You know, there’ve been a few times this year when I haven’t felt much like reading, and I’ve thought, “You know what? Maybe I’m done. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is that thing that happens–that thing that authors talk about–where I just don’t want to read books anymore.”
And December 4th-14th was a lot like that. I don’t even know what I did. I didn’t watch TV or anything. I just didn’t read. But then, starting with that book that I picked out my roommate’s book shelf, I’ve read a strict of very smart, witty ‘young-ish person in the big city’ books.
The weirdest of this set has to have been Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (A.D. 2009) In A Large City. This book is amazing. The conceit is that it’s told in a very distant, historical tone, as if someone from another time and place is trying to describe what it was like to live in New York in 2009, so they explain lots of things in a funny way. Actually, it’s alot like if someone had written a science-fiction novel about the present day. I mean, you know how sci-fi novels are always explaining stuff about the technology and the culture of a place even though those things would be utterly unremarkable to the point of view characters. Things like, “Qu’Fenuwan took out the carbon-3 blaster pack from his Selzner ray gun, because the blaster pack emitted harmful ZuYang radiation that would turn his fingers into octopuses if he didn’t encase them in the lead gloves. The government had tried to ban the blaster packs for this reason, but the people had taken to the street in violent protests to…” You know.
Well, this book does that, but with the modern day! So much fun. Here’s the first sentence, for example:
“There was, for a while, a very large and very famous city. For an even shorter while, the richest man in town was its mayor. This seemed, for the time that it was true, like a very improbable coincidence.”
Honestly, I enjoyed the descriptive passages (like the ones where the book tries to describe the economics and governance of the big city) even more than I enjoyed the narrative. And the book does have a narrative! It’s about a dizzying array of gay men who party down in the big city and sleep with each other and fall in and out of love. It’s a very stereotypically gay big-city milieu, but there’s also a lot of tenderness. These guys are looking for love and companionship, in their own way, and it’s interesting to see how they create their own sort of relationships and craft their own approach to fidelity. The narrative is very low-key, but I liked it alot.
Other big city books that I’ve recently read and enjoyed: Amy Sohn’s The Actress; Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth; and David Shapiro’s You’re not Much Use To Anyone. Right now I’m reading Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon, which is fantastic. He’s an extremely readable writer.
However, that is a difficult dream to achieve, especially in the Bay Area. Last time I lived here, I paid $650 (+$110 for parking) for a tiny bedroom (maybe 10 by 8 feet) in downtown Oakland that I shared with a college friend and his girlfriend. Nowadays, that room would cost $1000. And if it was posted on Craigslist, it would probably attract thirty responses.
Searching for an apartment or a room in the Bay Area is now a topic that I know a lot about and I am here to share that knowledge. Anyway, suffice it to say that the first apartment I found (in North Oakland, on San Pablo) was an awful living situation. The price was right ($700), but it was basically a rooming house–the landlord rented out all the rooms separately–so nobody knew each other or talked to each other and I felt like I was trapped in my room all the time. And even the room was depressing. It was very narrow, and the windows started at chest height, so when I was sitting down, I couldn’t see outside. Miserable place. Truly miserable. And I’d signed a lease! So I was trapped there until May!
I have to tell you, those were dark days. After awhile, I started looking for ways to escape my room, even if it was temporarily, so I did some apartment-sitting in the Castro for six weeks. During that time, a friend from college also stayed with me for a bit. She too was living in a cheap but not-quite-satisfactory living situation, and we realized that it’d be way better if the two of us lived together.
I still can’t believe how much I hesitated over this, since the results were so amazing, but I waffled for awhile on whether to try to get out of my lease. Eventually, though I negotiated my way out of it with my landlord (and yes, I did lose money, although it was definitely worth it), and went to stay with my aunt in Mountain View for a month while my friend and I looked for an apartment.
People ask why I chose to live in the East Bay, but when we were looking for places, there was never really any question. If you want to pay less than $1200 for a room, the East Bay is where it’s at.
We were, ideally, looking to pay about $1000 a month or less, and we wanted to live near a BART station, so we started off by looking for $1800-$2000 two-bedroom apartments near the MacArthur and Ashby BARTs in Oakland/Berkeley. And those were, frankly, impossible to find. We’d go to these open houses and there’d be forty other people there, and you just know that one of them makes $150,000 a year and is walking in with a huge deposit and maybe offering to pay more than asking.
I mean, we did all the things that you do. I assembled a little folder with already-filled rental applications and bank statements and pay stubs. And we walked in there with checkbooks ready. But the leasing agents were having none of it. They’d just take our folder (or sometimes refuse to even do that) and then brush us off. The only apartments that we could get were cracker-jack apartments in West Oakland, near MacArthur BART, with tiny windows and laminate floors and whitewashed walls. Not terrible places to live, but not exactly the sort of place you’re thinking of when you’re paying $1000 a month.
So eventually, almost against our will, we found ourselves looking at three and four bedroom apartments. In these cases, the understanding was that we’d rent it and then find a roommate afterwards. And, almost immediately, the search became much easier. Although there are fewer three- and four-bedroom apartments available, there appears to be much less demand for them. I assume that’s because lots of two-bedrooms are rented out by couples, whereas there are fewer groups of friends who are organized enough to hunt for an apartment. Also, we found that these apartments were more likely to be rented out directly by landlords (rather than leasing agents) and that it was easier to persuade landlords that we were good and deserving people.
Anyway, in the end, it all worked out. We walked into our current apartment in North Berkeley and immediately loved it. It was an appointment, not an open house, so there was no competition; I wrote a check on the spot, and we secured it easily. The place is at the upper end of our price range, but still doable. And, as I mentioned before, I think it might actually be the best apartment in the Bay Area. I’m paying about 50% more than I was for the old place, but I’m roughly 400% happier. However, I do feel for all the people in the world who don’t have the resources to make that kind of tradeoff =/
All in all, it took us about 6-8 weeks of active searching, but it was still about five months of nomadism before I really found something.
Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas – I read this right after reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which might’ve been a mistake, since this is a very different sort of book. Where Monte Cristo has a very focused narrative and a strong throughline, Three Musketeers is just a set of loosely connected incidents that I, in most cases, found rather dull. Maybe this was just because none of the characters really charmed me; they all seemed insubstantial and foolish. I got 2/3rds of the way through the book before abandoning it.
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I abandoned this one about 20% of the way through. I’ve read lots of books by Dostoyevsky, but nothing in the last three years. Maybe I’ve just outgrown him, or maybe this wasn’t his finest. I really just couldn’t get into it. None of it seemed at all alive.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Oh my god, this book was so boring. At the time, I pretended to myself that I enjoyed it because that was the only way to get through it, but in retrospect I find nothing in it that was redeeming. It’s a history about a fascinating figure and a fascinating time…but it doesn’t include any of the actual fascinating stuff about that time. Rather, all the good stuff takes place off-stage, and all that you see is a lot of waffling about and misdirection.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – I had to read this for class, and I hated it, which is weird, because I love Edith Wharton. She is a fantastic writer: subtle and thrilling and full of interesting characters. But this novella had none of those things. It was a big lumbering Gothic horror story about doomed love. Which, in my opinion, doesn’t really play to Wharton’s strengths. I have no idea why they teach this. I suspect that it’s simply because the book is short and teachers are always looking for things that students can read in a week. However, that is not a sufficient explanation: Wharton is famed for her novella-length work, and I think that something like The Touchstone is much better and more representative look of her virtues.
Antifragile by Nicholas Nassim Taleb – I forget how far I got into this, but I couldn’t finish it. I loved The Black Swan. It was a brilliant and eye-opening book. But even in that book, Taleb’s posturing got on my nerves. In this one, the posturing has been dialed up to eleven. It’s absolutely unbearable, especially in a book that’s as light on content as this one.
Mercedes Lackey – I tried to reread several books by Mercedes Lackey and just couldn’t do it. The writing is terrible.
Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Halliday – Oh my god, this book has zero content. Do not buy it.
The Annales by Tacitus – Do you really care which general invaded which Germanic province in which year of Nero’s reign? No. Nobody does. What put the boringness of Tacitus into such stark relief was that immediately afterward I read Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which covered exactly the same years, but was much more fun and personality-driven.
When I read blogs, I feel like I’m always scratching my head trying to figure out where the author lives and what they do for a living–it’s like I’m always in those first two chapters of the book right before the massive biographical info-dump–and I’m pretty sure that my readers have the same experience with me, especially this year.
I had four pretty large upheavals in my living situation this year. When it started, I was living in Baltimore with three guys from my MFA program in a row house in Baltimore. And when the year started, I was pretty sure that I was going to be living in that room for another year, since, unbeknownst to most people, Johns Hopkins’ MFA program guarantees a post-graduate year of teaching to its students.
I still have really fond feelings for Baltimore. I think it’s a fantastically under-rated place: cheap and hip and full of artists. It’s also very cute, on a physical level. The neighborhood where I lived, in Charles Village, was made up of these townhouses with brick foundations and colorful facades and boxy Bay windows. In DC or San Francisco, people would have paid $2000 a month to get a room in a neighborhood which looked like that, but in Baltimore it was pretty typical. In Baltimore, if you have a job, you can live someplace nice. I much prefer it to DC, even though the latter is my hometown.
But, as the year progressed, I realized that I wanted to be somewhere else. No special reason. I just felt like doing the next thing. Staying in Baltimore was tempting, since I had the job waiting for me, but it also felt too much like I was just marking time, and I didn’t enjoy the feeling that I was simply waiting for the year to pass. Anyway, my entire life I’ve lived in either the Bay Area or the DC area, and both are places where I have strong roots. I wanted to go somewhere new, and see who I was. So, after tossing around a bunch of possibilities, I decided to move to New Orleans.
There, I sublet a master bedroom for $500. And I had a good time there too. At times, I did get the feeling that the city was a bit too bohemian and radical for me. At heart, I’m kind of a yuppie, and it felt weird to be in a place where being a street musician was a respectable and respected job. But I went out there and met people and made friends. And I really liked the folks that I was living with.
But I was still living in a city where I had no close friends.
I’d expected to be lonely in New Orleans, but I guess I hadn’t exactly understood what that loneliness would feel like. And, over the course of about six weeks, I questioned my decision to move there. I mean, all the reasons for being there were still valid. It was cheap. It had a different kind of people. It certainly got me out of my comfort zone. But…it just didn’t feel like where I wanted to be in my life. I was 28 years old, and I already had a city (two cities) where I knew lots of people. Did I really want to make a whole new set of friends? Why? Just because? And what if I became romantically involved with someone in New Orleans? Did I really want to live there for the rest of my life?
So one night, while I was on my way to a wedding in Detroit, I had a midnight epiphany. I didn’t want to be an adventurer. I just wanted to be in my place, amongst my people. And, to me, it was obvious where that place was. I was born in the Bay Area, went to college here, and lived there for the eighteen months right before I moved to Baltimore, so, although I didn’t grow up here, I do think of it as a more-or-less homelike place. So, after the wedding, I drove back to New Orleans, backed up my things, and drove west.
I got here in mid-July and then had four transitional months (to be detailed in tomorrow’s post) while I looked for a final place.
But everything turned out great! And it turned out great in exactly the ways I wanted it to be great! I’m living in a fantastic apartment in Berkeley (I have literally never walked into an apartment in the Bay Area and though ‘Oh, that person’s apartment is better than mine). My roommates are the best: they’ve quickly become some of my favorite people.
I’ve reconnected with a lot of old friends and acquaintances. And I’ve also taken the opportunity to become closer to people who used to be just acquaintances. And I meet new people all the time. That’s the strange thing about knowing people: it’s much easier to meet new people when you already know people.
Which is not to say that this is something I couldn’t have had in Baltimore or New Orleans. I think the issue is that I didn’t want to have it in those places. For me, those places felt really transitory. I wasn’t willing to build up a network of casual friends and acquaintances. And I became less and less willing, over time, to explore new social scenes and go to strange parties, because with every month that passed, I came closer to the day when I’d have to leave. Whereas now my mindset is completely different. The timescales are completely different. There are people here in the Bay Area who I meet only maybe three months. But because I’ve been here so often, that means that by now I’ve seen them 10 or 20 times. It’s a strange feeling to see some random person at a party–someone I’d never call or make solo plans with–and to feel really warmly towards them.
Okay, wrap-up, gotta wrap this up. I guess what I’d say is that this year I learned what I wanted from life. I thought I wanted adventure, but, really, what I wanted was to think of myself as an adventurous person. The concrete aspects of adventure–the alienation and loneliness–are not things that I value. What I really wanted was a sense of permanence and a sense of community. And I think I’ve found that. For the first time in my life, I have no immediate plans to move elsewhere. I’ve found my place.
Doing major revisions on this book for the first time in about a year. It’s a little weird, because the voice in the book is, to me, so distinct. But, to a large extent, it was written about two years ago, in January of 2013. Which means that the voice and most of the language are something that bubbled up out of me ages ago. And my later revisions were mostly reductive, not additive, whereas now I’m considering adding at least one whole new plotline and making major changes to a bunch of scenes. So I’ll need to conjure up that voice again. It’s scary.
I think that if it’s going to happen, then it won’t be because I’m imitating the voice. I think that if it’s going to happen, then it’ll be because I tapped into the same place that I originally drew that voice from. And I’m confident that I can do that, because books are held together by an internal logic. And when I’m working on this one, I think I’ll start to get the sense of that internal logic again. But right now, staring into it from the outside, messing with that voice is a very anxiety-making proposition.
Apparently, California is about to be hit by a massive thunderstorm: hundred mile per hour winds, plus more rain falling in the next two days than we got in the entirety of the last twelve months. And I’m not really prepared for it. But I’m also kind of tired of preparing for storms. After years of living in DC and Baltimore and rushing to the supermarket to stock up on canned goods and water every time there’s winter weather alert, I’m not gonna go out and battle the crowds because of a frickin’ thunderstorm.
It’s always difficult for me to find books in fields that are neither literarily respectable nor popular amongst my friends, since I can’t get recs by either word of mouth or through the major review outlets. Because of that, I often tend to rely on Amazon when I’m looking for crime novels or thrillers or chick-lit or women’s fiction. However, that doesn’t always lead to great results.
For instance, I’ve often run across Amy Sohn’s name when browsing through the “Other Books That Users Looked At” tab for some of my favorite books. However, her Amazon reviews are always pretty middling. Usually her books have been two and three stars. And while I know that lots of good books have bad Amazon reviews, I also know that lots of bad books have bad Amazon reviews. And, because of that, I wasn’t really able to get up much enthusiasm for her.
At least not until I found an actual physical copy of this book on my roommate’s bookshelf (not creepy–her bookshelf is in the living room) this morning. I started reading it in the morning and had finished it by evening. It was pretty gripping, and I loved it, but I can see why so many Amazon reviewers hated it. In fact, I am pretty sure that most of you would hate it to, and, as such, I wouldn’t really recommend it to most people.
The book is about four yuppie Brooklyn moms whose lives cross paths during the course of one summer. There’s a former lesbian who’s now in a mixed-race marriage; a sexually frustrated woman whose husband is more in love with his daughter than with his wife; a truly deranged helicopter mom who’s desperate for a second child; and a movie star who’s having a slow-motion breakdown. And I won’t mince words. All of these people are awful. Most of them are without a single redeeming feature. This book could, I suppose, be called a satire, except it’s not funny. This is a book about tired people who’re leading hopeless, desperate lives. It resembles Heller’s Something Happened, except it doesn’t have the self-awareness and charm that added pathos to that narrator’s account of suburban entrapment. I really can’t overstate how dark this book is. None of the characters have particularly happy endings. But, even more than that, none of them have happy beginnings or middles either. There is not one single moment in the entire book where someone experiences even a second of joy.
But, for some reason, I really liked it. Probably because the book makes you feel things. You’re there, in the grip of the summer heat. You’re there, feeling the dull, exhausted flickering of these women’s anger. And you’re there experiencing the absurd New Yorkiness of it all: the housing coops, and the grocery coops, and the celebrities pretending to be real people, and the real people pretending to be celebrities, and the casual unacknowledged racism, and the constant worry over incredibly minor status markers like what street in Prospect Park you live on. All these things were fun to me.
For the first few years of its life, this blog’s readership has increased by about 2.5x every year. However, this year it did not grow. Throughout much of the year, readership stayed on or around 2500 monthly unique visitors per month (total pageviews did go up from about 45k last year to around 60k in the first 49 weeks of this year, though, so that’s something).
Some of the growth in readership is probably masked by the way that I began posting the entire content of (most of) my posts onto Facebook. This undoubtedly reduced the number of clickthroughs from my Facebook page, which (since FB provides the plurality of my traffic) reduced my stats without necessarily reducing my overall readership. In that case, holding steady at 2,500 MUVs might actually represent an audience increase.
Anyway, if I know anything from my writing career, it’s that lulls are inevitable. Even after making my first sale at professional rates, I went two years before making my next one. I also went eighteen months between my third and my fourth pro sales. That doesn’t mean I was becoming a worse writer, it just meant that I wasn’t necessarily seeing an improvement. Similarly, I have faith that if I keep posting regularly, my readership will grow.
That having been said, I think one thing that’s been hampering my blog is that it’s literally my last priority. I often sit down to write my posts sometime around around 11 or 12 PM at night and find myself without the mental or spiritual resources to write anything that’s useful or revealing. I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to combat that. Maybe I’ll switch to writing the posts first thing in the morning. I find that the early morning and the late night are both not-very-productive times for fiction writing, but that the early morning tends to be a more fertile and imaginative and happy time for me overall. So perhaps blogging in the morning will lead to some systemic change in the content.
I also want to maybe try my hand at writing posts that could, potentially, go viral. I’ve been reading a number of books about viral marketing, and I might try going in that direction on occasion. But otherwise I’m mostly gonna keep doing what I do.
The second part of wrapping up my year’s reading is talking about all the books that were a surprise to me: the favorites that came out of nowhere. In many cases, these books were only a surprise to me, since some of them (most of them) were actually bestsellers within their categories. But still, you probably haven’t heard of lots of them, so whatevs, I will claim credit for discovering them.
Mentor by Tom Grimes – Fantastic book. One of the best writer memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s about a writing professor who made a big splash with his debut novel and then sold a much-hyped follow-up, but who never quite lived up to his initial promise. Here he charts both the decline of his career and the progression of his friendship with the famed director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop: Frank Conroy. This book is honest and sad but also very alive. I’ve never read anything else like it.
Friendship by Emily Gould – The internet loves to hate on Emily Gould. In fact, this summer some dude published a twelve thousand word article about how terrible she is. And yes, I can sort of see how someone might be annoyed by her article about blowing through a 160k book advance or the blog post about negotiating down her credit card debt. But I thought this novel was fantastic. I stayed up all night reading it, and it made me feel emotions. It’s about two aspiring writers who live in Brooklyn and are best friends and are sort of getting to the place where they want more stability in their lives but they don’t have that stability and they’re having issues with their professions and their personal lives and those issues eventually start to damage their friendship. Great stuff. Very vivid. It’s also about people who’re a lot like me, and that’s part of what I like about it.
Angel by Elizabeth Taylor – A character study. Angel is a working-class girl in early 20th century Britain who decides, one day, that she’s going to write books. And then she does: horrible, schlocky, romance novels that horrify the literary world. And she also has a very brutish, nasty disposition and abuses everyone in her life. But I loved the book and, on some level, I also loved Angel herself. She has such an indomitable will to survive. I suppose she’s a lot like Scarlett O’Hara, but without that veil of flirtatiousness. The section where Angel falls in love is one of the subtlest and most remarkable performances in literature.
The List by Vivian Siobhan – I somehow thought that everyone in the YA world knew about this one, but I was at a lunch with a bunch of other YA writers and they hadn’t heard of it. This book is amazing. One of the two best YA novels I read this year (the other was Tim Tharp’s Spectacular Now). The book is about a school where an anonymous prankster releases an annual list of the most beautiful and ugliest girls in each grade. The novel is told from the point of view of the 8 girls named in this year’s list, and it’s a stunning performance. Eight points of view. Eight stories. Four different grades. And each voice is so distinct. I was captivated.
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff – This was the year where I read a lot of really good literary memoirs. In this one, Rakoff describes her first year in New York, when she worked for JD Salinger’s literary agent. The ‘hook’ for the memoir is that Rakoff at some point started answering Salinger’s fan-mail. But that’s not what the book is about. It’s really just about being very young and still feeling entranced by the glamor of the literary life and the way that glamor contrasts with the squalid way you need to live if you’re part of that life. Everything in this book, from the agency to the character of Salinger himself, has that dualism: beautiful from one angle, but very lonely and wretched from another.
As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams by the Sarashina woman – A memoir by an anonymous court lady in Heian Japan. Written a thousand years ago, but instantly captivating, from the very first paragraph. Also, a very interesting and calculated document. It is not a diary. It was written as a single, unitary document when the woman was nearing the end of her life. And it’s a sort of ode to the interstices of her life. To the quiet moments. To the romantic moments that never came. To the journeys she took between one place and another. To the times when she was shut up alone and all by herself. She spends maybe three sentences talking about her children and her husband, but goes on for pages upon pages about the man that she met on one rainy autumn day and how he asked her which was her favorite season.
Dept of Speculation by Jenny Ofill - In very short vignettes, this chronicles a young writer’s journey into marriage, success, domesticity, motherhood, and divorce. Loved it. Each little paragraph has so much voice. And the picture that develops is so careful and nuanced.
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett – The third literary memoir on this list. Novelist Ann Patchett writes about her lifelong friendship with Sarah Lawrence and University of Iowa classmate Lucy Grealey (Lucy was, in turn, famous for writing a memoir about the facial deformity that had rendered her mostly chinless). I loved the portrait of Lucy that develops in this novel. She’s capricious and bitchy, but you also see why Patchett loved her. Also interesting to see the ups and downs of a young writer’s life. Very honest look at the schooling, at the fellowships, and at the financial aspect of the writing life.
Some of the writers whose blogs I follow will hardly ever post general status updates about their lives and the various milestones in their careers. You can read their blogs for months without learning about how they’re feeling and the books they’ve started and completed and the milestones their kids have achieved. I don’t follow that route. I don’t keep this blog buttoned down and focused on writing and reading. Mostly that’s simply for expediency. Sometimes I sit down to write a blog post and simply have no idea what to write other than, “I think they’re about to pay me, and, oh yeah, I’m working on a story that I like.”
I think, though, that sometimes this gives a skewed view of life and makes it sound like I’m bragging, which is not what I really intend. Mostly, I write about those things because I feel like new writers are interested in questions like “How often do you get paid?” and “How long does it take for the money to come?”
As is true for most writers, my life is mostly pretty unremarkable and has its fair share of reversals. For instance, I’ve been trying for around eight months to write another book, and I have been really struggling. For some reason, I can’t write books in the old way, but I don’t really know any other way to do it. And I don’t know if maybe this is something that I should try to ignore and overcome, or if these are the birthing pains for a whole new way of doing something. I’ve had trouble writing before. For instance, during my whole first year at Hopkins, I found it really difficult to finish short stories. And each time I’ve had these difficulties, I’ve come back and had a period of immense productivity. I think something like that will happen again. But it’s frustrating and not optimal and also kind of scary, since now I have contractual deadlines to meet. When the juice is flowing, I write very fast, and my deadlines right now are pretty far out (my second book isn’t due until January 1st, 2016), so I’m not that worried, but, you know, it still preys on my mind.
And then there are all the myriad other problems in life that fall into the category of things I don’t blog about: romantic difficulties; worries about my diet and my health; thinking about money. In general, life is pretty good, but there are lots of ways in which it’s not optimal. Which you already knew, of course, but I just felt like noting it for the record.