#GenerationGeneralizations

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Kids these days.

About a year after I graduated from high school a friend and I moved to southwest Missouri, to Branson, so that she could get her shot at country music and I came along for the adventure. Her manager asked me one night what my interest was in.

“Writing,” I answered.

“Writing music?” he followed up, thinking folks only moved to Branson if their interests had something to do with country music.

“No, prose,” I said, “like articles, stories, poems.”

“Are you even old enough to write?” he asked.

It was an odd question to me then, and an infuriating question to me looking back to the age I was when I got that question, at nearly 20 years old. By the time he asked me that question I had been writing stories and poems for 12 years, and now I’m sitting here having been writing things of some form or another (not counting letters and emails) for 38 years. At the time I was 20, her manager was my age now, and he was wondering, when I was stumped by his question, what a 20-year-old has to say. I was still flummoxed because I had been writing for so long already without even thinking that I needed to be a certain age to do it, like driving a car or voting. The question seemed…irrelevant.

*****

Sitting here at the 38th anniversary of my writing experience, I often encounter whiplash moving from either end of the spectrum. There are a hundred “best of” lists involving writers under 30, and anyone over 30 grousing about these lists on social media. There are a million click-bait articles on “what the Millennials have killed now” or even articles that compare all of the generations but the Gen X one, which sits awkwardly in the middle like a middle child forgotten. Even Ursula K. Le Guin, in her last essay collection No Time To Spare, talks about how the alums of her college graduating class were supposed to answer their “what are you doing with your retirement?” survey. She thought retirement was an incredulous idea; she was still writing right up to the end of her life. The essay touched on a variety of points on ageism in the young and old, and still we have this fight, in politics, in arts, in cooking, and in all forms of culture.

I have never understood pigeon-holing based on age. Most of my friends in Ohio and Missouri were older than I was; in California it’s about half and half. I am a Gen X person who always felt a little out of the loop on Gen X music, film, and books, so finding something from “my generation” feels a little false. My parents had a collection of vinyl that would choke a DJ, but they also were older than most of my friends’ parents and they came from older parents themselves, so I was raised on classic films, music, and TV shows. I can recite most Monkees’ episodes but have no clue what happened on The Love Boat. The only TV my parents let me watch was PBS, Sunday night Disney movies, and the early evening game shows like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. I did sneak episodes of  Moonlighting, but that’s not usually a conversation starter (it’s one of those rare shows you can’t stream, by the way…not that I haven’t tried). I often just crawled back into a book…books were supposed to be timeless.

But even books have waves of energy in them, depending on when they were born. You can read Orwell today and feel remarkably seen and hopeless, all at the same time. But then again, you could read Bradbury and get the sense, somewhere off in the distance if you just resist, that you might see the way out, whether you were 9 and had that kind of time capital, or 90 and just had spare change left in your pocket.

*****

I can’t make the generalizations about generations that everyone else can; it seems to waste as much time (or more) than making generalizations about race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. The marvelous thing about knowing older people is seeing how they react to all of the latest innovations, particularly when they accept them and cherish them with a “look what I got to see happen” outlook. The wondrous thing about the exceedingly young is watching them discover stuff we put away years ago, things like vinyl and typewriters and old school DOS stuff and Polaroids. The wide and disparate variety means you could have an aunt who loves Fortnite and a niece who loves jigsaw puzzles. The more random the world, the better.

I find myself skipping the labels, the studies, the click-bait about Gen Z vs Baby Boomers, Gen X vs the Silent Generation (I don’t remember my father being all that silent, but okay), and everyone vs the Millennials. I prefer to see the possibility in every age, because I never know who will inspire me in their rites of passage.

#ShortAnswer

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I’ll admit it, if you give me a verbal leash, I’ll write or speak it out to length. This blog warns readers that they might have to be “long-winded” in order to read my thoughts and ramblings.

And still…

I constantly push myself with my writing, and for me pushing myself means learning how to write the short version of a story or essay. I review social media and recommendations from fellow writers and friends about where I can write and what I can write, and over the last two years I have found two top muses to propel me forward:

  • American Microreviews & Interviews:  This online publication, updated quarterly, posts reviews and interviews limited in word count but not limited in passion about good writing. I’ve never written an interview for them (interviews can be a little bit longer than the reviews, but not by much), but I’ve been writing book reviews for them, contained in tight packages of 500 – 700 words, since October 2017. We get to pick our books to review, and as long as the book was released in hardback form within the last calendar year and no one else claims it first, then one of the editors reaches out to the publisher of the book and hopefully I receive a free copy of the book within a week or so to start reading and reviewing it. If you click on the masthead, you may find all kinds of academics in the contributor list, and then there is me, the call center management pencil-pusher who went to college for literature and is just happy to bat for this team, thanks. I love, love, LOVE reading, but writing about reading, in a way that challenges my chatty tendencies, brings me joy.
  • This past December, newly unemployed, I found myself wanting to develop my fiction chops as well, and at one of the monthly meetings of Coffee with the Catapult (a once-a-month Sunday talk about what’s new in books with free coffee at one of my local indie bookstores) an anthology of micro-fiction was featured. I picked up a copy at discount, and took it home, and it sat on the shelf for a bit, until I got tired of journaling in the first week and thought I would throw in micro-fiction in my practice four days a week. I read two of the stories a day from the anthology before I write (the new one I read the previous day and a new one for the current day), and then I pick a topic (usually the next one in the list) from Barbara Ann Kipfer’s book 14,000 Things to Be Happy About, which I used to use in college when it was 10,000 Things to Be Happy About, for journal prompts. (The original has been lost in moves, but an additional 4,000 things to choose from is even better, am I right?) I try to keep the stories to the length of those in the anthology (less than 300 words), and usually about 30 – 90 minutes later I manage it, drenched in sweat and teeth ground down just a tad.

While the reviews are published, the fiction isn’t yet, but I’m just working up the muscles. I have four months’ worth of micro-fiction first drafts, which has been one of the rare feasible things between applying for jobs, going to interviews, submitting paperwork, etc in the job-hunting process. The little bites are little accomplishments; later, for a lark, after I am established in a job and finding my free time again, I can work on the revision of them on two of those four days.

*****

One of my favorite poets is William Carlos Williams, a guy picked on in social media by the literary and hipster folks to extremes for a)storing plums in the fridge, and b)stealing them from the love of his life. (Whenever I read another one of these gems that pops up I have to physically stop myself from the eye-roll, but I guess they are eye-rolling him, so fair enough.) In 2016 there was a movie made about the influence of his poetry on a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver (played by Adam Driver) called, well, Paterson. (One of my favorite movies, I should add, but not just for the William Carlos Williams references.) Williams was rumored to have hashed out some of his poems on his prescription pads, since his day job was as a doctor; the belief was that the little space of writing of those pads kept his poems short. If you do an online search, you’ll find some truth to this; Williams’s handwriting was a bit big to try such a stunt, so if you put a group of the sheets together you have a better idea of his application.

I don’t write my micro anything on prescription pads, Post-Its, or recipe cards. Maybe it would help if I did. I get out a lined, squared, or dotted 5″x7″ notebook and start my scratch when it comes to the fiction; the reviews are written in a template that I have to export from Pages on a Mac to a one-time Word translation via email for my editor. (I’m not sure why the handwritten stuff has to be lined or why I just don’t type everything, but maybe that’s next in my development process.) More satisfying than a tweet, and far less toxic, these baby steps are how I get to forming the big stuff…someday.

#TheCrawl

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I moved to San Diego in 2012 under duress. I didn’t want to move to San Diego, I wanted to stay in the Bay Area, but I had taken a career risk in the Bay Area and it didn’t pan out and I ran out of money. My brother and sister-in-law lived north of San Diego and I moved in with them. I’m always and forever grateful that they took me in, but I resented San Diego.

“But why hate San Diego?” I got if I even hinted that I didn’t care for it. “The weather here is wonderful!” And that’s where they usually stopped, which annoyed me beyond everything else. “Look! Endless sun! Why leave?” Every night on the news the anchors would make it worse by exclaiming that sun thing without any provocation whatsoever. San Diego: AIN’T WE GOT SUN.

I resented San Diego for reasons both valid and irrational. I hated that relentless sun. I hated the fact that there was so little shade, or even places to walk (our first apartment was stuck at the end of a road where the sidewalk came and went, and the closest business was nearly a mile away). I resented the lack of mass transit and resented the traffic and resented the heat (even though “gee, but it’s a DRY heat!” except in May and June when it wasn’t dry but this clammy form of dry), I resented the Santa Ana winds, I resented the massive amount of breweries, I resented the lack of bookstores, I resented the lack of cafes…

Seven years later I’ve found ways to make that lack a definition of luxury. I still hate the sun, but now I can use that as a reason to avoid melanoma and write in a coffee shop, which San Diego has a lot more of now. I have found places to have craft cocktails instead of IPA ALL DAY. And I have found my bookstores.

For the last three years, every year on Independent Bookstore Day (the last Saturday in April), San Diego bookstores have done a literary “crawl,” like you would find as a pub crawl in a neighborhood in other big cities. The first year there were three bookstores; the last two years there have been nine bookstores all over San Diego. I see it as San Diego as a booming book town…in hiding. I don’t meet many readers, particularly in bars. I wish I did. I wish I could grab a beer and a bite and read a book, instead of having to watch whatever sport is on the fifty televisions on the walls. Even San Diego’s coffee shops get a little nervous if you read at a table for longer than your coffee is warm. But I’m grateful for these book shops and their book clubs and their events; I’m less lonely and less resentful and more grateful for a few minutes.

The Crawl, this year, included the following bookstores:

  • Mysterious Galaxy – This bookstore is built into a strip mall in the Clairemont Mesa in the middle of San Diego. From my apartment it takes a train and a bus to get there (unless I feel like spending a fortune and getting a rideshare), so I only visit it for the crawl. I do follow them on social media, and they have author events and book clubs all of the time, as well as releases of new books every Tuesday with the rest of their new books. They also have lots of other items that aren’t books: pins, bags, t-shirts, etc. This year I picked up an enamel pin with a worker motif that says “Fight Evil, Read Books” around the circumference of the pin.
  • UCSD Bookstore – I miss university bookstores since graduating from college in 2000. While I’m not drawn to the Triton material, I love the stacks and stacks and stacks of books, and the possibility that students are reading these books for class credit. This year The Crawl had an Illustrator Ambassador, Susie Ghahremani, and she was working on her next book, painting in person, at the UCSD Bookstore when I was there. I picked up another one of her buttons (I have quite a collection of her enamel pins, all of them animals, some of the animals holding books or art tools or musical instruments) and a book wrapped in brown paper with a description of the book on the outside, the experience of a “blind date with a book,” which I love.
  • Warwick’s – Warwick’s is the oldest independent bookstore on the west coast. When you think about the implications of that, the store takes on more weight, even though half of the retail space there is not books or book items at all, but random gift items. I picked up the latest novel by Jess Kidd in paperback (Mr. Flood’s Last Resort). The ride from UCSD Bookstore to Warwick’s is the most beautiful bus ride on The Crawl; it’s a cliff-side view of La Jolla.
  • Run For Cover Bookstore – This bookstore is the newest store in the collection, opening in the fall of 2018. The store is a cozy little space in the Ocean Beach area, and they had old-time jazz and blues with live musicians out on the sidewalk when I stopped by. I picked up a book that was pure silliness there, The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America by Matt Kracht, a goofy version of bird guides.
  • La Playa Books – This bookstore was the quietest and calmest of the group. It wasn’t that they were empty, but the neighborhood in Point Loma was lazy and calm, and that seemed to play out in the cozy bookstore as well. There I picked up a copy of Francisco Cantu’s memoir of working for the Border Patrol, The Line Becomes a River.
  • The Library Shop – I probably go to this store the most of the group outside of the crawl because it is the closest shop to my apartment. The Library Shop probably has the lowest count of books in ratio to gift items, but I understand: they are next door to thousands of free books on loan. I met up with Susie again there, and she was signing her book that will come out in October, Little Muir’s Song. She signed my copy and we got to chat again about what her enamel pins have meant in my life.
  • The Book Catapult – This little shop in South Park is my second-most go-to bookstore since they have a book club that I could easily attend while I was still working. (They also have a lovely Indian fusion restaurant across the street from them, so book club is more and more of an event for me.) I picked up a copy of Bookshops: A Reader’s History by Jorge Carrion and a sticker of the bookstore’s logo to put on my laptop.
  • Verbatim Books – Verbatim is a used bookstore with a wonderful sense of funkiness, located in North Park. They have books, zines, stickers, toys, buttons; I picked up a used copy of Barry Lopez’s Crossing Open Ground and a pack of funky stickers for my daybook.
  • Bluestocking Books – This is the bookstore that I have been visiting the longest in my tenure in San Diego County, a bookstore of used books, vinyl, bookmarks, magazines, etc in the Hillcrest neighborhood. For my last stop I picked up a copy of Amor Towles’s novel A Gentleman in Moscow in paperback, as well as a couple of stickers for my journal.

With the possibility of me moving to the Bay Area in a little while, there are other things I have grown to love here in San Diego: friends, food, The Old Globe, the public library. But The Crawl gave me the chance to see slices of this town as “literary” and artistic. I did the entire crawl in one day, on San Diego’s mass transit (which I don’t recommend, but maybe someday the weekend service will improve so that I can), and every time I got on a train or a bus I was brought suddenly back to the reality of San Diego, a car culture that held very little store in books out in the world, but maybe those stark, opposing views of the city set me up for San Diego’s possibilities as well. Maybe, I thought, I could think of the bookstores in San Diego as more of the little oases of salons of old, as speakeasies of words and stories.

#BingeingNumbers

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When I was in elementary school (and I imagine when you were, too) there were summer reading programs put together by the local libraries. A series of charts with stamps or multi-colored circles that could be strung together with tape or string tracked how many books kids had read, and at the end of the summer break the numbers were tallied and kids won prizes for crossing certain number thresholds, prizes like personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut, bookmarks, gift certificates for books, actual books, craft supplies, and so on.

I was a slow reader (STILL AM), so I never looked at all the “worms” over the summer. I loved the summer reading program because reading during the summer was SO VERY DIFFICULT TO DO ON A FARM WITH A LITTLE BROTHER WHO DIDN’T LIKE TO READ. Summer reading programs were the equivalent of being sent to your room for my brother, who preferred board games, video games, outdoor sports (swimming, mostly, because we had a pond and Mom wouldn’t let us swim alone so we had to watch each other). Summer reading programs for me was a big fat permission slip, a get out of jail free card, to read. My mother knew better than to punish me by sending me to my room: that was jackpot for me. In addition to having a little brother to socialize, the culture of living on a farm means that your father comes in from working on putting up a grape arbor or planting a zucchini patch and sees you reading and flips his lid (“must be nice to just sit and read”), so out you go to drag a wheelbarrow back and forth between the compost pile and the tilled plot or to muck out the chicken coop or to prune back the cattails without getting pinched by a snapping turtle.

Work came first and work was always there, and if Dad was at his factory job, then my brother would drag me into watching him lap the pond or do stupid water tricks or something. But the summer reading program…that was like summer homework…”Welp, sorry, nope, I need an hour for working on my reading goals…”

Both my brother and my father would set a timer.

(You will notice I don’t bring my mother up as a distraction from my reading goals…BECAUSE SHE WANTED TIME TO READ AS MUCH AS I DID AND DIDN’T HAVE A STINKING READING PROGRAM, so, yeah, she got it. That’s why if I was really being punished my hour got taken away…)

The result of reading like this never made me a faster reader. You would think it would; there are even programs that taught you to speed read. My brother took one of those to get through college, and even though he likes to read a little better now, he prefers TV and video games still. If I’m reading around him, it’s still okay for him to stop me…FOR ANY REASON. My father read aloud to my mother for years, while she was making dinner, and he only read Reader’s Digest and InFisherman; I found out after my mother’s death that her favorite book was Heart of Darkness, so imagine that kind of literary frustration for years.

*****

In December of 2007, I signed up for what is probably still my favorite social media platform, GoodReads. (Do NOT get excited for any reason that I wrote that; when I say phrases like “favorite social media” I mean the least of the evils. The fact that GoodReads is powered by Amazon is only its first problem, and etc.) GoodReads evolved into a website that allowed you to track your books read over the course of a year, kept count, patted you on the back when you set a goal and met it, and so on. I missed college and my college reading lists and what I had the ability to read in college, so I’d set the goal to college, and…FAIL. The problem was, when I was in college I was reading for a grade and a degree and if you guilted me into putting a book down in college you better have a good way to pass the course without me cracking the book.

There’s a reason I picked literature as my major and history for my minor.

See, the practical thing would have been to study the analytics that I now use for my “day” job. See, the practical thing would have been to take half literature and history classes and the other half psychology classes so I could teach literature or history. But the major of literature and minor of history meant that if I was doing homework I was on Cloud 9 and I could stay there until the end of the semester. Bonus: I got to go to what was the equivalent of book clubs and talk about:

  • Camus;
  • Dickens;
  • Austen;
  • Thoreau;
  • Woolf.

In literature. Or, in history:

  • Women’s history;
  • Civil rights;
  • The Greeks;
  • History of the UK;
  • African history.

(By the way, the UK history class stunk–bad professor–and still…it’s my favorite literature.)

After college, though, I was still reading a lot and listening to a lot of NPR, because I was medicating my mother’s illness by reading (this was before social media). Books limped me through isolation on a farm in Ohio as a kid, books limped me through my mother’s cancer, books limped me through culture shock moving from a flyover state to the worldly coast, and this past year, when I was downsized in December, books limped me through feeling useless through months of downtime. When I’m working, I take about six weeks to read a book; but with all of my friends and family occupied with jobs and me relegated to applying and writing and done by 3 pm, I started moving from social media to clearing one or two books a week. Most Saturdays were spent in the spirit of Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn; pour a bargain bag of peppermints in a chipped bowl, crack some ice into a glass of water, grab the library books, push a pillow up against the bars of the fire escape landing, and read under the magic tree that miraculously grows out of the cement.

Sometimes I would have preferred a person.

But if everyone else is busy living a normal life, you take your newly weird life and make the most of it.

*****

This weekend an opinion piece came out in The New York Times about binge-reading, about making the case for replacing hours of Netflix with that fat novel on your nightstand. This morning, not really intended as a counterpoint but maybe inadvertently ending up that way, the website BookRiot published an opinion piece about not binge-reading. If you happened to read both pieces, they are two separate species; the NYT piece is more about if you haven’t read anything longer than a tweet in some time, maybe you should sit down and power through, and the BR piece is more about stop reading to meet a number of books read, like a badge…or a bookworm on a library wall.

When it comes to numbers, I get the BR piece entirely. I would rather see how long my worm gets before the end of summer (and the end of my unemployment is nigh, so end of summer is same), and not set a flipping number goal. (Every time I think of number goals for reading I think of George Clooney’s line from Up In the Air, “Let’s say I have a number in mind…”) I know that once I start working again it will be easier to come home and turn on Netflix, because I have friends who like to recommend TV and movies, not books, and because I do have favorites on Netflix, too, so I’ll be back to averaging one book every six weeks, and it will be a book as thick as a slice of toast instead of a book I could stop a door with. I also understand, from the point of view of teachers and education professionals these days, that setting book count goals for kids is controversial, especially if they are dyslexic or slow readers like me, or if they are just struggling with the task of reading to a number. I think kids should have the hour set aside, anyway, like I did; in that hour they have to put the electronics away, but they don’t have to all read the same way. They could take their hour and read, they could take their hour and draw book covers, they could take their hour and put that phone on airplane mode and listen to a downloaded audio book, they could take that hour and participate in a book club that recommends books…by peer readers. It’s the stopping and spending any kind of time with a book that seems most important. Kids may start out hating books, but what if they were as sold on them as they are sold on gadgets and social media and streaming services?

That’s the argument from the author of the NYT piece: what if we were given the space to spend time with books like we are talked into spending time with streaming? The BR writer insists that she read so many books back to back that she couldn’t remember them, and therefore felt no impact from what she read, but what about those of us medicating with books and finding all kinds of soothing aspects in them, but in order to keep the medication coming we have to read them one right after the other? Sure, I could medicate with Netflix, but, again, that’s for when I go back to work, unless I can create a habit now…of reading. To take a Saturday and just read through a whole book…and a book that J.K.Rowling could use as a spacer in her resume…it’s like a form of meditation.

I didn’t think anyone else felt this way about books, but then there’s NYT opinion writer (who is a novelist, okay, sure), and suddenly I’m vindicated for all the books I’ve gobbled for five months. As for the BR writer…my GoodReads count is set to a low number, that I occasionally change as I pass it. I don’t care how high it goes, because every book soothes something in me, changes something in me, calms something in me, comforts me with company.

If you see me out reading, go ahead and say hi…I will go back to that fat novel or memoir or biography of Muhammad Ali (542 pages if you don’t count the index, thank you, Jonathan Eig) after you rush home to watch Game of Thrones on HBO.

Game of Thrones is on my reading list, too.

#NoComment #DisappearingAct

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I don’t receive many comments or questions to these blog posts, and with comments it’s difficult to tell how to respond. Like the comment? Comment on the comment?

And, really, no questions at all.

Not that comments or questions would be unwelcome, by any means.  I don’t write things of high controversy, though; I just write about experiences, trying to keep to a topic. Other blogs, other vlogs, they focus on tips, tricks, even the occasional lecture or rant. I try not to do that here; this venue is more like a documentation of my days, whether they bring me magic or mistakes I make. I think of blogging or blogging in the same way I think of memoir or fiction; writing to and reading from to know that we are not alone.

I save the ranting for social media, although, I wouldn’t always call it ranting. Oh, sure, if some idiot tries something stupid on a scooter I come unglued, but for the most part I am flummoxed by social media. Sometimes I shout-out to folks whose books and music and podcasts I love. Sometimes I comment on regular and recurrent posts (I’m thinking mostly of YouTube here, but this could also apply to any of the other platforms).

Rarely I get responses.

I find this silence a bit confusing. (Irony compounds pending the subject matter; I shouted out my adoration for a book about being alone recently and received silence from the author, which seemed too on the nose.) Are those who post the content looking for feedback? Some of them say that they do at the end of their content (“like us, share, send us a comment!” they say, all sparkles), and some of them ask questions at the end of their content and want to “hear from you guys about what you think.” Apparently I rarely think the right thing or say the right comment. Apparently asking questions of the poster is a big no-no, too.

Oh, I get it; trolls could try these things as assault by sarcasm. But other people seem to get ignored, too. If another blue-check verification responds, then, sure, there’s a response, but that’s more of a DM, amiright? I actually have no clue, since I would give my left arm to engage in a conversation about topics I’m passionate about like I used to on platforms. Maybe this fear of trolls has turned folks who post content into silent instigators instead of moderators, but this seems to turn every post of content into…an advertisement.

They don’t really mean, “let me know what you guys think.” They don’t really mean “comment.” It’s cool, distant person…I’ll just like it. I’m not sure how much even sharing has an effect on other people that I pass the content on to…in those cases someone usually likes what I share on LinkedIn, but not so much everything else.

We’re back to the lack of social in social media.

I still “like” things, though; must be nice to see hundreds of thumbs up and hearts when you go back and check notifications, and I don’t mind that contribution. Maybe I’ll figure out the rest of the puzzle on my own. And when someone does respond? Well, that’s pure gold and completely treasured, without trying to take too much of the other person’s time, because I don’t want to pester.

Disappearing act, back into the top hat of the algorithm.

#StoryProblems #NeatTrick

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As previously stated in this blog, I belong to a book club with a local bookseller, held the second Thursday of every month. For the most part I find some kind of redeeming quality in the books that we read, even if the book isn’t a favorite; the individual sentences may be quality prose, or I enjoy a particular character, etc. The only thing that I struggle with is if the writer decides to write a work of fiction or poetry that is so experimental that it starts to lose the whole reason for fiction or poetry:  to be read. My mother pointed this out once when I first shared my poetry with her, poetry that was meant to academically show off: it must be good; I don’t get it. Even though I went to college to study literature in order to write better, that one concept has stuck with me as a writer more than any other that I placed myself in student debt to learn. When I start to grind my teeth at a book, more than likely my teeth are wearing down because the writer just decided to go whole hog academic and leave the reader behind.

I get it; after all, it’s Pulitzer season, and there are numerous other awards that are prestigious enough to try for. How to stand out and put oneself in the running for notoriety? Some of the attempts are:

  • Write a collection of short works that are thinly connected. This method worked for me with Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, but didn’t work so well for a recent work that I read by a former lover of Philip Roth’s. If the connecting thread is too thin, or if the book has to be explained by an afterword, or if I have to hunt down reviews for it online just to be “taught” what I couldn’t get from reading it, then I know I’m not the intended audience.
  • Halfway to three-quarters way through the book to possibly the end, the whole narrative shifts (same character, but different voice). Sometimes the story itself warrants this approach, but it reads more like a trick or a crutch to keep the author from having to write real-life plausibility. In the interest of not hauling an author over the coals I won’t mention the wide collection of books that try and fail at this approach, but Kate Atkinson seems to execute it well.
  • Writing highly repetitive but nearly incoherent prose as part of the protagonist’s “voice” for too long and dragging out ennui to prove a point in the story. It doesn’t take much to bore the reader; don’t abuse that good faith for a century of pages.
  • Break the fourth wall.

Ok, this one is tricky. Do I love the breaking of the fourth wall for some novels, short stories, and poems? Absolutely. There are stories I love because they break rules, because they take down a barrier and nose right up like a loyal dog. Reader, I married him. Yep, the first time I read that I didn’t see that coming, and I felt like the writer sat down next to me and allowed me to sit with something in empathy.

But the last book club selection we had, a book that I’ll throw under the bus called Same Same by Peter Mendelsund, rubbed me the wrong way with its fourth wall destruction. I know why it did; the protagonist/narrator seemed to be poking fun at what a novel is, poking fun at writers, poking fun at tenacious readers, from about two-thirds of the way through the novel to the end. I might have been fine with that, except…on the acknowledgements page the author, no longer behind the mask of the protagonist, did the same thing. It was funny that Mendelsund looped us in for 482 pages, the schmucks that we were to read this. Of course the book is based on Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, didn’t we see it? Oh, and any other references to any other works of literature? Even those directly quoted? Those are all on the reader. They may or may not have happened.

There were people who liked the book; I envied them. And to be honest, I was glad to have the opportunity to read so singular a book; I just didn’t like it. If the author would have cut the damn thing in half and made fun of me as reader, then I might have laughed along. But to have no empathy for his readers and to laugh at them in the bargain for sticking with it? Sure, it’s impressive, it’s probably great art, a neat trick…but I didn’t enjoy the ride.

*****

My day-job skill set (although I am currently between jobs at the moment) is workforce analytics:  the gentle art of forecasting business trend to determine staffing and scheduling needs. I started out with workforce analytics as part of my job as a manager in 2007, and then moved into the analyst role exclusively in 2013. The job requires a great deal of math, and lately, in interviews, I repeatedly get this question:

Why the literature degree?

Analytics, in my experience, has required two major components: why the math is calculated as it is to determine and execute the business need, and how to explain that reasoning to the rest of the team so that it makes sense and so there is buy-in. Analytics is the application of the math concepts, the story problem you had to solve when you were a kid. Analytics NEVER presents the formula to the analyst; analytics always gives the analyst the two trains leaving the station at midnight going in opposite directions. When I read that story in an email, or hear that story from a manager or recruiter, or see that story in the fabric of a seemingly unrelated report, then I have to understand reading/scenario comprehension enough to empathize with the problem for what is needed, solve it, and then explain it again as an easily navigational story problem, with a happy ending this time.

My communication/writing/speaking skills have to rock the world.

Has analytics made me a better mathematician? Absolutely. But mathematics has made me a better communicator. There’s no need to re-invent the story of the wheelhouse, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to explain it so that anyone can get it.

In a synonym, a good novelist is also a good analyst.

 

#ReaderLeaders

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Back in 2004 I was living in Southwest Missouri and suddenly had the opportunity to move to California. My brother was in the Bay Area, still single, and we decided that when I did move we would be roommates. I packed most of my Missouri life in a storage unit and the rest into my car: clothes, cat, notebooks, and books (but just a few because this was a 1998 Chevy Lumina, not a bookmobile). The books were the following:

  • AAA state guides for Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California (this was before smartphones as we know them now, after all);
  • Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris (he had just died that May);
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac;
  • Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama.

I had no clue how to pronounce the last author’s name at that time, but that’s the book I read first at each hotel on the way west. I would turn the cat out of her carrier, set up her self-care station, go fetch ice and maybe dinner, review the next night’s plan for a hotel from a guidebook, and then crack open Dreams From My Father while I ate in the hotel room. I have had the gift all of my life of finding books that needed to be present for a reason, just when I picked them, and for some reason the narrative of a guy with such a jacked-up name running for Senate in a midwestern state like Illinois spoke to me. The premise only got me started, however, because what kept me reading was that a) the book told a compelling story that didn’t sound like a political resume. It was well-written. I hoped this guy would write again.

Flash forward to later in that month, Sunnyvale, California. My brother and I have a few weeks left in his old apartment before we move into a bigger place across the pool with two bedrooms. I’m sleeping in the living room on my futon for the time being, still looking for a job, and one late afternoon, waiting for my brother to come home to see what he wants to do about dinner, I’m bored and I turn on the Democratic National Convention. I’m not crazy about John Kerry, but I certainly didn’t want Bush the first time, so I’m just kind of listening, kind of not, when a speaker is introduced with a name that sounds familiar, and which I finally know how to pronounce, now. He strides to the mic, and he starts speaking, and it turns out he can speak as well as he could write. The voice is the same on paper and on camera. I’d been watching political stuff for years (history minor in college), but this guy was political to everyone else but me. To me, superficial woman with a preference for poets first, I fell in love with Barack Obama because he could write. That sealed it.

And then some pundit chimed in as Obama left the podium, mentioning something about someday that guy should run for President. I thought that might be too good to be true (with a name like THAT? And he’s a WRITER…), but it was nice to chew on that for a minute, dream on that for a minute.

*****

I’ve never read Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope. I was afraid (and still am) that Audacity would read like a stump speech, like a campaign publication. Don’t tell me if you’ve read it and it does read like that, even though it probably won’t change my mind. My sister-in-law and I always wondered what kind of job his speechwriters had while he was in the Senate and then President; I liked to muse that they probably played solitaire and, at the end of his term, maybe spent their days watching Netflix, but something tells me he was either keeping them busy with mentoring them, pushing them to develop themselves as political operatives, or making their lives hell by debating their own writing. Even if it was the last option, I would have killed to be on that writing team.

When Obama left office I forced myself to accept two probabilities: that the next Democratic Presidential candidate or series of candidates would also write or have written books, and that they would be written in such a way that I wouldn’t want to read them…unless I was suffering from insomnia.

*****

In addition to being a writer I loved to read and listen to, Obama also had this nifty trick of being a passionate lover of literature. Every so often the press would report on his visits to independent booksellers in the DC area and what he bought from them; most of the list was literary fiction. I occasionally would pick something from the list to read just to get a feel for his preferences, and I enjoyed his selections even more that I enjoyed his writing. He was the Writer/Reader Leader, always looking for ways to broaden his mind with fiction, and I loved that he got that.

*****

Here is just a starter list of 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates who have written books. I am probably missing some; this list is from Rolling Stone, a January issue this year:

  • Kamala Harris
  • Joe Biden (although undeclared, for the moment)
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Julian Castro
  • Beto O’Rourke
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Cory Booker
  • John Hickenlooper
  • Sherrod Brown
  • Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Howard Schultz
  • Pete Buttigieg

About that last guy…with the unpronounceable name…

*****

Other people, a great deal of other people, had reasons for why Barack Obama wasn’t supposed to be elected President. The biggest reason was he was black, and there was general talk that the country was not ready for a black president, especially a black President with an Islamic-sounding last name.

Again, about the country being ready for things, and that last guy…

*****

When all of the Democratic Party started firing up their list of candidates back in December and January, I watched with interest. I picked favorites, even on a ranking. I liked the idea of Kamala Harris because she was from the Bay Area, she was a minority in more ways than one, and she was a treat to watch in Senate hearings. I liked what she said on Twitter about the Dreamsicle in Chief, too, so, if you asked me in January who I’d pick, I would have picked her. I also liked Cory Booker (although I’m not fond of his interviewer interruptions) and was a big fan of Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 congressional race. To be honest, I would have been fine with any of them. I was happy with all of them, but not…excited.

I didn’t read any of their books. I knew them all except the last guy, and he was a mayor, so THAT’S not likely, right? I stuck with my list.

And then toward the end of February and beginning of March that last guy, the guy with the funny name who was “just a mayor” started showing up on my book publication news feeds. He was in my literature stuff. Something about how he could speak Norwegian and read Norwegian. Something about how he taught himself to read and speak Norwegian because of a novel.

Full stop.

So there are others, I thought. There are others like Barack Obama and they are running for President, too. I tried not to hope too hard; surely this Norwegian stuff was a stunt? But no, Pete Buttigieg, who already was fluent in SIX languages, wanted to learn Norwegian because he couldn’t get any more novels of one of his favorite Norwegian novelists in English, so he taught himself Norwegian to read the rest of the books.

As if that weren’t enough…Pete Buttigieg did his college thesis on the foundation of another novel, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

And…God help me…

Amazon’s Kindle has this neat option where you can sample a book (sometimes the first chapter, sometimes less, depending on the publisher), and I loaded the sample of Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home. I was raised about two and a half hours east of South Bend.

That goddamn book is like going home. In the opening chapter Buttigieg talks about his first winter in South Bend as mayor, for about a paragraph, and then he flashes back, to winters and the city in his childhood. I am old enough to remember the Blizzard of ’78, and even though Buttigieg is a decade younger than I am, he relates the narratives of people who remember it, too. THE BOOK STARTS OUT WITHOUT HIM. He is a storyteller, he is telling someone else’s story, and he truly conveys that story is important, even before it is his.

Okay, okay, so the guy can write. I pulled up some YouTube interviews, and watched them with a collection of other interviews of Harris, Booker, Klobuchar, Warren, Sanders. The best, most entertaining, and easiest comparison is The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Same interviewer, different candidates. With everyone but Buttigieg you get the feeling there’s a canned answer for the question asked (in the case of Booker he gets so eager to answer that he often interrupts the end of the question), and the canned answer is sort of close…

Buttigieg just answers the question. Even better, he gets lots of practice, because he gets the same questions from everyone (with a little straying from Bill Maher, but I expected that). And even though he gets the same answer, he never sounds rehearsed. You get a feeling of patience, and maybe an underlying hope of expansion (maybe THIS person will be edgy and ask me something else, fingers crossed), but he never rolls his eyes in disgust. Even better, when he’s in a panel setting he does not jump in like everyone else on the panel; he waits to be called on. (If nothing else it should be interesting debate behavior.)

Here’s what I can’t bring myself to do, yet, because I’m afraid to pop the bubble of adoration I have this Writer/Reader; I have not watched any speeches of his. Lots of interviews, no speeches. Will he be able to do it again? Can my superficial love of all things literature bail me (and Buttigieg) out one more time?

Oh, I hope so, she writes, knowing empathy follows fiction. And empathy is sorely missing right now.