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review 2018-07-02 13:27
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story - DT Max on David Foster Wallace
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace - D.T. Max

I liked this well enough, but there's a reason I've not read it until now. Something to do with never get too close to your (literary or otherwise) heros...



The interesting parts are about the inner workings of his writing. I'd have rated it much higher if it was just that. I do wish a psychiatrist or other professional would've been included in this book. It's one thing to look at the literary part of DFW's life, but this crossed so far into mental illness, because it had to, that I would've appreciated little things like not using the word "manic" in a colloquial way for a person who is clinically depressed. More than that, I'd have appreciated seeing everything discussed through a good professionally-adept lens.


I was sold on the literary theory b/c I don't know much about literary theory. I was not sold much at all on the psychological guesswork included as fact.


Despite that, this is a carefully and exhaustively researched book though, and I did appreciate the lack of judgment and straight reporting on facts, or as he notes in the afterward, the closest he could get to the facts as he understood them.

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review 2018-06-25 10:35
Boy Erased - not really a Memoir by Garrard Conley
Boy Erased: A Memoir - Garrard Conley

This memoir should have started at least ten years later and told us how the young man who once signed himself up for "ex-gay therapy" (which we all know is pure bullshit) turned into a person who at least calls himself a gay man. His epilogue and bits of the memoir proper hint at the real story, but sadly it's just a sketch. I understand being so traumatized that you can't hold memories or be sure what is your memory and what is your intellect saying "this must be the way it happened," but I'm not entirely sure that's why this memoir is sketchy.


Ten years after an 8-day outpatient visit to Love In Action, the author hears his one-time group leader on a book/apology tour admitting that the therapy was nonsense. This, understandably, raises real anger. How can this guy with his vanity press book be on NPR and so cavalier about the lives he played havoc with? And this brings an aspiring novelist to write a "memoir" about those eight outpatient days. One gets the slight feeling, after reading the book, that part of the anger was that this guy was able to hawk his book on NPR while Conley was still struggling in various ways with no book or tour, but that's not the whole story, just a thought.


As someone who has done many outpatient stays (and several inpatient, locked ward ones too,) honestly, I doubt I could write a book about any of those visits. Now, my stays were overall more of a plus than a minus, and only rarely were they more traumatic than what brought me in. They also weren't trying to erase my person or self. Could any of us write a memoir about eight days? Maybe. There's just very little to recommend this book because nothing much happens and the author does very little to help us understand what exactly, beyond the horrific idea of conversion therapy -- which we already get -- what exactly traumatized him.


He makes a point in the epilogue that liberal America may not understand what would push someone to deny their sexuality just to "fit in." (He doesn't say that, but that's the truth I think he was pushing toward.) Many liberal lgbtq people have just as much trouble coming out. They don't typically seek this particular type of therapy, but many a liberal kid has gone into therapy at least to work through the fear and other emotions involved in coming out. Many kids are dead today rather than face up to our cultural disdain of anything less than toxic masculinity. You don't have to be an Evangelical to understand this is a tough time for many people, and only in recent years has coming out become slightly less than terrifying and often traumatizing.


As trite as this sounds to me: change is tough. When we finally allow our "outsides" to match our inner selves, to become more authentic, that can be excruciating even while it's healthy and holds the promise of a much better life - eventually. And that's true for anyone. It inevitably involves losing people and places that were comfortable and often affirming in other ways, not to mention our homes. Very often it involves estrangement of sorts with at least some, if not all, family members. I wanted to hear about the growth, or if not that, at least understand what created a traumatic reaction so bad that he's blocked it out. What I read was a family based in love. If they didn't express it fine, but they were there -- before, during and after (the final sentence in the epilogue is wonderful in showing this purely,) for this young man. When he finally left mid-eighth day, his mother didn't question him, she simply drove the two of them away. (She'd been staying with him in a hotel during the outpatient assessment.) That's a serious blessing, having your family stick by you, especially when their religion, culture, job (his father is a pastor) and upbringing tell them to do something very different.


My impression was that a lot of the trauma involved expectations -- both perceived and real -- that he'd internalized and struggled coming to terms with. That anger was displaced onto the therapy he sought out and willingly subjected himself to. He wanted to be someone other than who he was/is. THAT is the trauma. And that would make a much better memoir than incredibly florid, rambling prose and unstructured random memories (not about the therapy) ostensibly about an 8-day outpatient assessment. Also a serious thanks to his God that he was strong enough to see through the bullshit and walk out before someone compelled other drastic and inhumane measures we've now learned happened in many of these places.


One final thought, Love In Action and its parent corporation is, thankfully, now gone and very few similar programs exist in the US, but worryingly, they've taken their circus on the road to other countries (notably Uganda, complete with laws and real danger for lgbtq people)  - something the author mentions in one sentence and doesn't seem to see as a problem. "At least it's not me anymore" is not a pleasant trait in anyone, no matter their story.


I believe Garrard Conley has a real story to tell, about how he started hating himself, how he couldn't see a way for his authentic self to fit with his family and community, the fear and existential dread that must have accompanied many days, how fundamental Christian beliefs offer no room for difference or questions of any kind, how the fear of ruining his "eternal soul" has haunted him long past his heroic walk out of the treatment center's doors, how his family managed to overcome pressure from their church and community and whole lives to come to a place where this book could be written with his parents' blessing, how he functions as a gay man in the world when he was a kid from a very restrictive and fundamentalist background, etc etc: both the logistics and the emotional sides are interesting and important -- these are the types of stories that save lives. While I think the promise of a horror-show called "ex-gay therapy" is probably what gave this book the juice to get published, the real story still hasn't been told. 


I really wish this man well. I know he's lived through some very tough things, but I don't know any of that from reading this book, and there's the rub. We shouldn't require people to morph bad moments into freak shows for them to tell their stories. He will write another book. I'm betting my life on that one. I'm sure he's writing as I type. He's wanted to be a writer and has an MFA in creative writing. I just want him to write from a more fearless place next time. 



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review 2018-06-03 18:06
Absolutely On Music - Conversations between Seiji Ozawa & Haruki Murakami
Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa - Haruki Murakami,Jay Rubin,Seiji Ozawa

As Duke Ellington once said, “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” In that sense, jazz and classical music are fundamentally the same. The pure joy one experiences listening to “good” music transcends questions of genre.


I studied at Tanglewood during summers as a teenager when Seiji Ozawa was conductor of the BSO. The amazing thing about him was that he had no real requirement to deal with Tanglewood kids, yet he did. It didn't surprise me at all many years later when he started both an orchestra and a school for the younger musicians of the world. He is brilliant, patient and an excellent teacher. I enjoy reading or listening to conversations between smart people in general, and this book hits on many cylinders. 


While Murakami says he's an amateur, his words often feel like music (even in translation.)

Haruki Murakami is well known for his love of music. He sticks a Beatles reference in nearly every book and there are always myriad musical references. So it wasn't that shocking to learn that he and the Maestro are fast friends.


One thing I learned early in my own mostly amateur musical life is that music happens and it's gone instantly - you have to experience it all in the moment and find an effective way to communicate about it. This is often why teachers and students have their own special language. My teacher used to tell me to sing like green velvet. Why? Because I told him I thought a certain singer sang like green velvet. That's fine, but what about when you want others to understand? This is the magic Murakami and Ozawa make.


It's hard for me to point out how very high the wall is that separates the pro from the amateur, the music maker from the listener. The wall is especially high and thick when that music maker is a world-class professional. But still, that fact doesn't have to hamper our ability to have an honest, direct conversation. At least that's how I feel about it, because music itself is a thing of such breadth and generosity. Our most important task is to search for an effective passageway through the wall - and two people who share a natural affinity for an art, any art, will be sure to find that passageway. 


It's unsurprising when the "interlude" about music and writing comes early in the book and Murakami explains patiently to Ozawa about rhythm in writing. It sort of shocked me that Ozawa hadn't noticed this on his own. He reads a ton of scores, and he works very hard, so maybe he just hadn't thought about it? He readily admits to being a horrible student, and I doubt he reads much beyond scores when he's working.


It's a series of conversations between the two masters - complete with markers for which one is talking. (Audio book would be great, but I don't know if one exists.) They talk about a few pieces in deep detail and the range of music covers everything from the blues to opera and Japanese music. They also talk about record collecting and teaching in lovely chapters. I'm pretty sure my enjoyment had to do with the fact that I knew the music they discussed well, and I'm not sure whether others would like it as much if they didn't have a familiarity and curiosity about both the men and the subject. Their fun and mutual respect nearly shines off the page, and I enjoyed it a lot.


Chapter Titles:

Mostly on the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto 
On manic record collectors 
Brahms at Carnegie Hall 
The relationship of writing to music 
What happened in the 1960s 
Eugene Ormandy's baton 
On the music of Gustav Mahler 
From Chicago blues to Shin'ichi Mori 
The joys of opera 
In a little Swiss town 
"There's no single way to teach. You make it up as you go along."


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review 2018-05-06 18:29
Less - The Horrors of Turning Fifty
Less: A Novel - Andrew Sean Greer

What a delightful book! I will definitely read this again, just because I have a feeling there are things I missed this time. It may be one of those books that's actually better once you know the ending. Dunno - I will figure that out later. Meanwhile...


The tone is so waggish that hefty subjects get piled one on top of the other, yet it never feels like reading a heavyweight book. There were several times when I didn't just laugh, but laughed so loudly that I shocked myself. I mean like Ha!!! really loudly! The writing feels just perfect, but never twee or overdone.


I was drawn to this, not because it's about a writer, but because I'm very in touch with the horror that befalls a single person on the dawn of fifty -- it ain't pretty. Less is so on target about this, despite the hugely different circumstances between me and our protagonist, that at times it was a relief to know I've already lived through the horror and will never have to do it again. (For anyone who hasn't gone through it, the second you embrace the new decade, it's just fine. Remind me of this when I'm about to do 60 and 70 please.) Arthus Less is a very lucky guy, despite his complete unwillingness to see that. (Honestly, if writers are this self-pitying, I'm very glad I only read them rather than hanging out with them. When a woman tells Mr. Less that nobody will feel sorry for his protagonist - gay or not - I nodded right along with her.)


It's OK that Arthur Less is so absurd and pathetic - because we all are, deep down. And because we're dealt a narrator whose treatment of the protagonist is both hilarious and kind. That's a rare thing, and it's a good read. There were some things that I saw coming and that made it a bit less magical. One question I have is how this rose above so many other novels to win the Pulitzer. It didn't feel like a particularly "important" book, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.


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review 2018-04-14 13:28
Call Me Zebra - what is my role in my miserly, ill-fated life?
Call Me Zebra - Oloomi, Azareen Van der Vliet

First of all, I need to tell everyone who plans to read this that the audiobook is painful - not figuratively but literally. It hurt my ears. The voice is sharp and barking, which is perfect for the character, but my ears couldn't take it, so go with the printed version if you believe anything I have to say.


Zebra (formerly Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, AKA "Dame of the Void",) the main character, is quite a challenge, though she knows it so that makes her a bit more bearable. She's a nut, but a good nut. Zebra  was born, quite literally, in a library among the books in Iran early in the war against Iraq. She is the last in a long line of autodidacts, all of whom pledge to “Love nothing except literature.” As an exile or refugee, it's hard to live and breathe literature. So they do it through memorization, and Zebra has committed to memory passages from every book imaginable. She takes her commitment to love nothing but literature very seriously, and she has no time to waste on people who don't share her passion for reason, which makes Zebra very alone if not lonely, with only an extremely crotchety bird making her life even more insane and helping to keep the people away.


Not only is she alone...perhaps, when she imagines her dead father counseling her against love, she is actually using literature as a defense against all of the crushing aloneness she's experiencing. (She, very reasonably, fears love, but she will never - ever - admit that, so she's built the most literate psychological defense system ever to avoid all the trouble that comes with people. Books are so simple compared to people, I think we can all agree.)


Beckett, Blanchod, Borges are her creed. She constantly runs through all the advice she's memorized to reason herself back into the perceived "right" frame of mind. She has to advance the matrix of literature, she has to experience the void to figure out "what is [my] role in my miserly, ill-fated life?"


I can relate to a lot of this. I'm sort of well-known in my therapy sessions for assiduously avoiding talk about feelings and other unmeasurable squishy things by citing research and getting very worked up about my theories and plotting studies that must be done NOW. Zebra was a lesson for me in exactly how annoying I am. Zebra is sure she can create a statistical formula for life, for literature, and eventually for love. She is almost sure she's an oracle - the last bastion of hope in a world that forgets all of her important things, like every single quote ever about anything. Sentimentality is bad. Reason and knowledge are good. People are morons and deserve every scolding she gives them. This is what she molds her life around...until she meets Ludo.

"A soul that knows it is loved but does not itself love betrays its sediment; what is at the bottom comes up." -- Nietzsche

So, Zebra has some very basic lessons to learn, and Ludo mostly deals with her running away from him, diving back between the book covers. All the while she stridently barks quotes at the reader until this reader was ready to either submit or give up completely. What I decided to do was set it down for a week and pick it back up. That break was what I needed. It didn't hurt that Zebra herself was in the process of being broken down too. She finally figures out, painfully, that perhaps home and people and love of something other than literature might be worth it. "Had I been waiting in vain for my life to become legible?"


As I said, she's a good nut.



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