ONLY CONNECT

My Struggle, Book 3
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The other day, I was standing on the train platform reading Book 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume series, My Struggle. Most of my fellow passengers consulted their phones or walked by me zombie-style, immersed in whatever was coming through their headphones; a few pushed bikes down the platform and a couple sat chatting with one another. While I stood reading, feet planted firmly on the ground in Berkeley, California, March 2016, I was, at the same time, in Karl Ove’s childhood bedroom in Tromoya, Norway circa 1978. A breeze rushed past me as a train left the station while Karl Ove sat on his bed and picked up a book by Ursula K. Le Guin. In that moment, I felt like I was on the tail end of a ricochet, knowing that Le Guin grew up in post-World War I Berkeley.

People like to say that we’re more connected today than we’ve ever been thanks to current technology. But writers and readers know that we’ve always been connected through our conversations on the page. And even my beloved Skype hasn’t figured out how to time travel yet.

My Struggle Book 3

Of course not every writer connects with every reader. And anyone who tells me that Karl Ove is too internal and plot-deficit for their taste gets my full support and understanding. Yet clearly I’m invested at this point, having read the first half of his 3,600-page opus. So what’s in it for me, besides some company while I’m waiting for my train?

I’ll put it this way. Why do we like strange, twisty, suspenseful plots? Because we feel like we’re actively navigating through the story, picking up the crumbs a writer leaves and using our minds to interpret the path on which we’ve been set. It’s satisfying to figure things out and to be surprised, especially when both happen at the same time.

Karl Ove doesn’t map out intricate plots (this is a memoir* after all) but instead he lays out in exceptional detail every last nook, cranny and conifer of both his external and internal worlds. Were I to be air-dropped into Tromoya Island, Norway in the year 1978, I feel confident I could make my way through the “… gardens and rocks, meadows and woods, up and down dale, around sharp bends, sometimes with trees on both sides, as if through a tunnel …” to Karl Ove’s newly developed neighborhood, where buddies Geir, Rolf and Dag Lothar would be waiting to play. And then I’d see Karl Ove’s sadistic, alcoholic father looming in the doorway and feel just as shaken as Karl Ove does.

A cynical person could say that enjoying the kind of intimacy and sharing Knausgaard offers is another form of today’s rampant voyeurism (see reality tv, celeb gossip and pretty much the whole Internet). On the contrary, I think he’s speaking to something older and more visceral and thus, the hubbub around this series.

Simply put, he’s connecting.

P.S., I seem to find myself on an unintended Norwegian kick these days. My library copy of One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway just came in and my buddy Anne recently got us into Occupied on Netflix. I guess it’s no wonder I found myself buying smoked salmon earlier today.

*KOK calls these books “a non-fiction novel”

 

LIFE WOULD BE PERFECT IF I LIVED IN THAT HOUSE

Life+Would+Be+Perfect+CoverLife Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House
by Meghan Daum 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided that (dictionary be damned) perfectionism isn’t really based on the assumption that things are ever going to be exactly perfect; it’s more a pursuit than a quest with an end. Most of us are willing to acknowledge that perfection is mythical and unattainable.

So what exactly is this pursuit of the perfect all about? I think it’s more like a complicated form of rationalizing. We don’t necessarily have to believe that things will ever be truly perfect to remain firmly devoted to the belief that if we can just get a liiiiitttttle bit closer to our ultimate vision, well, then we can at least live with that. We can be more content, we can be happier, even if we can’t reach the zenith. And let’s face it: the pursuit is the real thrill, a thrill that can’t possibly be matched by its outcome. Because within the pursuit lies the potential. Reality often involves some level of disappointment.

Which leads us to the topic of real estate. It’s been an interesting ride for my peers and I, coming-of-adulthood during the recent booms and busts of the housing market. We had all kinds of weird ideas about how and why one should possess their own little corner of the planet. For a certain demographic to which I belong, there was a time when one could have easily mistaken our real life financial transactions for a game of Monopoly. I can remember an actual conversation in which someone declared that by purchasing my condo in 2002, I “had won.” I’ve been all over the game board since then.

For some, housing–whether rented, owned, borrowed or bartered–is a simple matter of economics: a straightforward business transaction and nothing more. My housing has always been more emotionally significant than that. I can probably trace this back to approximately the seventh grade, when I took up residency in my parents’ attic guestroom a la Greg Brady. I could go on at some length about how and why that little garret still ranks as one of my all-time favorite dwellings. I could probably write an entire memoir about the housing in my life and it would come down to the same basic premise that is at the heart of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House: housing equals identity.

I’m so glad, though, that Meghan Daum saved me the trouble and wrote her housing memoir instead. In fact, it was one of those books that I related to so strongly, I’d almost hesitate to recommend it to anyone else for fear they might not relate and my true insanity will be revealed for once and for all. I’m pretty sure that only a fellow OCDer could truly appreciate the painfully detailed cataloging Daum undertakes over virtually every one of her 18 (yep, I said 18) moves without becoming annoyed. But within the craziness lies a hysterically funny and sharply insightful narrator who isn’t afraid to let us all know how nuts she really is.

Okay, you’ve read the disclosures. Here are the keys. The rest is up to you.

H IS FOR HAWK

H Is for Hawk

Love this cover

H Is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald

Sometimes our most irrational decisions are also our most defining moments. They are the moments when we know we’re acting a bit mad, as they say on Downton, yet we feel better, freer, and wilder than at any other time. Perhaps we’ve quit our job to write a novel. Perhaps we’ve quit our life to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Or perhaps we’ve brought home a baby goshawk.

That last one is what Helen Macdonald did after the unexpected loss of her father. And while I don’t know Helen Macdonald, after reading her unique and idiosyncratic memoir about this attempt to harness her grief, it’s safe to say that it’s a book only she could have written. With beautiful, poetic language (that works surprisingly well when describing the sometimes gory details of training a hawk), Macdonald narrates her surface story while weaving in meditations on grief and nature and our relationship to animals and the meaning of solitude.   She also gives us just enough on the history of falconry to understand its place in the British class system and its place in her life. And then there’s her metaphysical kinship with the late T.H. White (author of the Once and Future King series and falconer).

Now I should back up and explain that Macdonald is a trained falconer and naturalist (in addition to being a writer and historian), so her decision to adopt a hawk wasn’t quite as far off the rails as it might sound. Although for yours truly, a self-proclaimed indoorsy type, the concept was still a little hard to get my head around when I picked up her book.

It reminded me of when we first adopted Henry The Wonderdog a few years back: he’s no bird of prey, but he is still undoubtedly a member of the animal kingdom. And while he immediately won us over with his loving personality and striking resemblance to a Gund stuffed animal, there was a part of me that couldn’t help feeling a little, well, grossed out, frankly, at the thought of having “an animal in my house.” Six years later there are still times when I feel like I know where the wild things are – on my sofa – and my ambivalence surfaces.

I suppose this is to say that the next time I start to lose my mind (the clock is ticking), I probably won’t be donning a falconer’s glove and waistcoat, but H Is for Hawk did help me remember why I keep this crazy terrier/hound mix around. (He’s snoozing on my freshly vacuumed sofa as I write this.) Anyone who’s had a pet (or been to the zoo or the petting farm) will bashfully admit that we tend to project our motivations and needs onto animals. But Macdonald reminded me that it’s reciprocal; we also long for the purity of what animals can give and receive.

 

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P Is for Pup

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There’s an animal in my house

THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE

TITSOAHMThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage
by Ann Patchett

Oh how I dread writing about the books I love. The task makes me wish I had just finished a book I only liked or felt okay about or disliked. These reads lend themselves to short, distilled blog posts much more obediently than the books I love. Because the books that really speak to me have so much to say and I can’t possibly do them justice in less than 600 words – a self-imposed word count that I feel committed to maintaining.

From its title, I had assumed this book was a set of memoir-ish essays about Patchett’s relationship with her husband. And while the eponymous essay in the collection covers that topic, the book as a whole is about the many different kinds of marriages that she has had in her life, it is about the things to which she’s committed herself and loved deeply: her husband ranks high on the list, but so does her reading and writing, her friendships and her dog Rose.

As a species, we tend to catalogue things, especially the things we like. It’s fun to think about what makes us happy and creating lists gives us a sense of order and accomplishment and—I’ll speak for myself here—it can help us remember. But such cataloging and collecting can turn us into people who only skim the surface, who are more consumers than thinkers. Patchett’s collection of essays, carefully culled from the mound of non-fiction she’s crafted over the last 20+ years, is an antidote to these types of superficial, fetishizing tendencies. While the common thread here is clearly that which she adores most, the theme emerged organically through her years of writing and only made itself known explicitly once she started to pull together different pieces that represented her non-fiction career. In other words, Patchett didn’t write “My Ten Faves” at the top of a piece of paper and then proceed to develop corresponding essays.

But I am not Ann Patchett. And (as is evident if you glance to your left) I am not above having lists of faves. So I’ll just go ahead and tell you that within this collection, my favorite essays lean toward the ones about the literary world, the ones describing life on a book tour, opening an independent bookstore and my most favorite of all, The Getaway Car, “A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.” She also writes beautifully about her relationships—human and canine—like only a true introvert can, with great devotion and depth.

I could feel bitter and resentful that Patchett manages to write about the things she loves with such ease, but instead I can only feel camaraderie because I know that what appears easy for her is in fact the product of a lot of time and hard work. One of her many wonderful analogies in the book compares our ideas to a beautiful butterfly that flits about our heads until we have to kill and pin it in order to get those ideas onto paper. As she says, “The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.”

Up Next: H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, recent winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize.

TAKE THIS MAN

Take This Man

This cover is gorgeous in person

Take This Man
by Brando Skyhorse

It is a very strange experience to read the memoir of someone you know. I met Brando Skyhorse through a mutual friend who, several years ago, gave me his email address when I was working on my novel. (Thanks again, mutual friend!) She suggested that I contact Brando if I had any questions about writing or publishing. After working as an editor for many years, his first book (The Madonnas of Echo Park) was about to be released. He sounded like a great but busy resource and I hesitated to bug him. Yet soon I had a question that no one I knew could answer and it seemed foolish not to at least reach out to him.

Brando replied a couple days later with a warm, encouraging note that answered my question in detail. Since then he’s graciously responded to my occasional questions, helped me dodge more than one bullet and has given me what has been by far the most helpful feedback I’ve received on my book. He’s done all this with an empathy and humor that was always remarkable but is even more so after reading his memoir.

I had inklings here and there that Brando had had at best an unconventional upbringing and at worst a tough one, but I didn’t have any details. So it was with a lot of sadness that through his beautifully written book, I learned just how crazy his childhood was. I’ve read other memoirs like Brando’s (The Glass Castle kept coming to mind) but my experience of them was entirely different. I remember walking away from The Glass Castle astounded by the mental illness of Jeannette Walls’ parents and by the resilience she and her siblings had in overcoming their childhoods. Although there are similar ingredients in Take This Man, my sick fascination was replaced by heartache. It pained me to learn that the people closest to Brando had neglected to give him the same support and understanding he has offered so freely to me in our limited interactions.

But aside from being such a mensch, he also happens to be a darn good writer. Brando has taken what could have been another addition to the “misery porn” genre (aka author details dysfunctional childhood and his eventual triumph over adversity) and he’s created something that’s more like one part detective story and one part lyrical narrative and tossed it all with a splash of humor. Some of my favorite wry comments include, “On the day he left for good, he spent most of that final morning doing household chores—something that should have aroused immediate suspicion” or “When your father’s local is the first bar seen in Barfly, you know how this story’s gonna turn out.”

The past couple weeks have felt particularly brutal in the world affairs department. Lately things have seemed even more dire and troubling than usual and there was a part of me that felt a bit out of sync for hunkering down to read a book in the midst of a chaotic world. But Brando’s story was a reminder that in these moments, all we really have to fall back on is our shared humanity, a humanity that sometimes rises highest in the midst of chaos.