared to the majority of the world's population. It doesn't negate your efforts in life to admit that you started from a place of relative advantage and it doesn't mean you can't own your successes. It's just perspective. End rant.

It seems hardhearted to criticize a memoir but it's a published work and Didion is a literary force. I still feel a little squick-y about it, though.


  1. Both of these books are very high on my list. Love the honest reaction to them both. Happy Reading!

    Memoirs & Mochas

  2. Have you read Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking? I wonder how Blue Nights compares. I haven't picked it up yet but have been debating, I really enjoyed Magical Thinking.

    1. I haven't read The Year of Magical Thinking but apparently it has a much different style? I know people who liked it but not Blue Nights. Although lauren (below) has read both and liked neither, so it's hard to tell. I'll probably check it out just to see.

      And you might love Blue Nights! Plenty of people did, but it just didn't work for me.

    2. Loved them both, but re-read Year of Magical Thinking regularly so that's my recommendation. I love the "circularity," the echoes.. She is absolutely brilliant! So skilled at tying things together. My review is here:

  3. "overwrought and circular" are perfect descriptors for blue nights, and i felt just as you did about how the lyricism of the writing problematized its effect. it felt straight-up self-indulgent to me, which is an uncomfortable thing to say about a woman who's gone through such terrible loss (and who's frequently praised for being incisive and unapologetic, even and perhaps especially in this book and in magical thinking). magical thinking had the same problems for me, unfortunately. i really disliked it.

    weirdly, vaguely related: i remember thinking, as sandy approached the city a few months ago, "who's going to make sure joan didion is OK?" i tweeted that, actually, and an editor friend of mine confessed to having had the same reaction. i have umpteen issues with how didion the writer communicates in recent years, but i have a new tenderness for didion the person, apparently. you stay away from her, strong winds.

    1. Yes, she got a lot of critical praise for Blue Nights, which made me wonder if I was completely missing something or being horribly curmudgeonly while reading it. I can even appreciate circular writing in some cases. It can be used to drill down and really get you somewhere over the course of the book but here it seemed to be used to skirt the issues rather than addressing them. I found it frustrating and I don't think that was the intention.

  4. Omg, thank you for your short rant. Completely agree! Let's be friends ;)

  5. I love this post. Didion is one of my favorites. I supposed I've always loved the way her writing is deeply psychological. The arms-length she keeps you at and the fragmented way she copes is such a glimpse into how her mind processes....and perhaps the way any grieving mind processes (or doesn't). It's definitely a certain writing style that doesn't appeal to many, understandably so. I find her fiction to be similar. Besides all of that, isn't memoir writing a little self-indulgent by nature?

    Thanks for the recommendation on We The Animals. Can't wait to grab that.

    1. I agree that there's definitely a self indulgent aspect to all memoir writing. It's tough to hit just the right note when you're writing about yourself! But I adore memoirs (took a whole class where we read nothing else) and Didion's just didn't work for me. I think they can be self-indulgent but still care about the reader. To me, this one read as almost contemptuous of the reader (maybe the arm's length thing bothers me more when someone is asking a reader to care about her personal life?). I can see how the repetition is an insight into her grieving mind, because I know how grief can make you run around in circles mentally. It sounds horrible but I think I would have preferred to read this memoir if it had been written (or even added to) a little later, after the grief had time to age. This read as painful without being productive. But maybe that's her point? That grief isn't productive? It didn't feel like the intention to me, but it's possible. And while I'd say there is absolutely benefit in writing something like this for yourself, I'm not sure it's best to publish it right away.

      BUT - am I just letting my discomfort get in the way? I don't *think* so, but it's hard to tell.

      Sorry - in text my response comes off as a somewhat heated debate, which isn't my intention! I love discussing books, especially when we read things differently. So glad you chimed in! And definitely pick up the Torres. I'd be curious to hear if you love it too.

    2. I love what I've read/seen/heard Anne Lamott say so many times, "No one cares if you write, so you have to." I suppose I'm too lenient on writers who write for the sake of writing. Or something? I will definitely agree with your observation that she doesn't seem care about the reader much...I'm just not that offended by it.

      Interestingly, her daughter died before A Year of Magical Thinking was published. She had finished writing it, but it hadn't gone to print. Her editors urged her to add that in somehow and she refused. Thus, the time between Quintana's death and this memoir being published was substantial. We probably never would have gotten closer than an arm's length with more time.

      "This read as painful without being productive." -- I'd love to know what you think of Magical Thinking if you ever read it. I think the style is similar, but her pain is greater in Blue Nights. To your point above, at her age and having suffered the loss of the two closest to her, it really isn't productive at all.

      Love the discussion :)

    3. I guess I'm not so much offended by it as just curious as to why it was put out there for me to read! Writing for an audience vs. not is an interesting discussion, though. I'd have to think about where I fall on that. I think you can always write for the sake of writing, but I still think there has to be some evaluation as to what parts as worth putting out. That said, Didion's book doesn't really fall into that category because clearly there are lots of other people who loved this book and presumably benefited from it. I just wasn't one of them. : )

      I was thinking I should get both Magical Thinking and Where I Was From to compare. I'll add them to my list.

  6. thanks for the honest reactions to both. i'm going to take a closer look at 'animals' based on your description.

    p,s, agree with rant. ;)

  7. Love this, and it's encouraged me to post on my own blog more about what I'm currently reading. I forget as I get further and further removed from school how much my brain craves a little critical reading and discussion in addition to just reading for pleasure.
    I haven't read Blue Nights, although I did enjoy The Year of Magical Thinking. I'll have to add it to my library hold list.
    Also, do you have more thoughts on your kindle now that you've had it a while? I'm still feeling conflicted, although my library is compatible. I'm also a compulsive re-reader and just love the physicality of a book.

    1. I am whole-heartedly in love with my Kindle after a little over a year of use.

      The big advantages: convenient for vacations where I'd otherwise carry a pile of books, much lighter to carry on my bus commute, my case has a built in light so it automatically turns off if I don't flip a page for a while - meaning I can fall asleep while reading and I don't have to wake up and turn the light out, easier to hold especially while lying down, super easy to check out books even when I don't have time to make it to the library in person.

      Downsides: A book is more tangible, the library selection for e-readers is not as big as for print books so I still have to check books out sometimes, I often feel guilty about not reading in print.

      On the whole, it's a big advantage to me and I'm able to read more new books because of it.

      My Kindle developed one weird pixel spot, so it almost looks like there's a little smudge on the page. It's only mildly annoying. And once I let the battery go down so low that it froze and I had to reset it, but that wasn't a very big deal. Those are the only technical difficulties I've had.

  8. I love to hear what other people are reading about!

    I have been debating purchasing an E-Reader for a while and the thought of letting go of the physical book pains me. I have a great collection of books and take pride in my bookshelf and I don't want to lose that urge to collect books with the purchase of an E-Reader. But, it is just not proactical for me to read hard cover 60lbs books on the bus or while traveling.

    A book reccomendation I have for you, along with any of your readers, is STILL ALICE by, Lisa Genova. It's a book about early onset Alzheimer's. The book is written from a the prespective of the main character and the reader suffers the memory loss along with main character who slowly becomes more and more swolled by the frightening disease. I cried and laughed out loud several times when reading. Amazing book.

  9. blue nights is on my stack of library books waiting to be read, so i'll have to report back afterward.

  10. Yeah, I had a hard time reading Didion's other highly praised work, The Year of Magical Thinking for similar reasons you expressed here. I may just not enjoy her style of writing, especially nonfiction.

    I, too, am in a spree of nonliterary reading. If yours last much long, may I suggest Gone Girl? If you like mystery, this one will keep you on your toes.

    Looking forward to We the Animals!

  11. I love Didion's Year of Magical Thinking and hated Blue Nights so much. Sigh. I'm totally going to check out that other book you mention, but I'd love to recommend Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Such a good read. I'm on good reads and I find so many good book recs through there.


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