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.


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.


In my recent interview with Chris Bower, he mentioned a David Mamet quote but couldn’t remember it precisely. He was kind enough to hunt down the quote in question and I’ve included it here.


Do you try to put in five or six hours a day writing?


I try to do as little writing as possible, as I look back on it. I like to talk on the telephone and, you know, read magazines.


And sit in your office and forestall writing?


Yes, and sometimes I like to do the opposite.


Whatever happens, you get a lot out for somebody who doesn’t write a lot, or doesn’t like to write.


I never saw the point in not.


But you just said you spend a lot of time trying not to write.


That’s true. But the actual point of being a writer, and doing something every once in a while mechanically, I just don’t see the point in it, and it wouldn’t be good for me. I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.


And here is the link to the interview in whole, which appeared in The Paris Review


This horse was drawn by Susie Kirkwood, an artistic collaborator of Bower’s, and I stole it from his website.

Below is the much-anticipated link to my recent interview with Chris Bower, one of the five authors featured in the new novella-in-flash collection, My Very End of the Universe.

Listening back to this interview, I learned that I giggle and say “yeah” too much and my voice is kind of annoying. So I apologize ahead of time on those fronts. Fortunately, Bower does most of the talking and manages to compose himself better than I. Warning: this starts abruptly …


The first minute or so of this recording involves the hot button topic of transcription. Despite what I say at the interview’s start, I decided a full transcription of our chat was not in the cards, but I’ve included some choice excerpts below.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

“It wasn’t until I was in college … that I had to catch up to my own idea in my mind of who I was. It wasn’t until I went to West Virginia … when I experienced absolute loneliness for the first time … I found myself completely culturally isolated … my Midwestern-ness revealed itself in a major way … I was left with this idea that maybe I should write for real.”

“When you really get serious about writing … it’s really an act that can only take place in isolation.”

“Writing the first draft, that’s the fun part.”

“I’ve never been a Ray Bradbury type.”

Do you think writing can be taught?

“You can be technically better, 100% for sure.”

“You have to have utter confidence in what you’re doing.”

“In my (Creative Writing MFA) program … you got to see different versions of what you could become … A major part of it is the amount of time you get to spend on yourself.”

About My Other End of the Universe

“I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of these stories have to do with adolescence and families. I think there’s something in the form that lends itself to this … This may be a little more of an authentic way of telling a story.”

“Our memories are so flawed that a lot of our most important ones aren’t even ours.”

“(A computer malfunction) made me care about a line.”

“When I’m writing a poem I feel like I’ve just gotten away with something.”

“The only reason this is a poem is because my computer’s broken.”

“Once you start filling things in, you have to fill more in … It wouldn’t be the voice of Al, the narrator … He wouldn’t have told a proper story of the family … As a writer I would have never been able to stop … This isn’t just a story told in fragments, this is how this guy thinks … He was trying to recreate his life with a lack of photographic evidence.”

Other Endeavors

“There’s a very vibrant literary storytelling scene in Chicago.” (For those interested, check out: Write Club and The Paper Machete)

Bower and co-author Margaret Chapman will be reading at one of my favorite independent bookstores, The Book Cellar in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, on Wednesday, Nov 19 at 7pm. Pick up a glass of wine, do some Christmas shopping and hear them read!

Bower and co-author Meg Pokrass will be reading in San Francisco in January – details to follow!



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!