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 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.



We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas

Lately I’ve been writing about my skepticism toward some of the “Big Books” that are released each year by established authors with strong platforms. While I don’t think there’s an official definition for the term Big Book, I associate it with a book that its publisher is expecting will sell well and therefore received a large advance and a lot of subsequent buzz. Written by a debut author rather than an established name, We Are Not Ourselves is an interesting addition to the conversation.

I loved the beginning of this book. In fact, for the first 200 pages or so, I thought it might end up being one of my favorite books ever as I followed Eileen Tumulty, born in Woodside, Queens in 1941 to Irish immigrants, from age 10 to somewhere around 45. This part of the story is as close to my version of The Great American Novel as any I can recall. Through Eileen’s coming of age, Matthew Thomas creates a bigger narrative about the dreams, expectations and realities of post-war, middle-class, first-generation Americans moving through the 20th century.

If this is the kind of story that appeals to you as much as it appeals to me, you can probably imagine that the last thing on my mind was any concern about the book’s length (just north of 600 pages) or any sort of editing treatment it may or may not have received. But I wondered just where this was heading, with 400 pages to go and a 45-year-old protagonist.

It’s around this spot in the book that Something Happens. If you don’t already know what that something is, I don’t want to tell you. I find that it’s a much more powerful experience to be surprised by a story’s events rather than to be waiting for them and that was certainly what I found so gripping about the second 1/3 of this book. At this point, though, the book’s pace slows down significantly, matching the course of events, and I realized that the rest of the book would focus on this thing that happened (again, very much in keeping with how the characters are experiencing the events being described).

So while I still enjoyed the rest of the book—the characters are incredibly well drawn—the things that make it so good can also make it difficult to read. Thomas is portraying events that are, at times, upsetting and scary and are, at other times, arduous and mundane. He does so in a style that mirrors these experiences so that the reader is that much closer to the characters.

This all comes around to an issue of realism. One of the topics that came up in my post about My Very End of the Universe and my accompanying interview with Chris Bower was how the succinct nature of flash fiction can lend a story a sense of realism, particularly as it reflects memory. In We Are Not Ourselves, the opposite effect is at work. Many have called this book an epic saga and while I wouldn’t categorize it that way, I do think that Thomas needed every one of his many words to accurately reflect his characters’ experiences.

Phew. I need a break from fiction, folks. This last one nearly did me in with all my worrying about these poor characters. Up next is something self-helpy, for those of us gearing up for our New Year’s resolutions.