What I’ve Been Reading, December 2018

You ever just have a run of really good books? Like, every book you pick up you just enjoy straight away, and love reading it all the way through? That’s what I’ve had these past few weeks. This is what I’ve been reading:

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin — This book follows George Orr, a thoroughly average, inoffensive man living in early 2000s Portland, Oregon (the future at the time Le Guin wrote it.) George Orr is wholly unremarkable, except for the fact that, sometimes, his dreams change the world. When he wakes up from these “effective” dreams, he’s the only who remembers the old world—although he also has new memories from this new world—and otherwise, the new world marches on without missing a beat. When Orr is referred to the psychiatrist William Haber, he tries to get cured of this ability, but soon realizes that Haber is only taking advantage of his effective dreams to try and make a better world as he sees fit—and each attempt only creates a more dystopic reality.

The pacing in the book is terrific, with Haber growing more powerful in each new iteration of the world, and circumstances getting more dire for all of humanity. As well, it lets Le Guin really show off her world-building chops, with all these slightly different futures for Portland and for the whole Earth. The book is largely driven by dialogue, but what prose there is is that clean, cut-glass writing you’d expect from Le Guin. This allows her to establish these new altered worlds quickly, with just a few prominent images to pull the reader in.

What I loved most about this book is the themes it’s dealing with. The idea that the world’s woes can be solved by rational problems, that these can be applied universally without nuance, is completely dismantled—or rather, Le Guin shows what happens when these rational ideals have to face up against the illogic of humanity, of Orr’s dreams. Nowhere did this theme his harder for me than when Haber tries to solve the war in the near east by telling Orr to dream of a world with no more war. The results are, of course, not perfect, and in fact far more frightening. Haber is the perfect image of the bloodless Rational™ Liberal thinker, who believes there is war in the Middle East because middle easterners are foolish religious zealots, and iF onLy tHey CoUld See tHE lIgHT of ReAsoN TheRe wOulD Be No wAR, and by golly I am the man to fix the Middle East’s problems. Le Guin’s stroke of brilliance is that when this rationality meets Orr’s unconscious mind, the result is not a bunch of humans who suddenly love each other, because in a sense humans were never really the problem—the result is unfathomable monsters.

The book is fantastic from start to finish, and all packed into a short, focused space. I can definitely see myself rereading it in a few years. Also, I listened to the audiobook of it performed by Susan O’Malley, who is a great narrator (and also I just think it’s neat that a woman narrated this book whose main characters are mostly men! Like, yeah!) so I can recommend her performance of it as well.

Hunger by Roxane Gay — Hey, a critically acclaimed literary book that actually came out in the past few years! And I read it! Wowzers!

I read this book for my Chick Lit class and I am so glad that it was on the syllabus, because I’ve been wanting to read Gay’s writing for a while but never got around to it—and suddenly boom, I have to get around to it, and it is fantastic. Hunger is, as the subtitle says, a memoir of (Roxane Gay’s) body. It tracks the changes in her body, and the experience of being overweight. It’s not so much that the body is the central focus, more that the body serves as the focusing element of the book.

Some passages are very much focused on body issues, or personal experiences of Gay’s where she’s been marginalized because of her body, but many passages delve into other areas of Gay’s life, like her academic career, or her pursuit of writing. Still, in all these sections, Gay is able to weave in her body. As a few people in my class said, it makes sense, because you’re never without your body—and body can mean so many things. Who is allowed to take up space? How much? When does being overweight make you invisible? When does it make you overly visible? The book covers a broad range of topics and experiences and still holds together wonderfully. Although it’s split up into very short chapters, some just a page or two long, it doesn’t feel fragmented. Each new section builds on the last, and they melt into one another. Those short chapters make it easy to pick up and put down, and the never-too-far-off chapter endings provide some relief from the heavier themes of the book.

Gay’s skill as an essayist shows, as she blends abstract ideas and concrete examples, widely experienced phenomena with personal remembrances. And my god, the prose reads beautifully. With the simplest words arranged in the most direct order, Gay is able to cut right to emotional marrow of an experience, like when she talks about being fat and trying to be invisible, and says that “It is unbearable to want something so little and need it so much.” The book is tirelessly honest. Although this memoir obviously took a great deal of effort (Gay herself mentions how difficult it was to write), the final product retains no residue of that labor. That is, there’s no throat clearing. There’s no slow approach to the truth. The truth is naked on any page you turn to, all rendered in just over three hundred pages.

It’s good. The book is real god damn good.

Spinning by Tillie Walden — Spinning is a comic memoir about ice skating, though broadly speaking it’s a coming of age story dealing with a lot of different stuff, and competitive ice skating serves as the engine of that narrative. Just as body is so inextricably linked with Roxane Gay’s life that it can hold all the different topics of Hunger together, ice-skating so dominates Tillie’s life that it can be used as a jumping off point to touch on a lot of different things—identity, growing up, coming out, friendship—and these various themes blend together beautifully.

What really got me about this book is how strongly it resonated with me, and how immersive it was. The first chapter opens with a page of small panels showing Tillie waking up at four a.m., getting dressed and getting ready for ice skating practice. Now I was never an ice skater, but I was big into Thespians in high school, and right away I was reminded of waking up early to go to acting competitions. The lighting, the body posture, the emphatic, wordless panels, each highlighting one small action—all of it perfectly captured the feeling of getting up way earlier than anyone else to go do something that is bigger than you. And I got that throughout this book. Walden does an excellent job of drawing out small moments that perfectly embody the experience of being a competitive ice skater, of being in high school, of being a stressed out teen fed up with everyone’s shit. The book really feels like getting to experience someone else’s memories, and, at least for me, it brought up a lot of my own memories from that time in my life that I hadn’t thought about in awhile.

And the art is fantastic. It’s wonderfully kinetic and expressive, and the restrained color palette (mostly shades of purple with very occasional uses of yellow) creates some really striking moments. Once again, the posture of the figures, the composition of each frame, it all works wonderfully to express both the attitudes of the characters (as it were) and the way Tillie is experiencing each environment. As for the writing itself, the prose is quite precise and knits together with each panel it appears in nicely, but where Walden really shines is the dialog. Again, it completely resonated with my memories of childhood and adolescence, and again completely immersed me in that world. I especially enjoyed how many moments of dialog there were that didn’t necessarily drive the plot forward or deliver any important exposition, but really just set the scene and established the dynamic in the team of ice skaters, or between Tillie’s friends. One of my favorite of these nonessential yet quintessential lines was “There are three kids in my class named Braden and they ALL suck …”, and if that doesn’t sell you on this book I don’t know what will.

Seriously this book is fantastic. It’s one of those books I read a library copy of and now want to buy my own so I can reread it, or just flip through it and look at the art, whenever I want. I’d recommend it to um anyone who breathes.

Bonus Tillie Walden rec: I Love this Part is really beautiful, visually and otherwise, but especially visually, so peep that too.

literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder — This is a semi-autobiographical novel/series of tweets/diary about uh grief? Also shitty relationships and being a 20-something and a bunch of other random things. The book is just one long string of very short tweet-like paragraphs. Some of them genuinely feel like they could be tweets, others are longer than a tweet could possibly be, and take a more serious tone. Sometimes there’s a through-line between multiple sections, other times each new section is a totally different idea. The main themes that Wilder keeps coming back to in this book are the loss of the narrator’s mother, the narrator’s awful exes, and the narrator’s own questionable life choices.

I’m struggling with how to review this because it doesn’t really behave like a novel. It’s so easy to pick up and put down, it’s more like a coffee table book—yet, there is a steady and continuous development of the narrator, and throughout the book the reader learns more about her life and her flaws, more like a novel. So it’s hard to say whether the book is successful at what it’s trying to do. Cause I mean, what is it trying to do?

So I’ll just say, as far as my own experience with the book, I really enjoyed it. It had me regularly cracking up, or stifling laughter as I read it at work. The book is full of little one-off jokes, but Wilder also does a great job of riffing on some of the topics or episodes she spends more time focused on. It’s almost like a stand-up routine, albeit one without any segues, moving at a blinding pace from joke to joke, with plenty of non-joke downer revelations thrown in. Although you could read this book all in one sitting, I wouldn’t recommend it. The onslaught of depressing one-liners is a bit much taken all at once, and that’s the one weakness I found in this book. A lot of the jokes are really just bummers, where the humor is supposed to come from the fact that something sad is being stated in a matter-of-fact or trivializing way (e.g. “i wonder if lesbians get called ‘whore’ during sex less”) and there’s no clever observation or witty analogy or anything, that’s just the whole joke. And Wilder is definitely playing with that line between funny-because-it’s-painful-and-relatable and just-plain-painful, it’s definitely intentional in a lot of places, I just found it kind of grating at a certain point.

Regardless, this book was an easy, highly entertaining read at a time when I definitely needed that, and I’m so glad the Iowa City Public Library got a copy of it. I’ll echo Wilder’s own pitch of the book, namely that literally show me a healthy person “is a good/easy holiday gift for people who: are teens, havent read a book in awhile, need a book for a flight, need a palette cleanser, love the internet, HATE THE INTERNET, feel difficult feelings, need to stop drinking”.

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