Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York


            I love New York City. And I am so, so happy that I left. I moved out on Monday, May 7th, leaving behind my dignity after a sendoff party. I’m currently posted up in Dallas for a month before I travel for June and July. Then, I’ll be in Charlottesville, Virginia for two years while my boyfriend attends Darden business school (swag swag swag).

            As I packed my belongings, debating whether I should take the blender but not hesitating to pack my giant taco costume, I had Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York* as my companion. A Joan Didion essay inspired the compilation, which consists of stories by 28 female writers, detailing their own love affairs with New York that ran their course. 

            Each piece helped articulate my own feelings about leaving a city that once enamored me. I lived in NYC for four and a half years. I categorize my time there as “before” and “after”.

            In the *before time*, I worked as a cancer research assistant at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I was poor and had to make numerous sacrifices. For the most part, I didn’t mind, because I lived in New York! It was exciting! I stretched my pasta servings so that I could afford red bull vodkas at Output. I was slumming it in the most riveting way. I thought Why would anyone ever live anywhere else? As one writer said, “It didn’t seem possible for me to ever break free from New York’s gravitational pull” (Botton, 10). I never entertained the notion of leaving.

            Three years and two horrible housing situations later, I decided to quit my job and pursue creative outlets. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, so to support myself, I got a job at a sports bar and as a nanny/tutor for a family. I was much more financially sound, but still not artistically satisfied. I became involved in the improv community. I dabbled in standup open mics. I started writing sketch comedy in addition to fictional short stories. Yet, I prioritized my means of income over everything. Since I wasn’t salaried, the more I worked, the more money I made. I knew what it was like to be financially unstable in a city that favors fortune and I refused to return to that life. In the words of Chloe Caldwell, “I’ve found that I am not as interested in struggling or suffering as I once was…I realized I need at least one part of my life to be easy” (Botton, 63). No more goddamn pasta.

            Liza Monroy said, “A friend complained that she was tired of high rent and a job that left her with no writing time. Many friends were writers without time to write; in New York, being there sometimes defeated the purpose of being there” (Botton, 148). I was that friend. Not really, but you know what I mean.

            Sure, if I had set my mind to it, I could have improved the situation. And I did, in some ways, toward the end. Ultimately, I concluded I was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. New York will always be there for me, but it’s not what I need right now. I sympathize with Rayhané Sanders when she says, “Itches get scratched, and you find yourself wanting new things, new environments, better suited to who you are now, to who you hope to be” (Botton, 225). I’m not the same person I was when I originally moved to the city that never sleeps. I think I need some rest.

            When I started entertaining the notion of leaving, I worried that I would feel like a failure. The thing is, I conquered this place. LFG. I started by living in a shoebox, with cats I was seriously allergic to and roommates that made me fear for my life. Every year, I moved into a progressively better living arrangement. Every year, I made a little more money and indulged in a little more creative exploration. Every year, I made choices that made me a happier, more balanced person. “I had come here so many moons ago to find out who I was, to qualify, to prove things to myself I didn’t even have names for yet, to test my worth. And it occurred to me that I had gotten what I came for—I had it, like a quarter in my palm….[it] had served its purpose; I knew exactly who I was, precisely what I was worth, and it was now time to find a more conducive place to enjoy her” (Botton, 228).

            I couldn’t have said it better myself. Except…I will…because I intend to write my own Goodbye to All That essay. I’m leaving NYC on my own terms, seeking the unknown with more of a backbone. I will miss the New York subway system every single time I step into that terrifying metal box that we call “car”. I will miss the city slicker indifference to the weird shit that happens every day without fail. I will miss the obscenely late nights filled with endless possibilities. I will miss the Thai place on Broadway in Astoria.

            Oh, you guys came here for a book review? Whoops. Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York was timely for my needs, but it’s also full of good stories and good writing. It has significant range. Some writers are well established, like Cheryl Strayed, Emma Straub, and Roxane Gay. Some writers I had never heard of, and now they’ll be on my radar. If you have any connection to the city whatsoever, I recommend reading it; if you don’t, it’s probably not the best use of your time, but the book can still be an inspiring source of comfort and validation if you’re going through a move or a significant life change. Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Self-Help


            How to write like Lorrie Moore: Engage in constant wordplay; puns are a plus. Create terribly depressing scenarios fraught with illness, infidelity, and insecurities. Don’t just tell a poignant story-- be clever about it.

            I’ve reviewed Lorrie’s work in the past: her first novel, Anagrams, and her second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Self-Help*, a collection of nine short stories, is her first published work, and the bulk of the stories come from her master’s thesis. I guess theses are good for something after all.

            Self-Help uses a unique medium to express Lorrie’s characteristic self-deprecating humor: it’s a how to screw up manual.

            “How to Be an Other Woman” tells a tale of a mistress using “how-to” speech. “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce” describes how to take advantage of a newly single mom while also trying to bond. Goal: get your hands on as much soda as possible. “How to Become a Writer” is really a guide to withstanding failures. In each, she gives step-by-step advice on how to endure something murky and non-ideal; yet, her advice is embedded in fictional stories with a narrative arc and empathetic characters.

            Did I say empathetic? I also mean pathetic. Her characters can be very pathetic. She drowns them slowly, with no access to a lifejacket. For the record, both Rose and Jack could have fit on that life raft. 

            Lorrie has a distinctive voice that remains consistent throughout each of her pieces. If you’ve read one of her stories and loved it, you’ll love the others, and vice versa. She’s wonderfully talented but she gets old. The tone remains the same—and she dons it well, but at some point you need to get a new outfit. Self-Help receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Moore, Lorrie. Self-Help. New York: Warner Books, 1985. Print.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

            One of the top questions on Goodreads for Bryn Greenwood’s 2016 novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is: “Is this book going to horrify me?”

            Yes.

            Sometimes reading makes you uncomfortable; It’s called experiencing things outside of your immediate comfort zone. It’s called Mark Zuckerberg at his Congress hearing.
            Without giving anything away—this book is controversial AF. Personally, I don’t exist in a world of absolutes. I exist in a world of gray areas and nuance, because I am perfect. If you categorically dislike this book without reading it, you can go ahead and continue polishing that bubble, bitch.

            The novel is about finding solace and stability amidst abuse. Greenwood gives a voice to people who are doing conventionally “wrong” things for the right reasons. As a reader, you see intent, not just the actions themselves. The book shows some broken people trying to glue each other back together like some terrible macaroni art.
            I’m not saying intent entirely justifies action. But when your life is messy, some of the solutions that work for you are not the same solutions that would work for someone with a clean-cut lot. I can read something without condoning it. Re-tweets do not equal endorsement!

            Alright, enough about me defending Greenwood’s subject. HER WRITING IS PHENOMENAL. I devoured this book. I haven’t been this engrossed in a book since I read Brain on Fire. She makes a hard-to-believe plot very believable, and she does so very gracefully. She deftly shifts between several narrators, proudly announced at the top of each chapter, which is something I came to value after reading Sing, Unburied, Sing. I highly recommend this book if you can break through your own sense of self and into a well-written world of moral quandary. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.


*Greenwood, Bryn. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016. Print.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing

           Obama found the time to read Sing, Unburied, Sing* during his presidency, which means you can too. Time published Obama’s top-ten reading list for 2017, and Jesmyn Ward’s novel made the cut. I can understand why.

            Sing, Unburied, Sing is an intense depiction of a dysfunctional three-generation family. They’re hampered by drugs, death, poverty, racism, and a lack of self-love. There is not a breath of fresh air in this story; it’s clear that Ward has a need to convey the brokenness of the family with a dire sense of urgency that trumps the reader’s need to pause and relax. I got through the novel quickly, partially because the writing is poetically compelling and partially because I needed closure on the entirety of this family’s struggles. Whew.

            Alongside the intensity is a downright spookiness. The novel has ghosts, and the spirit world has a say. They are loud and proud, contributing to the mood/dialogue/thoughts of the living characters. In this way, Sing, Unburied, Sing strikes me as a much more polished Beloved. Beloved, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, also deals with the dead but more haphazardly. As I mention in my review, I wasn’t always sure who was speaking in Morrison's piece. Sing, Unburied, Sing effectively jumps between points of view and those transitions are clear. In fact, each chapter states whose perspective will be narrating in giant letters that you can’t miss. Having multiple narrators helps me understand the family’s plight in a more well-rounded way. I will say that I’m disappointed we didn’t get to hear from Michael, the imprisoned white father.

            Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award—a prestigious award that Jesmyn Ward also won six years prior for her novel Salvage the Bones. Is Jesmyn Ward crushing it? Yes. You can read my review of another National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin here, which also contains links to reviews of several National Book Award finalists. National Book Award National Book Award blah blah blah.


            Lastly, what impresses me so much about this novel isn’t the heart-wrenching story, but the powerful execution of simile and metaphor. I’ve been annoyed in the past by authors (ahem, Murakami) who sometimes use analogy in an awkward, unhelpful way. As if they’ve heard that throwing a metaphor in the mix will make you sound smarter. Obviously, it has the opposite effect of making you sound like a donk. Jesmyn Ward is no donk. Her novel is packed with similes and each one contributes to the text in a meaningful way.  Sing, Unburied, Sing receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. New York: Scribner, 2017. Print.

*Ducharme, Jamie. “Barack Obama Posted His Favorite Books and Music of 2017.” Time, Time, 31 Dec. 2017, time.com/5082975/barack-obama-2017-book-music-list/. 6 Apr. 2018.