MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

Fuzzy HangHi guys, it’s been a while, so let’s just jump right in with this point of re-entry, from David Brooks’ February 9 Op-Ed column: “To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.”

Before you grow too baffled, rest assured that this blog is not being converted into a political forum. But given what I’ve been up to over the past seven months or so, I couldn’t help but feel a particular appreciation for Brooks calling out the fear/anger-mongering for the sake of mongering. Don’t get me wrong – questioning the status quo is an important and sacred part of a free society, but there’s a difference between intellectual discourse and baiting.

And you know who really resents the disingenuousness of the mongering? My 18-year-old clients. Regardless of their political persuasion, they don’t like to feel as though they’re getting played. Which brings me to: a) what I’ve been doing since we last spoke and b) what I’ve been reading. Hint: the answers to both questions are virtually the same and can be summed up in two words: college essays.

Both the beauty and the horror of 18-year olds is that (with some exceptions) they are innately optimistic. This isn’t to say they aren’t questioning everything that’s come before, but they tend to believe it will get better and they personally can be agents of change. Heck, one of my students wrote a whole essay about being an optimist and how such an outlook will serve him well as a scientist and entrepreneur.

Another of my kiddos described the moment when she knew she wanted to be a doctor. While lifeguarding at the local pool, one of her charges got a bloody nose and as my gal held a paper towel up to the little boy’s nose and tipped his head back, she realized the power of being able to use her hands to help someone.

Even the most mundane-seeming events in a young person’s life can be made meaningful through their sensitive and thoughtful perspective. Like my client who wrote about learning to make her often-grumpy Punjabi grandfather a cup of chai tea, a rite that wasn’t significant to her until she realized how much it meant to him.

And then there was an essay by one of my Chinese students that was so beautifully written, with a narrative voice so strong, I can’t do it justice trying to paraphrase it here. But I’ll just say this (as Senator Sanders often quips): at its heart, the essay was about his struggle to find his place somewhere between the two cultures he occupied as an international student in the U.S. Beyond his lovely writing, the part that slayed me was the raw vulnerability he displayed when describing the intense, to the point of agonizing, desire he initially felt to be American.

I work with a fair number of international students (and lots more who are their family’s first or second generation in the U.S.) and the essays that describe the agony and the ecstasy of this journey are a constant reminder that we’re doing something right over here. Even more encouraging is witnessing how so many of my students–regardless of their background–want to pay it forward. I can’t tell you how many kids want to develop renewable energy systems or businesses based in social entrepreneurship or organizations to address all those parts of the current system they don’t think are working. I’ve got young women who want to work with younger girls to encourage their love of math and science. I’ve even got someone brave enough to want to tackle big money in politics. Beyond their goals, the sheer magnitude of their energy is astounding. How could I possibly identify with the “pornography of pessimism” when this is my daily reading material? I think it’s pretty clear who is going to make America great again.

 

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.

MY MISSPENT YOUTH

my-misspent-youthMy Misspent Youth
by Meghan Daum

Between those social-media-loving Millennials living in their parents’ basement and penning award-winning HBO dramas, and the whiny Baby Boomers fueling demand for films like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it’s easy to wonder what happened to the voices of Generation X.

We’re the original latchkey kids, old enough to remember the dawn of MTV and the Internet, we’re the country’s most-educated generation and many of us bought our first house right before the market crashed. Like every generation, we’ve got something to say. So where have we been?

If we’re Meghan Daum, we’ve been here all along, writing candid and insightful work about our experiences as someone who “exerts a great deal of energy trying to get my realities to match my fantasies, even if the fantasies are made from materials that are no longer manufactured, even if some governmental agency has assessed my aspirations and pronounced them a health hazard.” Upon reading those words in Daum’s 2001 collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, the question I had to ask myself was: where have I been?

That excerpt quoted above is from the eponymous essay of the collection, which details Daum’s experience moving to New York as an aspiring writer fresh off the MetroNorth from Vassar and the years she spent in the city, living beyond her means as her writing star rose. In her funny, self-deprecating and straightforward way, Daum faces up to the superficial trappings that often lie at the root of our motivations.

It is just these sort of trappings–from those ubiquitous tote bags of the 1980s that read “Music Is My Bag” to wall-to-wall carpet to fantasy gaming to being a shiksa—that intrigue Daum. In the book’s foreword, she explains that the collection “concerns the tendency of contemporary human beings to live not actual lives but simulations of lives … operating at several degrees of remove from what might be considered authentic if we weren’t trying so hard to create authenticity through songs and clothes and advertisements and a million other agents of realness.” The trend now is to blame social media for encouraging this sort of inauthentic or double life. But Daum wrote those words before social media existed. She knew who the real perpetrators were – us.

This universal quality is one the of the best aspects of Daum’s writing, but I’m also sticking by my assertion that the details of her specific experiences can’t help but be shaped by the time in which she’s lived. We graduated from college during the peaceful and prosperous Clinton administration, we were operating with what was at the time a reasonable amount of optimism; the fact that same optimism might now be categorized as poor judgment is another matter.

Also in the book’s foreword, Daum writes about how there was a time when the “glossy print publications” for whom she wrote would frequently ask her to write fluff pieces about the mores of Gen X, but these requests eventually tapered off when it was determined that our particular age group didn’t occupy enough market share (this was when we were in our 20s, now that we’re old established, we occupy a lot of market share, baby). A page later, she gives the disclaimer that the term “Generation X” would not appear again in the book. Her desire not to be pigeonholed is fair enough, but reading this collection 15 years after its publication, I can’t help but note how well Meghan Daum managed to chronicle the experiences of our generation, call it what you will.

MY VERY END OF THE UNIVERSE

MVEotU200

My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form

by Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass & Aaron Teel

There’s no getting around it. I tend to be pretty mainstream when it comes to a lot of my literary selections. Now that’s not to say I’m plucking books off the New York Times’ Mass Market list on a regular basis, but often I’m plucking them off the NYT Book Review’s front cover. And while this habit isn’t nearly as shameful as, say, some of my television choices, I do recognize that I frequently let a few select sources influence a great deal of what I read. This fall in particular, with so many new releases by some of my favorite tried and true authors, I’ve been riding the literary fiction wave pretty close to the shoreline.

But I think my recent reaction to David Mitchell’s latest offering is a good reminder of the pitfalls inherent to staying too close to the mainstream too often. As Mitchell’s book illustrates, one of the concerns I’m having with the publishing world these days is that it seems as though there is less and less editing of the big publishing houses’ “marquee” authors. Once they’ve demonstrated an ability to sell books, the actual writing isn’t scrutinized as carefully as it might have been earlier in their career.

And so it was with great delight that I learned that my friend Chris Bower would be publishing his novella-in-flash with Rose Metal Press this month. Rose Metal is a small, indie press that specializes in hybrid genres, meaning works that fall outside the traditional fiction, poetry or essay form. Novella-in-flash is one such hybrid genre: a novella comprised of multiple “flash” (under 1,000 words) stories.

My Very End of the Universe is a collection of five novellas-in-flash, all of which concern adolescence and families, but each one contains its own unique setting, cast of characters and narrative voice. The more I think about it, the more perfect the book’s title seems, because what you have here is tiny flash stories within small novellas within a larger collection – stars, galaxies and a universe. What makes each story compelling is the author’s adherence to their respective end of the universe.

In addition to his or her novella, each author has written an accompanying essay discussing the appeal of the novella-in-flash form. In stark contrast to some of the “bigger” (some might say bloated) books floating around right now, a common theme throughout these essays is an emphasis on discipline. Each of the book’s five authors mentions the benefits of writing in such a stripped-down fashion, a style that keeps them focused on the specific key details of their stories without relying on the dreaded adjectives, adverbs and expository writing often likened to the three horsemen of bad writing. As Bower puts it in his essay, “To be successful, every aspect of the story has to be on fire.”

Clearly this man is a genius and I know you want to learn more about him and this book. You’re in luck. Coming up very soon: an interview with Chicago’s very own Chris Bower!