This week’s reading:
- The Believers, Zoe Heller
- Losing Your Parents, Finding Yourself, Victoria Secunda
- The Poet, Michael Connelly
- The Scarecrow, Michael Connelly
- Our Story Begins, Tobias Wolff
- Self-Made Man, Norah Vincent
If you’ve lost a parent, Heller and Secunda provide nearly opposite experiences. The Believers is likely to make you cringe while simultaneously sighing in relief that one isn’t a member of the unusually dysfunctional Litvinoff family. Secunda, on the other hand, may make you squirm a bit, but only with her clear-eyed recognition of what you’re going through. I enjoyed both experiences, despite feeling unsettled. The Believers was nowhere near as good as my favorite love-to-hate-those-people tome, The Emperor’s Children, though I admit I was rooting for Karla to get her life figured out. Secunda, on the other hand, blew me away. What I was expecting to be a mediocre self-help volume turned out to be full of original research and profound insights. My biggest complaint was that I wanted more data! (But perhaps she’s published academically on the subject. I should check.)
Reading The Poet makes me miss Michael Connelly’s writing from back before he started churning out pot-boilers, of which The Scarecrow is one.
Our Story Begins was unsurprisingly terrific. It’s a collection of stories from throughout Woolf’s career, plus a few new ones. To me, he’s a nearly perfect short-story writer. He gets in fast, creates a vivid sense of character, develops an interesting situation, does something unexpected but satisfying, and then pow! He gets out. “A Mature Student” is a really good example: a former Marine goes back to college, takes an art history class, and takes what’s essentially her professor’s confession. Then she’s got to decide what to do with the ugly story she has to carry around – a situation she meets with grace and courage. Not all Woolf’s characters are anywhere near as admirable as the protagonist of this particular story, but they’re all that interesting to read about!
As for Vincent’s memoir: I’m still processing her writing about living as a man for a year, so I’m not sure I’m ready to write about it yet. This is one of those books that I expect will influence the direction of my research, even though it’s hardly methodologically rigorous. I’m definitely noticing things she points out, like how much of my breath I use on a single phrase or sentence! But I’m horrified by the male culture she becomes a part of. It’s alienated from itself, tortured by its own sexuality, and violent toward those who don’t conform. This has almost nothing to do with the culture of the men I know, but it’s certainly a gender model I recognize from sitcoms and bad jokes – and one I find profoundly disturbing. I just wonder how much of the book is specific to Vincent’s experience, and how much is a general analysis of gender that’s made possible by her passing as a man for so long.