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.

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.

ME BEFORE YOU

Me B4 U

Me Before You
by Jojo Moyes

When I ask my friends and family what they’re reading, the answers tend to vary as much as they do. But in the past year, one book kept coming up in conversations: Me Before You, which, it turns out, owes much of its success to just this sort of word-of-mouth promotion.

A couple of you warned me that while you liked the book overall, the writing isn’t exactly notable. And I agree that the narration is clunky at times, but I’ll tell you what my biggest complaint about this book is: its book flap. It’s like one of those movie trailers that leave you feeling like you’ve already seen the entire film. But you go to see the movie anyway and then you end up blaming the writer for making something so predictable. In this case, the book flap description takes us right up to the penultimate scene in the story, at which point we’ve already guessed what the final scene will be and while it’s a lovely one, I can only imagine how much lovelier it would have been had I not seen it coming a mile away.

For those of you who have not yet read this book or the flap inside its cover, I’ll try to give you an inkling of the plot without spoiling the whole thing. Me Before You is a love story between a sheltered young woman in a small English town and a slightly older quadriplegic man. The British class system is examined, as is the meaning of life; a great setup and, despite my minor frustrations along the way, I was compelled. I worried about the characters while making dinner and realized that I’d only pick up the book when I knew I’d have a good chunk of time to read because it would be too hard to put it down again.

The book’s working-class heroine narrates most of the story and though I didn’t love that aspect of the writing, after a while, I kept hearing the voice of Downton Abbey’s assistant cook, Daisy, in this narration. You can blame this on the show’s recent season premiere and my lack of imagination, but once Daisy had entered my subconscious, it occurred to me that I was enjoying the book in the same way I enjoy Downton. While both have some heavy-handed and repetitive themes, in each case the characters keep me coming back for more. Beyond the pretty clothes they wear against pretty backdrops (also big draws), Downton’s characters often get in some good lines. And a witty retort does it for me every time.

Me Before You has its own fair share of witty retorts and enough snarky dialogue to endear me to the characters delivering it. With a plot that could easily veer into the melodramatic, the wry humor of the story’s characters gives it the balance required to be moving without becoming overly sentimental. And in its sometimes clunky but nonetheless gripping way, it manages to make you think about what it means to live and to value each day. Thanks to everyone who recommended it to me.

AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN

UnnecessaryAn Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine

Some time ago, a kind, bookish friend sent me a copy of An Unnecessary Woman. When someone is thoughtful enough to send a book my way, particularly one that is so well suited to me, I usually prioritize the read. But for a variety of logistical reasons too mundane to list here, it’s taken me a long time to get to this one, a fact I would rue if the timing of this read–as my last book of 2014—hadn’t turned out to be a perfect little bow to tie up the year.

Living in a society that doesn’t always protect its women and a city that’s been devastated by decades of war, Aaliyah Saleh is a 72-year old Beiruti woman who has created a fortress out of literature. For 50 years Aaliyah ran a bookstore and in her spare time, she translates works of significant, difficult and sometimes obscure fiction into Arabic.

Though she has good reason to be guarded and reclusive, Aaliyah has taken this whole “life lived through literature” thing a step too far. (And if I’m calling her out on that, you know it’s bad.) You see, Aaliyah lacks connection to others, depriving her of not only the basic human need for contact and engagement, but by buttressing herself from the world, she’s also deprived others of the gifts she has to give through her life’s work: her translations. Good old Aaliyah has held on tight to her grumpy assertions and holier-than-thou attitudes, but fortunately for her and us, that finally changes.

So while this is a book about many things: literature, religion, gender roles, war, Islam, the Middle East, the history of Beirut, and a lot more, when I closed the book’s back cover and set it down, I decided this is also a book about letting go.* In its lovely and cathartic ending, we see how even the most immoveable among us can liberate herself from old ways and notions. And by doing so, she can enjoy freedom and possibilities of which she was never even aware.

What a perfect message for the year’s end. And if that wasn’t serendipitous enough, for Christmas I received the absolute most perfect read to begin a new year: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Maybe you’ve heard of it, or perhaps even read it; the super-cute Marie Kondo is a force of nature, radicalizing the way her Japanese counterparts organize their homes (and thus their lives) and she’s sold over two million copies of her book internationally. Even a quick glance at the section headings (“Sorting papers: rule of thumb – discard everything” and “Unread books: ‘sometime’ means ‘never’) had me giggling with glee and revisiting my family tree to see how Marie and I might be distant relations. This resolution-worthy selection comes to us thanks to Supportive Brother-in-Law, who knows me too well. More on tidying up soon …

*Disclaimer: This book may have nothing to do with letting go and I have simply not yet deprogrammed after my Frozen-themed Christmas holiday.

 

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER

Autobio of MotherThe Autobiography of My Mother
by Jamaica Kincaid

This little book showed up in my mailbox recently courtesy of our favorite patron of the arts, my father. He’d heard Jamaica Kincaid speak recently (give it up for the Chicago Humanities Festival) and he liked her and thought I would too. The book’s equivocal title clues us in that this is not, in fact, an autobiography or a memoir or even a biography, but rather the fictional, first-person narrative of Xuela, a Dominican woman whose mother dies in childbirth. The loss of a mother she never knew shapes Xuela’s life and their two stories become intermingled in her mind.

Although this book is considered a novel, I would categorize it as being closer to a long-form poem. The writing is lyrical and elliptical, so those fully drawn characters and clever plots that I like to latch on to in most novels were missing here. But while I was in the beginning stages of this book, I happened to read A.O. Scott’s review of the film adaptation of Wild, which I believe opened this weekend (yay!).

Here’s what Scott had to say about Wild, the movie. “In its thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling, ‘Wild’ reveals what some of us have long suspected: that plot is the enemy of truth, and that images and emotions can carry meaning more effectively than neatly packaged scenes or carefully scripted character arcs.”

Now as someone that fully enjoys a good, neatly packaged scene, not to mention a carefully scripted character arc, Scott’s comments could have caused me some consternation. But reading them when I did–while still in the early pages of Kincaid’s book–instead I took them as a measure of unsolicited enlightenment. I realized that this book runs closer to the short-form storytelling of a film, rather than the more expansive style of a novel, and so I read it with an eye toward those images and emotions that Scott mentions, accepting that it would be a different reading experience from the typical novel.

What I found was a story operating in the sensory, which clicked when I read these lines toward the end: “It is sad that unless you are born a god, your life, from its very beginning, is a mystery to you … Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you.” Xuela’s story, being that of a Dominican woman in a time period left ambiguous (but probably somewhere around the first half of the 20th century), is ultimately a story of the victors and the vanquished, although Xuela refuses to be one of the vanquished, putting down stakes where she can: with her body and the physical world around her. For that is what you do when you’re left with very little that’s yours, you take what is tangible.

Up Next: The Berkeley Public Library (possibly my favorite institution in the world) informs me that my next book is in transit. Finally! I won’t tell you what it is, but I’ll give you a hint: when I first put my name on the book’s hold list, there were 132 people ahead of me and it was just named one of the NYT’s 10 Best of 2014. Any guesses?