Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Read any good books lately? No, it's not an entirely rhetorical question.

Read any good books lately?

My answer, always, is yes, of course. I sometimes want to add (usually silently) – and, some not-so-good books, some damned-if-I-know-what-that-was-about books, and the occasional wish-I-hadn't-read-that book. Also, the stopped-reading-it-halfway-through book, the don't-know-why-I-ever-wanted-to-read-that-in-the-first-place book, and the can't-believe-I read-the-whole-thing book.

I don't always mind the clunkers. As a writer I understand the energy the author expended on the effort and I tend to be forgiving. I learn what not to do. And, unless I'm stranded somewhere with no other reading material and no Internet access, I don't get upset. I move on. There's always that never-depleted tower known as TBR (to be read).

While I've had most of the above reading experiences lately, I'm not going to itemize the disappointments. But if you want to know if I've read any good books lately: Yes, of course.

I just finished the memoir,
Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup, a chronicle of her experiences as a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service (think rescue rangers, not prison) and being widowed with four kids. It's also about (and though this will sound cliche, in Braestrup's hands, it isn't) finding joy in unexpected places. She writes with unusual clarity and occasional kind humor about the most terrible circumstances – she's called out to minister to families of lost hikers, children missing in the woods, husbands who don't return from drunken ice fishing trips.

The book was published in the summer of 2007, and has since been in my TBR pile. It's a slim volume, so I'm not sure what took me so long to read it. In the interim, I've taught from personal essays Braestrup's published. I admire the way she structures her shorter pieces (and hence her essay-like memoir chapters), how she withholds a key piece of information until exactly the right moment in the narrative and then deploys it with grace, and the way she invites her reader to engage with the nonfiction story by writing just enough and not one word more. I knew immediately that this qualified as a good book I've read lately.

Then there are the books which don't immediately announce themselves to be in that category.

A few weeks ago, I read the not-yet-published memoir by
Stephen Elliott, titled The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder (Graywolf Press, Sept. 2009). Wanting to widely distribute advanced reading copies, Elliot asked a group of those interested in reading the book (and by extension, hopefully talking about it online somewhere) if they would read it and then, for the cost of postage, pass it along to the next person on the list.

This appealed to me on so many levels: as a former public relations person (and someone who currently advises authors on do-it-yourself book PR), I found the plan brilliant – it builds community, encourages online pre-publication buzz via
a select group of readers who are often also writers, and puts the author directly into the conversation. And yet. I knew that Elliot's book was being compared with Nick Flynn's unusual memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Now that's a book I read and didn't like. At first.

Flynn's book was assigned during my first semester in an MFA program by a faculty member whose entire required reading list seemed to consist of memoirs written by men about troubled relationships with their now-dead fathers. I explained that, as my own father was then currently in his final days, I would appreciate a change in the reading list. I was told to buck up and read. I did. (A few weeks later I asked for, and got, a new faculty mentor, but that's another story.) I wrote my required annotations, angrily, and tossed the books aside.

Fast forward a few months: I am
writing about my deceased father. What books do I find myself re-reading? Of course. (I still think the faculty mentor was insensitive, not prescient, in refusing to adjust my reading list; but again, another story.) Today, Flynn's book is still one of those on my shelf which I occasionally pull out, read a chapter and feel I've learned something. I'm still not all that fond of it cover-to-cover, but it's a book I'll keep and keep reading, in sections.

Now, here I was three years later, with Elliot's book fresh out of the mailing envelope from the last reader. It is not another bullshit book about dysfunctional fam
ilies, not only a participatory witness-to-the-dark-side take on Elliot's criminal friends, and not just a chronicle of his dependence on prescription drugs; but then it's not entirely something else either.

As I read, in terms of subject matter, I was by turns disturbed, fascinated, interested, disapproving, engaged, repelled; I was eager to find out the ending but at the same time not always all that sure I wanted to turn the page. Elliot's writing made sure I did turn those pages. The fact is, I wasn't always comfortable reading this book. I was careful not to leave the book around the house where my teen and pre-teen sons might find it. But occasionally being taken out of one's comfort zone is a good thing, as a reader and a writer.

This is not a joy-from-grief kind of memoir. It's raw, frank, graphic, odd. Yet, it's also well-crafted, structurally interesting, equivocal, and a shift from all the happiness-growing-out-of-sorrow memoirs crowding the genre today. It shook me up. Made me think about the rougher worlds outside of those I usually read about. Elliot edits the edgy online magazine
The Rumpus; the sexual/cultural/literary mix of material over there will give you a small idea of where this book might fall on your TBR list.

I also read a bunch of good novels last month, too. I'll write about them later this week or next, especially in terms of how reading fiction feeds my own nonfiction work.

Meanwhile, what good books have you read lately?

Update: Just got this note from Stephen Elliott:
Thanks Lisa. That's very kind of you. Could you let people know that they can still sign up to get advanced copies by going here.


Mindy Withrow said...

Found this via your tweeted link; first time at your site. Glad to know I'm not the only one who sometimes takes a year or more to get to a new book that I really did want to read right away! I loved the Braestrup memoir, too, for all the same reasons as you. I also dip into The Rumpus occasionally, though haven't seen Elliot's book. I've been chugging through my TBR stack but it's taking me awhile to get the reviews up at my blog -- but you can see some of what I've been reading there. Happy reading!

Yokel (TKS) said...

Two I'm recommending:

Kim Barnes: "A Country Called Home"
(literary novel set in rural Idaho)

Cheryl Wagner: "Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around"
(memoir of reclaiming house in MidTown New Orleans after Katrina)