This Book Will Change Your Life.


Currently showing posts tagged This Book Will Change Your Life

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - East Pittsburgh Downlow by the Dave Newman.

    Does it go without saying that during times of crisis, and certainly, though not only during those of a pandemic nature we need the arts more than ever?

    That art offers a salve for our fears, the chance to escape and sometimes a means for making sense of what's happening around us?

    I didn't read East Pittsburgh Downlow because of COVID-19 or any kind of social distancing (though I wholly embrace that). Nor was I looking for answers to anything in particular when it landed on my doorstep (and that's primarily meant metaphorically, I live in a high-rise, and nothing but the occasional drunk and newspapers land on my doorstep). 

    I read it because I love Dave Newman's work (and I love Dave Newman, and do listen to his recent appearance on this This Podcast Will Change Your Life for more fanboy love and the like) and will unabashedly read anything he writes.

    Newman speaks to the people we don't see enough on the page, blue collar men and women, left behind by the prosperity being made by the few, struggling to get ahead, and stay above water, as they struggle with basic day-day decisions such as which bills to pay first.

    They drink too much and have sex and go to work.

    These people will also be those who suffer most during a time like we find ourselves in, which is not a political statement, though it could be, because they will not be able to go to work, but not be able to work from hom, they have only saved so much, if anything, and generational wealth is not a thing for them.

    I've never pretended I grew-up this way, nor am I exactly there now, I've been privileged and remain privileged, even as I know I won't do as well as my parents eventually did, and am slowly falling behind whatever progress I was once making.

    That can still change for me, and might, but even if it doesn't, I'm working to embrace it as Newman's characters are also trying to do, because they're always thinking about bills and work and how much we all need some luck.

    But they also find light and joy in love and running and dive bars and pizza and this I do know well.

    I also know that Dave Newman doesn't necessarily seem to be interested in success as we sometimes think about it, well as I do anyway, or maybe he is, but doesn't feel like chasing it, better understanding than I did in the past how hard it is, and how much effort and luck it takes to maybe achieve it.

    Of course, that's speculation or projection or something.

    I can't say.

    I can say that I love him and his writing and that for me he is one of America's truest voices, greatly underappreciated, and far too unknown, for what he does and shares with us.

    And maybe that's okay, I know he seems to be okay with it.

    But that is also why I try to bring attention to those voices we may not know or who deserve the opportunity to rise above the clutter, if even only briefly.

    Which brings me back to this pandemic, reading and making money.

    Reading itself is a necessity right now, but so is supporting artists whose livelihoods depend on their art, as well as authors and publishers who can't properly promote their work during a time when everything non-pandemic, work and family, is being cancelled and ignored. 

    Let's all support the artists we know and love, as well as those we don't know, and if you don't know who to support, let me know, I'll be happy to share my thoughts, though with this post as a self-prompt, I plan to share them anyway.

    Also, if you're a writer or publisher and want me to promote anything at all across my social media platforms and/or if you're a bookstore, writing center or literary outlet who needs me to lend a voice to anything you're trying to do right now to stay above water yourself, please let me know, I'm happy to help.

    Otherwise, will East Pittsburgh Downlow change your life? Of course it will. It's the Dave Newman. And it's art.

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - Hunger - A Memoir of (My) Body by the Roxane Gay.

    There a lot of us...

    People who read.

    Love books.

    Embrace the independent literary scene.

    Love pop culture.

    Consume social media.

    Who wait on what Roxane Gay is going to write, read, create, say, Tweet.

    Which isn't hard, because it can feel like she's everywhere.

    There she is referenced on Sex Education, which I watch, and appearing on The L Word, which I don't, but which I did, because I read that she was going to be on  that night and I want to experience it.

    But she's also name-dropped in an essay I read somewhere recently about a woman's relationship to her weight and even in East Pittsburgh Downlow by Dave Newman, the book I happen to be reading as I get ready to try and say something about Gay's book Hunger- A Memoir of (My) Body.

    Much of which is to say, that if one is a fan of Roxane Gay's work and presence, as I am, one can both feel like they know so much about her already, while wondering what they can add to the ongoing conversation about her and her work.

    Which is to say, that I feel this way and may be projecting that onto everyone else.

    Early in Hunger (Page 4), Gay writes: "The story of my body is not a story of triumph."

    Hunger is the story of Gay's "unruly" body though, what it's "endured," and how so many people want her to take control of something she cannot take control of.

    Something any of us who follow her on Twitter well know and see.

    It is also the story of Gay making peace with her body.

    And it is a story about trauma, and violence, and the confusion and shame that accompanies such things.

    If one follows Gay, one knows much of this too.

    What feels important then is not the quality of the writing, though Gay is masterly and the prose is raw and punctuated with beauty, or that many of us can feel we know so much of the story already, it's that the story is on paper at all, and in our hands, and brains, and that there is a light being shined on violence towards women, and that there can't be too much light or too many stories of this nature.

    Not when there's so much violence and so little attention paid to it 

    Gay writes how hard it was to write this book and how much that surprised her. And we can all thank her for doing so. Change starts by learning people's stories and seeing that there are real people behind the statistics, people we know, love, and admire. But change is ultimately dependent on engaging with these stories and using the feeling and energy they create in us to take action.

    Parenting differently.

    Crafting policies and new laws.

    Re-structuring institutions. 

    Supporting the organizations that work on behalf of women and those exposed to violence.

    Transforming the communities and culture we live in.

    I didn't intend to write about Hunger on International Women's Day, but I hope we can all take a moment to think about what this day means to all of us and the role we all play in being better partners, listeners, supporters, parents and champions of women's causes and rights.

    I could remind you that reading Hunger will change your life, though that feels more obvious than usual. Still, it will, so please take a moment to think about that as well.

  • 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 - 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.

  • These Books Will Change Your Life - The Heart Crossways by the James Claffey and FUNHOUSE by the Robert Vaughan.

    James Claffey and Robert Vaughan are not new authors to me, really they're anything but. I've followed their literary careers, I've read with them, blurbed their books and asked them to blurb mine, had them as guests on This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Vaughan anyway, I'll need to get Claffey on as well, soon, promise. But they've been around, and I've been around, and it is this idea of still being around that I found myself ruminarting on as I read their most recent books The Heart Crossways and FUNHOUSE by Claffey and Vaughan respectively. Which is not to ignore the gifts that come with their work. It feels almost cliche to point out that the Ireland-born Claffey's command of language borders on the luxurious (luminous just didn't seem to capture what was in my head). I assume that this is a birthright, but as I wrote when blurbing his short story collection Blood a Cold Blue, "...James Claffey infuses every story with rhythm and rot, doing things with words that I've never seen before and don't expect to again," Claffey knows loss and decay, and in this new novel he twists both into a coming of age tale that may follow every rule - sex, violence, individuation, delinquency - but feels new, or at least renewed under his pen and his clear-eyed view on what it means to be working class, the struggles to survive, and to hold onto one's pride, especially the always delicate male pride, the desire to escape, the lack of balance and stability and the wonder at how one will ever be anything but that which they seem fated to be. Also a birthright I imagine. Vaughan on the other hand does what he has continued to do from book to book and line to line, an exploration of the myriad places Vaughan has traveled, both physically and temporally. Time and place bending to his imagination. In the same way Claffey juggles words, Vaughan juggles the copious amounts of ideas that seem to churn through his brain and onto the page. That these ideas seem to come back to an ongoing search for the meaning in relationships, any and all relationships, family, marriage, male, female, gay, straight, is a reminder that like the coming of age tale, talking relationship is not something new, but few explore all the twists and iterations of these dynamics as inventively or dynamically as Vaughan continues to do.

    Now before I move on to the next book, post or riff, a call back from whence I came: this idea of being around. I've thought a lot lately about how many writers I've been lucky enough to meet over the years, but also how many, both male and female, seemed to have moved on from writing to other things. Some of this, and do be warned, more cliche is about to happe, is life happening, work, family, illness, and some of it may be that the desire to write has passed, as strong as it may or may not have been, other things are just as important and there is only so much time to do it all. But I also believe that some of it is something else, that time passes these authors by, that they get stuck, unsure of what comes next, or what comes next is not of enough interest to them or those who might publish their books, other writers come along to replace them, time starts to slip away, and with it the desire to keep pushing and keep struggling as they did at the start of their careers. Claffey and Vaughan are still around, still pushing and juggling words, and to celebrate that a couple of white dudes have persisted is obnxious, but it doesn't feel like nothing that they have. The world will gladly leave you, or them, behind, but it hasn't happened to Claffey and Vaughan, not yet, and that, we can all celebrate. Not to say doing so will change your life, but their words will, always, and for long as we have them.  

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - Leaving: One Woman's Story of Verbal Abuse by the Marguerite Morris.

    "I had pictured my life as linear, but now an unseen artist put all our walks together in one place on one canvas. Everything fit." (page 192)

    It is not so coincidental that I was reading Leaving: One Woman's Story of Verbal Abuse by the Marguerite Morris as I traveled back and forth for a gig where I work, coach, judge, and as needed, and when not in conflict with those I'm judging, provide editorial guidance to debut authors as they bring their new books into the world. Doing so is a big part of what I do and who I am now. It's awfully humblebraggy to tell you that I always thought I could be good at all this, and I am. It is less so to say that I enjoy it immensely. And it is something else entirely to say that the first person who ever paid for my editorial feedback and coaching was none other than Marguerite Morris who picked me from a list of potential manuscript consultants at the Northwestern University Summer Writer's Conference. I was paid to read the opening ten pages of Marguerite's manuscript and meet with her for an hour. We ended-up talking off and on for another year or so and now there's this book, Leaving, published, out in the world and entirely riveting.

    "Had I been holding my breath for thirty years?" (page 50)

    When I had read only the beginning of Leaving, I told Marguerite that when the book was published it would save lives. I said that because I knew her story would resonate with countless readers where abuse, verbal and otherwise, is a reality they know all too well. I also believed it could be published, which is an entirely different thing. Her story alone deserved to be told, and maybe not everything, every life, and yes, every story, has to be a book, but Margeurite's work read like a horror story, full of dread and well observed, a mix of detail and emotions readers would relate to. And it's not that we know what will be published when we set out to write a book, or even provide editorial, but we have to believe the work can be published and then make it so. Still, more than that, we have to finish our manuscripts. I say to authors in general, and clients in particular, "there is no book until there is a book." It's not intended to be cute of pithy,  but we have to reach the end of the manuscript before we can talk about getting it published or the book's potential impact on the world. That Leaving is now a book that I could receive in the mail, read and write about here is terribly moving in and of itself. That the writing itself is also terribly moving, and that Margeurite takes us on her journey, and journeys, literal and otherwise, both realistic and dreamy, including, but not limited to her ability to breathe, again, is a triumph. Do I still believe Leaving will save lives, I do, and do I also believe that reading it will change your life? Unquestionably.

  • This Book Will Change Your Life - Blackbirds by the Greg Santos.

    Look, I don't read enough poetry, which is an endless lament in these posts. And I'm willing to unequivocally accept that reading poetry may elevate one's sense of peace and self-actualization, regardless of how poorly it reflects on my reading habits and mindfulness. I'm not a heathen mind you, I've read numerous poetry collections in recent years, including those by Seth Berg, Shaindel Beers, John McCarthy, Jim Warner, David Tomas Martinez, Jason Fisk, Lisa Fay Coutley, Dave Newman, Sass Brown and Rachel Slotnick. But these are people I know and love, read with, drank with, hung with, and to consume their words is a gift, and a means for getting to know them better and honor their craft. I share this because I'm embarrassed, and I want to do better, but also because when I do read poetry and share the experience with you, you can know that while biased, and yo, everything here is biased, I'm not a critic, I'm a consumer of experiences, art particularly, and blessed to be able to do so. So when I share these riffs and commentaries they come from a place of love and excitement and the possibility of exposing those that move me to a wider audience. Which brings us to the Greg Santos and his collection Blackbirds. It feels like I've known Santos as long as I've reveled in the promotion of words and hoped to bring them to the wider world. We published "A Love Poem for Shelley by Hulk," at This Zine Will Change Your Life back in 2009, and to find love and the Hulk in the same place seemed like a revelation:

    Your brown hair ripples
    like Captain Marvel cape
    in spring breeze.

    Hulk’s heart
    for you more thunderously
    than mighty Thor hammer.

    Your pale skin glistens
    like milky white Space Ghost
    costume beneath stars.

    Hulk waits in moonlight for you
    so we may smash side by side
    in search of mythical
    green songbird called love.

    In 2011, we published "Hooray:"

    Yes, the world
    will not have ended in 2012
    as the Mayans predicted
    but sadly nor will
    hoverboards be en vogue.
    The sun will continue to die,
    magnificent tiny creatures
    with feelers and luminescent bodies
    we’ve never even discovered
    will have gone extinct
    under our noses,
    but on the plus side
    things will be sleeker,
    shinier, smaller,
    and more expensive.

    More recently, 2014, "Clickbait:"

    How might the human face look in 100,000 years?
    I must keep telling myself, writing is lucky work.
    Despite the headlines, life is good.
    I like how the internet is starting to look.

    Have you ever thought how many brains there are in the world?
    I’m not just talking about humans.
    For the love of God will someone please amuse me.
    The city is quieter than you think.

    You are a child in a house that is warm.
    Climb larger and larger mental states.
    You’re doing better than you think.
    Still so in love.

    Some may ask why.
    It’s just something new to try.
    Man explored the typewriter
    ribbon and something clicked.

    "Clickbait" can be found in Blackbirds and so we come full circle. Blackbirds is about love, but also family, immigration, culture, and pop culture, and violence. It is then, a Santos joint, and so really, this is not a post about poetry, my poor reading of poetry, or even a riff on Blackbirds, though it's a wonderful, sentient piece of work, humane and knowing, but a celebration of Santos himself. Now I don't know Santos all that well, I know his work, but what I read, and see, is that he is a supporter of the arts and artists, a teacher and mentor, a father and family man, a voice for the oppressed, unseen and unheard and advocate for mental health. He's also Canadian. So, there's all of that, and that's a lot of goodness and literary citizenship, and I want to know more. I want to know it all, and I hope to get him on This Podcast Will Change Your Life soon, because after ten years, it's time for us to hang and talk and find out what comes next. Will any of this change your life? Of course. All of it will.

  • These Books Will Change Your Life - So Sad Today by the Melissa Broder and Slow Days, Fast Company - The World, The Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz.

    Travel. Read. Travel. Read. Travel. Read. And So Sad Today by the Melissa Broder and Slow Days, Fast Company - The World, The Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz. Also, Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones - "The Long Night." Let me explain. I was not on any epic journey, I was in and out of Boston and Vermont for work and Boston and New York for family, riding planes, driving cars, taking trains and shuttles, though no dragons or spaceships, nothing interstellar. But I was going, going, going, and reading, reading, reading, and then consuming Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones - "The Long Night" and somewhere along the way I thought, there will be some kind of narrative here, that all of this media would form some sort of larger arc. That it would all hang together and say something about life, and all the pain in the world, and if not answering any larger questions about my place in the universe, certainly something about my life in some small and possily significant way. And really, at the end of the day, when one is considering the big, unanswered questions isn't the opportunity for some inreased personal insights and enhanced self-awareness enough? I think so. Which leaves us where exactly? It leaves me thinking about art, how we make and live it and how when it's good, it can really fuck with us, pulling on our emotions, making us laugh and cry, inducing stress and anticipation and leaving us breathless, when not actually questioning our very own life decisions. Which is yeah, a lot of feels, and just a lot to muse on, which is to say, feeling things is pretty good, whatever the feels are, experiencing emotions, intensely, and if Endgame brought me to tears and "The Long Night" to elation, despite the lighting, So Sad Today and The World, The Flesh, and L.A. were something else entirely, as books, for me, tend to be, more visceral and physical, more like appendages.

    So Sad Today is not a complete surprise to me, I know Broder's Twitter feed of the same name, though did not appreciate its importance to Broder until I read this book, and I know her from the OTHERPPLE podcast, and she's a delightful, intelligent presence, who has it amazingly together publicly given the suffering she has experienced. And that's not a criticism, it's how so many of us operate, managing ourselves out in the world, keeping it together and then allowing the venom, fear, raunch and raw nerves of it all to ooze across the page. Broder is living lives on top of lives and she brings it to her work and I fucking applaud that. But than there is Babitz. Is it too much say this is one of my most favorite recent reads? I don't think so. Still, am I inherently biased towards essays, Los Angeles, sex, celebrities and whatever it means to be an artist all of the time, but especially in Southern California, and at least somewhat in the 1960s and 70s? Please, its everything to me. But that wouldn't be enough to love it like I did. It's reminiscent of Didion, and I can't imagine the comparisons are avoidable, but the work is so lived-in and louche, though most importantly, all about making art, when not taking drugs and having sex, socializing and gossiping. What's interesting to me is how little Babitz talks about the struggle of making art, unlike Patti Smith in Just Kids, which is all about all of that and the struggle too. Babitz doesn't seem to struggle, she just is, and if that's not exactly true, than it's clearly the fantasy I'm also drawn to. That one can just be one with the world. And it's hard to imagine wanting anything more than that. And so yes, Endgame and "The Long Night" are fantasy as well, and they speak to me. They are also escapist and I'll always embrace that. But they don't touch me, not like Babitz, not when the sentences are so languid, dripping as they do into a larger narrative of a kind of life that one, me, might aspire to, if one were on a different path and could live and write as she does. Might I revisit Broder here for a moment now, too? I might, because she too has tapped into something, and just as much sex and drugs from what I can see, but she also lifts the lid on the pain, and I imagine I need to ask myself if I'm in a place to handle real pain these days, because changing lives aside, I'm not so sure I am. 

  • These Books Will Change Your Life - Not Everyone is Special by the Josh Denslow and For Other Ghosts by the Donald Quist.

    I've been suffering from an uptick of anxiety lately, not overwhelming or crippling, mostly low-grade, and I know it's low-grade, because when its medium grade or higher I can feel it in my chest when I wake-up in the morning. A constricting, like a fist opening and closing. So, that's not happening, which is nice. However, I have been sleeping more in general, trying to anyway, it's not something I'm great at. And it's not I have problems sleeping or falling asleep, I just tend not to go to bed and I like to get up early. I'm sharing this, because the last couple of Saturdays I've let myself sleep-in and have awoken both mornings to anxiety dreams. Last week I couldn't find my family and this week I dreamt that the world was going to end on April 5th. Luckily I woke-up on April 6th, the world was in place, crisis averted. I've never worried much about the world ending. I'm not even sure the state of the world causes me much anxiety. Anger, certainly, confusion, definitely, sadness, endlessly, but not anxiety, that's more about friends and family, making things work. But there it was, end of the world shit. Thing is, I didn't have to dig all too deeply to understand where it came from. I had recently read the story "Testaments" from Donald Quist's twisty, when not surreal, when not sad, when not dabbling in the supernatural short story collection For Other Ghosts, and in it a mother and daughter, the former a believer, the latter, along for the ride, go to an end of the world gathering in California. The story hit me hard, as family stories do, though maybe not as hard as the beautifully wrenching "They Would Be Waiting," the story that kicks-off the collection, a father son story, a trip to the father's homeland, what goes well, and does not, and it is lovely and devastating and created to crush me.

    Similarly, I've been reading Not Everyone Is Special by the Josh Denslow, more short stories, more devestation, particularly "Proximity," also a father son joint, though really a mother son thing, and quite affecting. Both authors deal in a kind of anxiety, fairly family-centric, though not only that, universe, with Quist sliding into magic realism at times, while other times merely dancing adjacent to it, but always, never getting too far away from dislocation, a key theme in his wonderous essay collection Harbors. People get lost in Quist's work, separated from family, country and self. There is always a feeling of sadness as well, looming, or lurking, but laying there somewhere, just below, and above the surface. I know Donald Quist, which is not intended as a need for disclosure, as much as to acknowledge, that he carries some of these qualities around with him, while also being utterly charming and engaging. And that's the thing with sadness and anxiety, they don't need to be off-putting, no more than parents we can't bring ourselves to understand. I suppose I'm writing this, because so often people say, with the state of the world, or my brain, I can't read about the things that are already hanging over me thoughout the day. I need to escape into humor and romance and positivity. I understand the inclination, but not the execution of it. We read because we need to read, because our brains and souls require it. I choose to read what comes to me and try never run from any of what comes with it. Take Not Everyone Is Special then. I don't know Josh Denslow, just people who do, people who want me to read him, and that's enough for me. He too treads in anxiety, already established, as well as sadness, see "Moustrap" or "Extra Ticket," both beautiful, both sad, one with a better outcome than the other. Denslow veers towards the absurd as well though, and the speculative, leanings that make for a wholly engaging bit of world-building in stories as disparate as "Too Late For a Lot of Things" and its warring Santa's Town employees, "Punch," and its alternative world of punch vouchers and Central Office staff, both violent in different ways. And then there is title story and its focus on a world not unlike ours, where the question lingers on and on, am I special, and how do I even begin to figure that out? I don't know. I do know that none of this is going to relieve my current state of anxiety, or make me go to bed, I have real work to do there. But reading is still a pleasure despite my current mood and that of the world, every word must be consumed and even if I don't always know how the books I read will change my life, I remain a true believer in their power to do so.