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review 2018-06-04 15:08
Rereading Junot Díaz in light of recent events - the cycle of abuse harms us all
This Is How You Lose Her - Junot Díaz

Men may feel they get the upper hand by treating women poorly, but long before "me too" Yunior told us otherwise in these stories and in the novel.

 

Reread these after recent revelations by both Junot Díaz & women who were victimized by him. I was interested to see how this would affect the reading.

 

If you've missed the fireworks, a quick rundown:

  1. Junot Díaz publishes a personal essay in the New Yorker (The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma) revealing that he was the victim of repeated childhood sexual abuse by a man in his neighborhood, that he's paid dearly for it, can no longer write and has mistreated women tremendously while trying to hide behind a mask of machismo.
  2. Fairly quickly he is confronted by a number of women, notably women of color, other writers of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse.
  3. He decides (with the full blessing of the committee) not to take his place as Chair of the Pulitzer committee.
  4. Bookstores decide to remove his books from the shelves, others keep him on, nobody knows what the right thing to do is, and everyone picks a side.

 

All of this led to discussions - hell, thousands of discussions - around me, with women, with other survivors, with everyone but writers. I don't know any writers or I'm sure they'd have talked to me too. EVERYONE in the trauma community was afire with this discussion. Eventually some of us got around to his writing, and my response was that I hoped I'd still be able to read it, since I really have been a fan, and it made me sad to read in the NYer that he could no longer write. Then I grabbed these short stories off my shelf and read them. This is where I landed:

 

I loved these the first time I read them. I was just as uncomfortable with the over-flexing of what we now call toxic masculinity then as I was this time. In fact, I think my reaction was pretty much the same: the narrator's toxicity harms him and everyone else in his life, including his great love - but in the end, he's hurt himself badly (some great female writer might want to take the feminine perspective someday.) If only we could get people in real life to own up to how harmful toxic masculinity actually is for everyone.

 

The character in these stories is clear on how he's harmed himself, and while he may use bravado to try and mask his torment, it clearly doesn't work. Everything, including his body, breaks down.

 

Explanations are not Excuses. 

 

This is not to say that these fictional stories should be taken as an indicator of real life, but misogyny is a problem for everyone, and the pain in the voice of these stories spells that out. In fact, I think these stories might be used as an example of how badly misogynistic bullshit works out for everyone. Men may feel they get the upper hand by treating women poorly, but long before "me too" Yunior told us otherwise in these stories and in the novel.

 

As a person who has lived through some stuff, I'm glad to have read these stories the first time and again now. They are excellent, and the message is probably more clear now than it was the first time I read it, though my history hasn't changed at all. I still react badly to the mind games, abuses of power and name calling, AND I appreciate the stories. They have a moral dimension I now see even more clearly, and it's about far more than diversity or a "unique voice." Yunor spells out how harmful his misogynistic buddies and lifestyle are to both the women and the men in his life.

 

Sexual abuse begets pain, anger, confusion, acting out and abuse - sometimes even more sexual abuse. The issue is not on whose side will we fight - we should all be on the side of protecting children and getting everyone (including rapists and child molestors) help before this cycle begins in yet another person. Otherwise we are doomed to an assembly line of horrors. I'd bet that if you spoke to the man who abused Junot Díaz, he'd probably have some horror tales to share about his life. None of this excuses anyone. It does show how harmful it all is for everyone, be it the abused person, the perpetrator or the many people who have relationships with either of them through lifetimes. Abuse is poison. It harms souls. It murders a part of us that we can never regain.

 

When we have no tools for coping with this existential terroristic threat, we often cope in tremendously harmful ways - both to ourselves and those we love. Interpersonal relationships are forever changed, and we're all the victim - everyone in society.

 

This is why "rape culture" and "toxic masculinity" must end. It's killing as many men as it is women. It's a way of acting out, and it's unacceptable, if understandable. It will reach us all eventually, and nobody comes through unscathed.

 

As for the stories, the final line "sometimes a start is all we ever get" rings just as poignantly as it did before I knew so much about Junot Díaz.

 

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review 2018-06-02 09:59
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - Look At It
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - David Foster Wallace

I've been treating myself to rereads of books and authors I love, and I just reached to the Wallace shelf the other day with my eyes closed, so this got read again, and only for the second complete (cover-to-cover) time since I bought it because I didn't like it loads the first time. Honestly, if it wasn't written (and signed) by David Foster Wallace, I'd have given it away - not because it's oh so awful, but because it seemed like - on that first read - an uncharacteristically unending parade of toxic masculinity, which (as it turns out, on a reread and more than one close reads of a few pieces) is precisely the point and not at all true.

 

My penciled notes (I use pencil first, then go to various colors on later reads) haven't all remained legible, but they are harsh. Tucked in the back of the book was an envelope with an article written by David Foster Wallace, which I just learned can still be found online, so here is DFW on Great Male Narcissists in literature.

 

There's much to love about that piece. Here's one of many paragraphs I have squared off w/ my pencil: 

 

incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying … and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone. They never belong to any sort of larger unit or community or cause. Though usually family men, they never really love anybody-and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.

 

What Wallace castigated in his ''Great Male Narcissists" piece - he goes after John Updike, and I'd add a hard case of Philip Roth to the mix. I'm sure there are many more, but these two men pioneered then glorified and received mounds of awards for toxic masculine self-absorption with a seriousness that doesn't seem to fit the subject matter. Women are readers these days, says Wallace, and women don't like those characters. (Complete with possibly the best quote ever, that I hope came from Mary Karr, but she won't claim it now that it's famous: "penis with a thesaurus.")

 

Wallace's hideous men here might be a kind of mirror held up to the characters in these most toxically male novels. Not surfacely toxic like American Psycho, but the ones that seem more benign - even sometimes just stupid. I think Wallace was staring at humanity and showed us in these stories a bit of the ugly side of what he saw.

 

On first glance, these characters (all written in a terrifying first person feel, even if it's not actually in first person. In other words - you feel like you're inside these hideous men while reading these stories - no, you eventually become the people, whether you want to deal with that or not) but anyway, on first glance they seem like caricatures. On a closer look they are carefully constructed and while hideous and scary, this book contains some of the best writing DFW did (and I'm including Infinite Jest in that appraisal.) After IJ, Wallace was clearly upset that everyone found his very sad and terrifying novel "hilarious." He didn't set out to write an hilarious novel and didn't feel he had. I'd agree with him that IJ isn't just hilarious, but there are parts that are very very funny, and there's no getting around that.

 

So Brief Interviews feels like a direct reaction to the reaction that IJ got. Nobody would call this "hysterical realism" or find much about this funny. What is so sad is that this book got horrible reviews in many quarters because it requires close attentive reading, deconstruction, doing a fair amount of research at times, certainly a dictionary and internet access if you are to understand some of these stories. He knew that. He probably knew the newspapers with their deadlines would not "get" this book, and he surely could have guessed that many people would mistake the author for any one of the horribly misogynistic, self-absorbed, overly verbal yet emotionally stilted men found in the pages. Or maybe he didn't think that far. I don't know. I honestly didn't spend much time reading criticism of DFW until after he'd died, and then it was just because I wanted more DFW and rereading everything every year only got me so far for so long.

 

While this is the second time I've read this in its entirety, I've read many of the pieces very closely many times. This book contains a few of my favorite pieces from David Foster Wallace: The Depressed Person, Octet, Think, Suicide as a sort of Gift (which I like more for personal than literary reasons,) Datum Centurio (which took me at least 10 reads just to begin to crack the code - but it's oh so worth it,) the prayer-like overview of life found in a young boy's dive -- Forever Overhead, and the stunning Church Not Made with Hands. Those are my favorites. That's a lot of the book right there. 

 

And holding all of these gems together are the Brief Interviews. They have no questions because the men answering know the questions and don't need some interviewer to ask the obvious. They tie the book together - making it, in some weird way like a novel - defending against what they know we think.

 

 This book, like all of Wallace's fiction, makes the reader sweat. If you're not educated in many subjects, like I'm not, you have to work harder to figure out what might be a reference even before you then move on to what that reference might mean. As in all of his work, it requires a dictionary on round one, note-taking and time - time and more time. It requires multiple readings, and it rewards them (much like all of his fiction does. The later the writing, the more time it will require.) Sometimes it requires reading aloud, over and over. Sometimes it requires a notebook to write questions and then another notebook to puzzle them out. And maybe a third or fourth when you find you've gone down a bad alley and need to find your way back to a better start.

 

"Look at it."

 

demands an uncharacteristically short sentence very early on. And that's really what this entire book asks of us. Look at it. Not at him - but it -- life, death, horrors, terrors, bullshit, you name it. At the end of that story, I've written (in a later read - purple pen) a long paragraph that includes "this is the whole book. He wants us to stop and really look" and after more words ends with "We need to STOP. and THINK. And allow ourselves to feel it for as long as it takes, no matter how horrible that is." So, clearly I'm not the writer, but it stuck me somewhere along the line that this was exactly what my shrink took decades to beat into my brain and still reminds me on a bi-monthly basis. It's too easy to just stay up on the surface. I need someone to remind me to plumb the depths. I think these stories, the book entirely asks the reader to do exactly that - plumb the deep, scary depths. 

 

And yes, that's way more work than I'd offer to many writers. I can think of two (only one of whom is still alive) I have enough faith in to do the work required every time. Sometimes it doesn't pay off. I've found that with Wallace, especially as he matured as a writer, it does.

 

I doubt I was Wallace's intended reader. I think he thought his reader would be more literate than me and I know he expected his reader to be more formally educated than me. I have advanced degrees but they are very narrow subjects and I spent my early life in music school, so I missed a lot of that classic liberal arts education. I think he thought his readers had a lot of the references already at their fingertips. No matter. I find that reading like this is more satisfying than almost any other kind. And even so, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone. I might suggest it if someone asked for certain things. I've suggested some of the pieces to other people, but only in response to something specific they've discussed with me.

 

Why am I willing to work so hard to make sure I'm getting as much out of this book, and his other work too, as I can? Because it's worth it to me. There is a pay off. In fact the payoff is bigger every time I put a bit more work into it. The feeling isn't like figuring out a problem. It's like finding a deep truth or meaning or finally grasping something you have sort of felt for a long time but never had enough of a grasp to figure out. I find meaning in this work.

 

And the meaning isn't "misogynistic bullshit" like some reviews I've read on some sites. It's exactly the opposite, actually. These men are, by and large, misogynists (and the women aren't so hot either.) Everyone is hideous, save perhaps the diving boy and the man in Think (though even he is not a perfect specimen.) But this hideousness is something we've all seen, perhaps been - if not exactly in the same way. There's a universal truth in this group of stories, and there's writing that I can't even begin to explain (though I'd recommend Zadie Smith's essay "The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace" for a clear and understandable explanation of why this writing is so blindingly excellent at times.) 

 

So, if on a first read I found these nameless men and women almost cartoonish, it's because I could only see the surface on that read. Here's what I wrote after that read: 

 

These men really are hideous. I mean they are awful people, and people is a very kind word for these characters. So few of them have names or faces. They are simply babbling egos, many of them narcissistic others outright sociopaths The word hideous is important because it is exactly correct, yet so many of them come off as your average know-it-all at the bar it's depressing.  Structured around the "brief interviews - given places and names, but only answers" the stories are unrelentingly bleak and horrible. I can't even call them tragic because they're not complete enough to be tragic characters.

 

I was wrong. They're more complete than I could see on a first read. I was looking for an easy answer, not a psychological/philosophical ocean that I'd need to dive into and swim for a while before I could understand what lies beneath.

 

Wallace was most experimental in his fiction, and his craft and  talent are on rare display here, with none of the easy humor or zing found in all of his previous work (including his political reporting and scholarly work.) Infinite Jest is a much easier read. It feels like a beach read compared to these very short stories. 

 

But there's something much more real here. Something that I can't explain. I learn about people - myself included - from reading these stories. He was already, in this first work after Infinite Jest, pushing himself to a much deeper place. And he set a high wire that he manages to walk in most of these pieces. 

 

This book gets a bad rap because everyone wants it to be easy and they want it to be like the earlier nonfiction or Infinite Jest. It's not. It's different. You can feel the growth of an already talented artist here. But I can't recommend this group of stories - or any of Wallace's fiction - to anyone without knowing something about that person and what they might be seeking. The one person I've recommended most of these pieces to is my therapist. And I read them along with him, notes in hand, breaking things down, explaining what I thought various things mean. (And, um, I'm SURE I'm wrong about most of these things.) But this is the kind of person I'd recommend these stories to - someone who is deeply concerned with the darkest, saddest, hardest parts of humanity, and someone who already knows how ugly human beings can be when they're shown without any fancy make-up and easy laughs.

 

If it sounds like I'm defending this book, I am. I think this is Wallace upping his game, projecting toward what he might try to do in long form in a novel someday. I don't know if it's doable in long form. It could be way too hard and way too heavy. This book is very heavy, but once I started to break it down, and really read it carefully, I became even more enamored with the soul of David Foster Wallace, and to me that soul is anything but hideous.

 

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review 2018-04-03 10:17
amazing read but you will need tissues!
Disjointed Lives - Morgan Sheppard
Independent reviewer for Archaeolibrarian, I was gifted my copy of this book. Imagine meeting your best friend for coffee and telling her something that happened ten years before, something that could possibly cost you her friendship. Because, at it's most basic, that's what this is : two old friends, best friends, meeting for coffee and Ava has to tell Paige something that happened ten years ago, when they were estranged, something that she NEEDS to say, but knows that Paige might not, hell, she WON'T like it, but she needs to know. At it's most complex?? It's the story of a woman who falls in love with an abusive partner and her fight to get out and away from that partner. The abuse is not physical, it's emotional, it's mental, it is total in it's destruction of Ava of old. It is total in cutting Ava off from everything and everyone she knows. It reduces her to a woman who, while maybe at the back of her mind knows that what is happening to her is not right, this marriage is not how it should be, she cannot be anything else but his wife. She knows no one will want her, because James tells her so. But Ava finds a friend at work who is not letting her wallow, is not letting go, and Jacob helps Ava. And Ava has been dreaming about Jacob, which is what prompted this coffee shop meeting, and it all coming tumbling out of Ava. It is beautifully written, painful reading though. While not told in great detail, there is some reference to Ava's abuse, to what James did, what he made her do. I had to keep putting it down, it made me cry in many places. It's not very long, but because I had to keep putting it down, it took me all day to read the 67 pages here. But so beautifully written! Cutting extremely close to home on two fronts. Because someone close to me went through what Ava did, but her abuse was physical, as well as mental. I watched her cutting us off, one by one, those closest to her first, and then spreading out, just as his tentacles spread out. And there was nothing we could do to stop it. We tried, oh Lord we tried, but she was in love. We had to wait til she came to the same conclusion, and wait for her to act on her own. She did. It just took a bit of time. And because I know Ava, because I AM Paige. Finding out a wonderful day spent in amazing company last October was the inspiration for this book made me cry. Made me feel incredibly proud to be part of this book, made me feel incredibly proud of Ms Sheppard. I cannot express, not really, how much this book affected me. But you should know that... IT IS AMAZING! 5 full and shiny stars **same worded review will appear elsewhere**

 

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review 2018-03-28 17:32
The Great Gatsby and the American Dream
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby doesn't need a review from me or anyone else in 2018, but on a recent reread, I found it very compelling in thinking about today's world. It speaks to many of the issues we're coping with even now -- namely the super-rich or 1% and the frivolity of wealth as well as the American Dream and what it all means. It's always been the quintessential Jazz Age novel, and while the styles still belong in that era, the take-away felt more current today than the first time I read it. Perhaps I've grown up, or perhaps reading more Fitzgerald, including his correspondence, knowing he was dealing with being unable to pay his bills while writing this novel made me look a bit further (or maybe I just read things in.) It screamed "the American Dream is bullshit!" to me. I could be wrong. I doubt Fitzgerald felt that way for long, if he ever felt that way, given the massive change in circumstance he had from his early successes. I could be taking something I've been thinking about a lot from a book that didn't actually offer it. Either way, it's worth another read in 2018 and beyond.

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review 2018-03-25 16:06
a good solid 3 stars
Out of the Ocean - Lynn Michaels (GLBT)
Independent reviewer for Archaeolibrarian, was gifted my copy of this book. Cal and Scott come together, when their boats are destroyed in the storm. They are fighting for their lives, out at sea, and the inevitable happens, they get close just as they get rescued and split up. With Scott in Germany and Cal in the States, will they fight for what they want, for WHO they want?? I liked this book, I really did, I just didn't love it. It's very well written from both Cal and Scott's point of view, and I saw no editing or spelling errors. I just, I dunno, couldn't love it! I did find Scott a little ....insipid....a bit of a spolit brat.... when standing up to his dad! He DOES stand up to him, but only at the risk of losing Cal, when it should have been way before then for a mid 30's guy! I just....oh! Don't you just HATE not being able to word what you want!! It's not overly explicit, but it does get a little yukkie while they are floating in the life raft, but eating raw fish, eyes and guts and all weren't never gonna be a picnic in the park, now was it?? Bit gross! A nice book, just one that didn't blow me away. Only short, some 100 pages, an hour reading time for. 3 stars **same worded review will appear elsewhere**

 

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