This Book Will Change Your Life.

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - on earth we're briefly gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

    There isn't any gain from having a dialogue about which traumas are worse than others. The question is how can we prevent traumas from happening in the first place. However, I can compare my own personal traumas to one another and I can acknowledge that some traumas truly don't compare to those of others, say those illustrated in on earth we're briefly gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, which is yes, gorgeous despite the pain, sadness and loss (or the recently consumed The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld). Still, both seek to illuminate their respective story arcs, as well as the possibility and futility contained therein through the metaphor of the butterfly, their place in the universe and our collective imagination. Personally, I've spent little time thinking about butterflies at all. But that doesn't mean I don't associate them with trauma. When my older son was a little boy someone gave him a butterfly kit, which allowed us to grow butterflies from egg to adult in our home. We watched them on a nightly basis as they grew and ultimately spread their wings in the cylindrical, mesh habitat that was their home and the idea was when they were truly ready to fly, we were to release them into the sky. When the day came my son refused to come outside with me, because being a January baby it was winter in Chicago and utterly frigid. At no point did it click for me that the butterflies would not be willing to fly into the winter air, but they would not, and that became immediately, sickeningly obvious. They hovered there, in the habitat, flapping their wings, the wind slicing across the sidewalk in front of our building, and after they wouldn't leave I was forced to drop the kit and their still live bodies down the trash chute. Is it too much to say I was traumatized by the abject horror of the whole experience, when one considers the traumas Vuong's protagonist (and Denfeld's for that matter) suffers - violence, child abuse, bullying, racism, xenophobia, isolation, homophobia, drug abuse, death, and the never not presence of the Vietnam War in the form of his mother, grandmother, and his own DNA? It is embarassing to me to even identify it as a traumatic experience, and yet, I cannot and will not ever shake that moment when I opened the netting, and the butterflies, moved but for a moment, then stopped, and it finally occurred to me what I was doing. All or none of which has anything, or everything, to do with on earth we're briefly gorgeous, which reads like an extended poem and takes a life lived in all its horror and nihilism, and still finds beauty and hope. So much so because of Vuong's gift of stringing the right words together in the right ways and in such a fashion that they nearly float above the page, begging to be absorbed, in the way trauma is absorbed, cellularly, and moment by moment, changing our lives, as we filter the spikes of trauma lives doles out, be they butterfly or violence. Now, you might ask, will on earth we're briefly gorgeous change your life? And I might answer, it will, because it will linger, and that lingering will take root and wait for its chance to reappear and remind you that, I was here, you read me, I am part of you, and now we are one.      

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld.

    As I read The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld I was reminded of a story about Stanley Kubrick. I'm paraphrasing quite a bit, but he was asked if he felt disdain for filmmakers who directed movies that earned $100 million. Kubrick replied, that to the contrary he was envious, and that he would be happy to do so himself, he just didn't know how. I was reminded of this, because as painful a world The Butterfly Girl immerses the reader in is - though hopeful too, promise - it is so clearly a book people will want to read. There is a rhythm and flow to the writing, which draws you in. The chapters are short and come fast, shifting between the points of view of Naomi, the child finder, and Celia, the lost child. And these are characters who feel real. They have depth, personal stories. There is also urgency, and mystery, and a drive towards some kind of resolution, even as there are times you want to avert your eyes and turn away from the page, worried about what might come next. There is even a satisfying conclusion, not that such conclusions are required, and no spoilers mind you, but a conclusion such as the one we're given, is appreciated when there is so much violence and sadness to sift through in getting there. There are also enough clues to suggest that if you like these characters, and we do, that more adventures might await them. I can't help but think then, that one could diagram Denfeld's approach to all of this and deconstruct how consciously writing a page-turner might unfold, because it is that, and like Kubrick - and how's that for a healthy dose of narcissism - I don't know that I know how to write such a book. Most of us don't. And by most of us I am referring to writers, but this applies to most artists as well. How do we create something popular? Something the public wants to consume? Denfeld is on to something and I hope to get her on This Podcast WIll Change Your Life some time and ask her just how she approached all of this. However, that's not all I want to ask her about. Because experiencing The Butterfly Girl as a page-turner, which I consumed in quick, massive gulps, is not the only way I experienced this book. Now, doing so wouldn't minimize the craft or impact of Denfeld's work, but it would overlook her exceptionally keen gift for writing about the experience of violence, physical and sexual, the objectification of girls, trauma and those who survive it. This too then of Denfeld's and it takes the book from page-turner to study. Though not a study that is cold or removed, but one built on empathy and the desire to craft an understanding of what this looks like. Particularly in terms of women, and more specifically, the young girls who populate this work. None of which is easy to read or take-in, but in Denfeld's hands it's handled deftly, and kindly, and that too is worthy of envy. Will it change your life? It will. Will it change mine? As a reader it has, and as a writer, I hope so. 

  • These (Tortoise Books) Books Will Change Your Life - Ninety-Nine Bottles by the Joseph G. Peterson, Adult Teeth by the Jeremy T. Wilson and Jenny in Corona by the Stuart Ross.

    "You tried to imagine it while you sat at the bar-the writer, not yet a writer, putting his too-hot pen (set glowing by the gods) to paper and penning the first lines of his masterpiece. To hold in your hand the power of a perfect sentence-even then, sitting at the bar, dreaming of one day becoming a writer, you could think of no more glorious thing to happen in a life." FIFTY ONE, Ninety-Nine Bottles

    Is there nothing more glorious than that? The perfect sentence. Becoming a writer. Writing a masterpiece. I could tell you I thought of all this as I read the yes, glorious Ninety-Nine Bottles, as well as its glorious sister joints, Adult Teeth and Jenny in Corona, and that would be true, because it is always true. Writing any sentence, much less the perfect one is glorious. And yes, that is a lot of glorious and I'll do my best to shift to a new descriptor soon. But, we dream of writing when all we wish is to one day get started and then we never stop dreaming about it, not when we start writing certainly, and not I suspect even when we stop. A switch is flipped and that is that. And I don't doubt that Joseph G. Peterson, Jeremy T. Wilson and Stuart Ross would agree. The question then is why these books, why now and why have I been reading them in one fell swoop? Also, what meaning do they have to me beyond seeking out the glory that is the written sentence? They are all from Tortoise Books and I'm endlessly fascinated with whether books emerging from the same home hang together in terms of theme or objectives. But it is also true, that I've been around these authors a lot lately as I've begun venturing out to readings again and so I imagine the answer lays somewhere between these two things. What does Tortoise Books care about, what do these authors care about, and selfishly in the overlap of the venn diagram that are these questions, how do the speak to me and my desire to craft my own masterpiece(s)?

    To begin then is Ninety-Nine Bottles, and if I am in no way unbiased on these pages, that is indubitably the case with the work of Joseph G. Peterson. And yet despite his many fine books, all of which deal with making sense of loss, be that work, life, relationships, pride or place; violence, be that literal, gun and otherwise, or the more metaphorical tearing of one from the very fabric of society; abuse, especially of substances; creating art, or aspiring to doing so; and profound isolation at all turns, Ninety-Nine Bottles, is still a special book. Special as compared to other books I've read as of late, and all three of these books are terrific, but special even among the Peterson oeuvre. It's not a culmination by any means, there are no doubt many Peterson books to come. But it does gather all of which he does so well and distills it down to a beer soaked song, or more accurately a dirge, and an ongoing loss of life, slow and lyrical and lovingly constructed.

    Adult Teeth is something else entirely, short stories for one, with the occasional blasts of magical realism, and all less violent and abusive than Peterson's book, yet not so different that one can't see what Tortoise Books is looking to do. Wilson's characters are searching for something that continues to allude them. For some its happiness, maybe love, connection, or hope of some kind. Many just seem to want things to make better sense though. To feel stable and clear. But it just isn't going to happen for them. I might add that Peterson's characters, when sober or lucid, which isn't often, might want some of this too, but there's no real effort to seek it out. Not that Wilson's characters necessarily seem to seek it out either. If anything they just seem so profoundly, beautifully sad (see "Nesting," "Everything is Going to Be Okay," "Chopsticks" and the title piece particularly) in their inability to do so. 

    And then there is Jenny in Corona, an especially crafty, and awesomely weird, coming-of-age debut that seems to find a kind of equal joy in word play, pop culture (and culture in general) and sex, and reminds me more of Philip Roth than any book or author I can recently remember reading. In a way, very little happens here, but of course, everything happens here, because is there a time in one's life more explosively new and full of possibilities than one's early 20's? And this isn't to say one doesn't have responsibilities then, but free of school, with money in one's pocket, and caught somewhere between child- and adulthood, anything does seem possible, and anyone can be slept with, and not that your life's path is set, but it can certainly feel like it. And Ross provides us with all of this in his uniquely slanty and propulsive voice and gorgeously drawn meathead protagnosts, who are all the while searching and probing and yes, trying to make sense of why things are the way they are what any of us has to do with any of that.

    Might I add here, that if these books hang together then in any way for me, it's about the desire to make sense of the world as we know it and find it and build it for ourselves. Should I also say something about their influence on my own sentence writing? That to write great sentences, one has to read great sentences? And might I also write, that these (Tortoise Books) books will change your life? Or is that abundantly clear by now?  

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - Relief by Execution - A Visit to Mauthausen by the Gint Aras.

    Is there a good time to talk about trauma? Or racism? Violence and abuse? Oppression? Or the immigrant's story? Even then, isn't all of this merely the story of America anyway, a country built on violence, immigrants and oppression? Said differently, is there ever a bad time for this dialogue? I ask in part for reasons purely pedantic and quotidian. If I'm going to podcast with someone I like to read their most current book, should there be one mind you, first, and if I'm going to read said book, I'm going to blog about it here. Sometimes I might merge a riff on the book with the post for the podcast itself. Why does any of this matter? It doesn't, not in comparison to talking trauma, violence or immigration. But I'm running a cultural enterprise here and I like to do things how I do them. So, in preparing to welcome the Gint Aras back as a guest on This Podcast Will Change Your Life, I sought to tackle his newest joint Relief by Execution - A Visit to Mauthausen before we met, and did, though only finishing it on the train enroute to recording the podcast. And then, what, I posted the podcast, and spent not one moment opining on the book here in any way at all. Which is a shame. Now, please do hit the podcast, its incredibly powerful stuff, but please take a moment to read through this post as well (and look you've gotten this far already). I want to enourage people to tackle Gint's work, new, old and otherwise, and I also want to take a moment to recognize that most of us have been exposed to some kind of trauma, experienced violence, or suffered from abuse or oppression, and these experiences not only ripple across our lives, but across generations and our very DNA. And this is what Gint knows all too well and writes so trenchantly about, trauma and its ongoing effect on our lives, individually and collectively. I will also say here, just as I've written about and speak to on the podcast, I've experienced little oppression, much less racism in the form of anti-Semiticism or otherwise, and my family long ago immigrated to this country, but trauma and violence, that I know, and it lingers, and I dealt with it by not really dealing with it at all, which I regret now. I didn't have the language, or the necessary insight, but I wish I did, and I'm happy to talk about it with any of you any time if you think it will be helpful. Read Gint's book though as well, listen to the podcast, and work to both end and confront trauma and violence any time you can, and any place you can. Individual actions go a long way, and collective actions can make for transformations in policy and culture. It starts with each of us though, and I'm happy to talk about that too. Will Relief by Execution change your life? I hope so, but what I really hope is that we can change the world we live in for future generations.    

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - Black Card by the Chris L. Terry.

    My first reaction when I picked-up Black Card by the Chris L. Terry is that it was the third book I've read in recent months blurbed by the terrifically killer writer Samantha Irby. The others being On Being Human by the Jen Pastiloff and Go Ahead In The Rain by the Hanif Abdurraqib. Which means what exactly? Maybe that Sam now imbues a book with a certain cultural resonance and cache? Yes, for sure. And should. That I read good books? Obviously. And that I'm friends with authors who have achieved cultural resonance and cache and write damn good books? Well, yes, humblebrag alert. I am friendly with two of these three authors, and if I ever get a shot at being friends with Hanif Abdurraqib, I will embrace it wholeheartedly. Did you hear that Hanif, wholeheartedly sir. All of which, it's true, seems maybe a just a little self-centered and self-promoting, and it is, of course, always. But it's not only that either. It's also a celebration and an acknowledgment that people move from here to there, that their stature can grow, that they can produce such good, contemporary, interesting work, that it's an honor to be friends with them, and in the case of Chris, even shared a bed with them. Because look, hotel rooms during AWP are not cheap, yo, especially when one has small children, as we both do/did. But this is one of the things that excites me so much about Black Card, along with the fact that its fresh, raw, funny and super fucking timely. Chris is an awesome dude who writes awesome things. His debut Zero Fade was everything a debut can, and should, be, a story we know, ostensibly a coming of age tale, told with new eyes, in this case from the POV of a person of color, and written for the readers of today, with its focus on race, though as more of a background subtext to the larger story, and homophobia, the bigger, bolder arc. It was a book that could not help being political by its very existence, while not intending to be so political at all. Black Card doubles-down on the politics, however, while still being something not political at all, an engaging, page-turning, at times stomach-wrenching story, told by a great storyteller whose pushing himself to thrown down, which is everything a second book should* be. Which is to say, Chris talks about race in America and the adjacent need one encounters to have to talk racists, both the overt ones and otherwise, and whether one wants to or otherwise, though it's much different as a person of color, clearly, and police relations, also, much, different, though also bringing what it means to be mixed-raced - and in this case questioning and questing for one's "Black Card" - into the conversation as well. A conversation not only current, but one that's going to dominate the cultural ethos, albeit kicking and screaming, well into any foreseeable future. So, what does this say about Chris? It says that he has a lot to say about the state of the world without being so on the nose as letting us know that he os talking about the state of the world. That what he's lived and lives is enough. And that he is, and will be, a wonderful storyteller who will only continue to grow. Now, am I biased? Of course I am. Am I proud and jealous in somewhat equal measure? Always. Am I right about all I've said here? Most definitely I am. But will this book change your life, please, you still have to ask that, I mean, haven't you read this far?

    *I do want to note the excessive usage of "should" in this post, a word I generally eschew. I can't explain it at the moment, but I am feeling some kind of urgency about this book and this author and that may be explanation enough. 

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - This Never Happened by the Liz Scott.

    "Writing a Memoir: In theory I do believe that we all have a story tell; that we are each entitled to the space we take up on the this planet; that each of our voices should be heard. But the decision to commit my story to paper and send it out into the world has been fraught. Feeling entitled myself to have a story worth telling, that my life is worth the ink, feels perilously close to believing that I am extraordinary. A whole book about me! After all, when you write a book where "I" is the topic, isnt that prima facie proof that you, too, are a narcissist?"  (page 249)

    This passage comes late in This Never Happened, a beautifully wrought story of lies, confusions, deflections, distractions, obfuscations and distant, if not, missing if not disturbed, sad, impossible, and yes, narcissistic parents. It comes to us as part of a list in Chapter 60, titled, "Some Issues That Are Hard for a Child of Narcissists to Sort Out." And really is that not the point of this jagged exploration of one family, and one's family? A desire to sort out shit that can't possibly make sense in one's head, in the abstract, in therapy, or anywhere really, but just might on the page? Read it, you'll know from which I speak. Of course, even as I write this, I wonder whether part of my job here is to separate how painful this story is from how engaging the writing and structure is, with its shifting timelines and the introduction of multi-media(s), including reports and letters, all of which make for a grand puzzle and exploration of truth and memory. But maybe I don't need to separate any of this? Maybe that's my desire to protect you from being exposed to this level of pain? But is that necessary or am I just being too paternal? I don't know, I can get that way and it's not my best look. What I do know is that author has no such obligation to shield us from anything. The author's job is to get their story on the page, truthfully and transparentally, and leave it for us to judge their work and our experience of it. What I also know though is that I don't have a position on whether there is a narcissism inherent in memoir writing, or any writing, really. Of course there is. Now, this provides a different challenge for this author, the child of narcissists, but making art is always an act of narcissism - we believe you will want to embrace what we create and so we are putting it out in the world - and a celebration, if not a denigration, of the "I." What I've never understood is why anyone, Liz partially excluded, would suggest that this isn't a reason to tell their story. Similarly, I don't understand the suggestion that not everyone has a story worth telling or even why bother, it's all navel-gazing anyway. So what? Writers don't have a choice to write. Full-stop. And whether one should write what they know is beside the point. We always write about some part of our self, the good, damaged, curious or stuck. There isn't a choice. There is a choice whether someone wants to read our work and I respect that. It's ultimately about the readers, always, more full-stop. But ought you read This Never Happened? Indeed. It will change your life and in the end, that I believe is the whole, and only, point anyway.

  • These Books Will Change Your Life - No Good Very Bad Asian by the Leland Cheuk and Besotted by the Melissa Duclos.

    Proximity is a thing when it comes to what to read. Books arrive at the same time. They're in a pile. They compete for space and priority status. There are podcast considerations. And then there is the the more intangible intensity of desire to consume said books, a combination of author love, topic, buzz, genre, loyalty - to author, press or publicist - and size, and apologies for that, any, all, of which can make one book seem more important than another. Terrible I know. Beyond reading, there is also the riffing on the books themselves, my quasi, rarely objective ruminations on what I'm reading, captured here under the banner of This Book Will Change Your Life, and the what, when, how will I write about them. And maybe it's all the same thing, what to read is what to review, but some times, I want to write about two books at once because they feel like they hang together in some fashion. The authors are hitting a similar genre, they're peers of one another or mine, they have the same publisher or publicist. Or there is the case of the books I'm ruminating on today, No Good Very Bad Asian by the Leland Cheuk and Besotted by the Melissa Duclos. These books represent some or all of the above criteria, but more than that, one is the latest book by an author I love, the Leland Cheuk, and the other is the latest book, Besotted, from his press, 7.13 Books, which I also love (and yes, I now love Duclos as well and more on that shortly). The books arrived here at the office at the same time, and that makes them a pair to me, even if I'm self-conscious (and yes, I am a white, middle-age, snowflake), that both have Asian themes and that might appear to be the reason I'm writing about both at once. I'm not. For real. It really is about timing and sensibility, okay, good, any questions? Pause. Great, on to the books. Because it is always about books. And so, while I'm not the Cheuk completist I need to be, I have also read Cheuk's novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, and from one novel to another it's clear that Cheuk is seeking to deconstruct, illustrate and play with all of our culture's, white culture certainly, (mis)perceptions about Asian American culture - the focus on family, staying close, caring for parents; education, all-in, all the time; success, at all costs, and the honor that comes with that; striving, for the betterment of one's children especially; and work, always work, always that - but doing so through a combination of trenchant satire, or is it parody, and which is better in this case anyway, and humor. Because there is always humor. Which is never more obvious than it is with No Good Very Bad Asian, whose protagonist Hor Luk Lee, stage name Sirius Lee, is a stand-up comic and filters his successes, failures, frustrations, disappointments, fears and rare moments of joy though humor and self-deprecation. It is too much, if not obscene, to ask any one author, or person, to represent all which the culture they've emerged from has to say about itself. But Cheuk is taking on the challenge to a certain extent and while the writing is top-notch, and as I've written previously, propulsive, and truly page-turning, it is also a reminder to me, that as a white American, I have an obligation to move beyond the friends and writers I love, and seek out authors of all colors and cultures, staying focused on learning, being curious, digging, and when and where possible, promoting these authors, when there's so much to know about the various cultures and immigrant experiences of our neighbors, co-workers, lovers and family. It may also be too much to add, that such efforts have never been more important than they are now, but that's how it feels and that is that.

    All of which makes for an interesting, necessary, exultory transition to Besotted, a novel I fucking love so much, none of which I want to give away, but wow, escapist, American ex-pats in Shanghai falling in love and...And what? Read it. It's lovingly crafted and again, apologies, propulsive, but also reads like a tightly, constructed puzzle and even if one knows where it's all going, it doesn't matter. Every step is a twisty, sad, passionate, cringe-worthy delight that forced me to rethink my youth and what I did and did not do in terms of sex and lust and loss and whatever passes for a deep dive into something deeper, less safe and outside oneself. Which is also to say, that hurrah to Cheuk, who not only finds new voices and debut authors of all persuasions at 7.13 Books (and not I'm not wholly a completist here either, but I have read Glamshack, Not Everyone Is Special, The Place You're Supposed To Laugh, Like A Champion and now Besotted), but continues to find authors who write like their lives depended on not wasting a word or thought. What he's sharing feels like a gift, and whether or not the work will change your life may even be beside the point, branding be damned. It's all so fresh and obsessive, and like Duclos' characters, so escapist, at worst you will be given the opportunity to step away from your own life, and as a love of reading and books, I can't imagine much that is better than that.  

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - Go Ahead In The Rain by the Hanif Abdurraqib.

    Okay, a couple of things happened and they're related to curiosity, but also possibly oversight, blind spots and gaps. First, I read They Can't Kill Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib around this time last year. At the time, the book and the author had been on my radar as much as any other book, but I hadn't quite committed to finding it or reading it. It was there, and then it was so there, I felt compelled, and then you know, magic. Or something quite like it. Similarly, sort of, there is A Tribe Called Quest. And why they were not fully on my radar may be more understandable. They had their moment starting in the late 1980's, when I really wasn't listening to music of any kind, though I don't much recall why that was, and into the mid-1990s (I lived in New York City part of that time, so my lack of awareness is even less acceptable) when I was wholly caught-up, first in the Grateful Dead, and all that entailed, yes, that being drugs, among other things, then (really) discovering punk music, the RAMONES foremost, but X, Minor Threat, followed by a lot of Rage Against the Machine, and finally, yes, rap and hop-hip, but after Tribe's peak. I was especially caught-up in the Beastie Boys, Biggie, Jay Z, Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan, all New York, and N.W.A., my one west coast exception. But no Tribe and I don't know why. Like I really don't, and just how much can I blame an entire lifetime of public schooling in upstate New York for having so many gaps in my pop cultural knowledge in in general anyway? So, when I heard Can I Kick It? earlier this year, and loved it, the repetition, the cool vibe and Lou Reed sample, and started writing to it on repeat, all the while not certain I had ever heard it before, I deservedly felt like an asshole. A theme of recent book riffs here I guess. From there I plunged into the whole Tribe discography and while I'm not sure I love them and their music as much as other music I came to late, and they would be really late, it was a gap, a huge gap in terms of what I had listened to and do listen to. Hence, when Go Ahead In The Rain by Abdurraqib (fullish title, Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest.) was released, there was no confusion or hesitation on what I needed to do next. Buy it, read it, now. And here we are. Do I now love Tribe more than I did? Not sure. But do I love Abdurraqib more, equally, all the same. Yup. Because while Tribe clearly kicks ass, what Abdurraqib is doing, is what I love best, looking at his life, this country, the world, race, art, history, family, friends and coolness, through the prism of the culture he loves. And so if Abdurraqib is going to write as he writes, which is full of energy and rhythm and flow, and do so in the very personal he does, I'm going to consume it. Just as I do with all the authors I love best, Jim Carroll, Lynda Barry, Sam Irby, Dave Newman, Sara Lippmann, Raymond Carver, Wendy C. Ortiz, and so many others. He's all live wire, no distance, or remove. But he's something else too: a public intellectual who knows how important culture, all culture, is to understanding who we are, and who he is. Thus, I will love what he loves from the first page to the last. Abdurraqib is that good and that interesting, and while it is cliche to say that I am better for reading him, I am, each time, each page. Has he changed my life? He has. Reading this book even changed my approach to the flow of a piece I was just editing that felt too ragged to me. Will he change your life as well? No doubt, so, do get to it, like now, and then feel free to thank me later.

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - On Being Human by the Jennifer Pastiloff.

    To talk about On Being Human, much less the love that is Jen Pastiloff, seems to call for something special or more involved than anything as straight forward as the usual free-flowing, albeit sentient, book ruminations I engage in here. She's too special. As is On Being Human. But how does one go about telling the story of  knowing Jen and her work? Does it involve exploring her from different angles, a multi-faceted approach to someone with multiple facets? Or is it about stories? Not that I have so many stories about Jen. We've only met once. We podcasted. She published my essay "Powder Blue Polyester Tuxedo" at her site The Manifest-Station. And we've messaged sporadically since, most recently when On Being Human was released and before that when I learned that I had been losing my hearing, something she knows all too much about. So, there's all that. All of which has some something to do with stories, the stories of a relationship and the stories behind those stories and I suppose all the stories we tell or mean to tell.

    "That is what I am working on sharing in my workshops: how our stories are within us and they deserve to be let out, they deserve to be heard." (page 276)

    When I met Jen, after she published my piece, and she was in Chicago and we decided we'd do a podcast, I had little idea all that Jen meant to people, how influential she was, that her workshops were so important to so many. And yes, that makes me an asshole. Especially when so many Chicago writers I know and love knew her, loved her and were attending the workshop she was leading while in town. I hadn't done my homework. But that podcast was huge, with the biggest numbers the show has ever seen and the most exposure the podcast has ever received. The response made me want the show to be better, or at least treat it with more love. I updated the iTunes page and got the show onto Stitcher and then Spotify. I added a logo. And it was Jen who inspired me. Jen was, is, not playing around. She's all in and I wanted to be all in as well. She made me be a better version of me and that's what she does. She gets people to find their voice and look for their stories. And then of course when you find them, you have to share them. That's how it works.

    "There is always a story under the story." (page 301)

    Which is just what Jen has done with On Being Human. People kept asking her how she's done what she's done and so she told us. She shared all of the stories and then all of the stories behind the stories, which is what she does, she digs, she shares, she's human. She waitressed and struggles with an eating disorder. She said she was an actress, but really wasn't doing much to become one. She refused to accept that she was losing her hearing, or that her body was both betraying her and telling her just that, or that she was deserving of love. But she found antidepressants, she got hearing aids, she found yoga and teaching, leading workshops, and she discovered what she had always known, she could be there, right there, for the people who needed her. She could share her most authentic life and she could give love. And then she discovered that it wasn't even really about yoga, or teaching, though it's that stuff too, but it was about connection, and she was right there for that as well.

    "Writing was the way out, just as yoga had been the way in." (page 225)

    She didn't discover writing though, that was always there, but she made others write their stories and what I find most fascinating is that there is no magic here. Someone committed to finding their best self and decided to share it. Jen knew people had stories to tell and that in telling them they would learn the things about themselves that they already knew to be true, but couldn't accept or face. They needed permission, a prompt, inspiration, a safe space, and Jen gave them that. That, and love. And she has love now as well, love she deserves in the way we all do when we put it out into the world. She may still have bad days, and her hearing, as is mine, is still fucked. She may even be an asshole at times. But Jen is love and if On Being Human is nothing else, it's a love story, to herself, and all of us. Will On Being Human change your life? Of course it will. But the lesson here, one lesson anyway, is that in the end, we have to love ourselves enough to want to change them.

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Bookmarked by the Brian Evenson.

    "Minimalism is often faulted for a lack of complexity, but I think What We Talk About is an excellent example of how repetition and variation between stories can in fact create a different kind of nuanced complexity over the course of a collection." (page 80)

    Frankly, I hadn't written a short story in four or five years. I turned in The New York Stories and SEX AND DEATH and I was done. Not consciously mind you, there was no announcement or decision, nothing profound or definitive. There just weren't any more stories available to me, and there were other things to write, novels and essays. And how pretentious is that? Quite. Still, at some point I started a list of story ideas that I thought could speak to one another, forming a kind of arc and conversation, something Brian Evenson writes about in Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Bookmarked. In fact, he literally writes how these "stories are in conversation with one another," on page 80 and I quite love that. But how couldn't I? If The Basketball Diaries laid the groundwork for the messy, raw nerve-ending, real time, electric vibe I've tried to capture from the moment I started writing, it is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that made me want to write short stories and think about them as being in conversation with another, creating a sense of time and place uniquely their own. It also made me think that there was no point in thinking about writing one story at a time, but that I should always think about groups of stories and collections. When I started I didn't have the language of conversation in mind, it was about ideas that hang together, more social work than literary. I also didn't really know about Raymond Carver, and nothing of the controversies involving his editor Gordon Lish, something Evenson writes of with great care and understanding. What I did know was that I wanted to write and that I loved the movie Shortcuts. These ideas were not connected to me as much they were parallel thoughts running through my brain. But then I learned that the intersecting stories in Shortcuts were taken from Carver's work, specifically What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was compelled to read it, and felt something I had rarely experienced since The Basketball Diaries, a sort of transformation, more of a transportation really. Which is to say that I felt transported above the page, the stories becoming near physical presences in the room. I was enamored with the tight, clean use of language, the richness of the characters, the focus on domestic life, small towns, substance abuse, the doses of violence. It's not that I knew this world, not exactly, but like The Basketball Diaries I knew the impulses and feelings that provided the basis for the stories. What I didn't know then, but know now was that it was the minimalism that most spoke to me, and continues to speaks to me, and when I wrote my debut novel Lucky Man and my first group of stories for the collection "Repetition Patterns," the first third of which comprise The New York Stories, it was that minimalism that I aspired to. Later, now, I consciously seek it out, making cuts, stripping away language, explaining less, asking the reader to fill in the gaps. And it is now that I want to write short stories again, and I started keeping a list of ideas, waiting for the time to start, and I thought I might re-read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love to get into the right head space. I also saw Evenson's book and felt it might be a nice supplement and offer additional stimulation and thinking. I know the stories, but I know little about about Carver or what these stories meant to him. But I didn't read it, not immediately. Then someone asked me for a story and after a year or so of turning down such requests, I looked at my list and saw a story waiting to be written. Much of the rest of the list sucked, but I started to write that first one, and the ideas are flowing and the list is recreating itself. I also started to wonder if I even needed to re-read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love? The stories are happening anyway. But I saw no reason not read Evenson writing about it, to dig further into the writer brain, and what an engaging dialogue it was. Even when sifting through the pain, Carver's mostly, the struggles with Lish, and editing, and what editing means in terms of the final results. What Evenson has done is craft a rumination on editing, writing what we love and how we love it, as writers, readers and humans, and more specifically lovers of Carver. I'm not sure when I'll read the collection again. I have what I need for now. Evenson gave me that. Thoughts on minmalism, conversation and "human noise." But so has my own brain. It's ready to write short stories again, and ready to change my life, if not those of others, though that remains to be seen.