Archives for posts with tag: Sheila Heti

This has been a tremendous year for me. This project has reset the equilibrium of my life, and I am amazed and grateful.

A thank-you is very much in order. I don’t often address you, reader, but here I am now, to extend my enormous gratitude. Thank you for being here; without you my work would have a very different meaning.

When I started this project in January, I had trouble settling into my voice. I thought that because Bookside Table was a blog I had to use cute, conversational conventions. You can see it in my first post for the project, on Roland Barthes’ Roland Barthes. You can see it in my original about page, where I recklessly absolved myself of the responsibility of criticism, telling you that “I’m not a reviewer: I’m a reader. I’m in this purely for love.” I think I’ve been a mostly phenomenological reader, looking to the book itself and evaluating my experience of the thing. Only rarely have I tried to ‘situate a work,’ and for the most part I haven’t explicitly said ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this.’ But you can tell, probably, which were the ones I loved best.

My year in reading post, over at The Millions, makes clear the two books that ‘lit me up.’ The ones I was compelled to read twice.  But, to be fair, I also went back to sections or stories from The Odious Child, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, The Mezzanine, and Ghosts. I’ve also opened The Obituary at random to revel in its enlightened weirdness, to feel my eyes trying to stitch together the violent, beautiful fragments. Re-reading is one of my greatest pleasures, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I dip back in now and then. There is no great intimacy built without familiarity, even if strange  limerance is its own reward.

I will tell you that sometimes this little hobby was troublesome, and there were a few rough patches. After I finished Nightwood I didn’t much feel like reading another book, more fiction. I wanted to let it simmer for a long time. It was a feeling like the strange sickness I had in 2009, after finishing Infinite Jest for the first time, when I couldn’t force myself to read fiction for a full ten months afterwards. Nightwood was like that, I felt ruined on books because here was something so dark and perfect in it’s power, so claustrophobic and complex that I needed to breath on it. I felt such a sense of readerly justice being miscarried that I couldn’t stew on it, that I had to keep going. I sat on it for a week, and read the next book, Memories of  my Melancholy Whores in a single sitting on the Sunday afternoon before the post went up. I wrote about it immediately after I put it down.  I figured it would be okay, because it’s ‘minor’ Marquez, and now the post on it makes me cringe. I was so ungenerous and clumsy. But the project contains itself, so it stays where it is.

While regret is too strong a word, at times I wish I had been a little less gentle, just a little harder on some of these books. I really wish I’d told you that only 65% of The Fortress of Solitude was worth much more than the paper it was printed on. I liked it a lot, that 65%, and it more than justifies the miss steps Lethem made there. Sometimes I think I was a little bit cowardly, a little too unsure. But I hope I never let you down.

I think that the major responsibility of a book reviewer, of any cultural critic, is to inspire hunger in other people. To stir up the public appetite for better and more nourishing things. I think I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do this, so I hedged my bets and tried to shirk that responsibility. Thankfully, I couldn’t always escape that harness.  Some of the feedback I’ve received through out the year, from reader (and occasionally author)  emails, new and not so new friends, and on twitter has been from people kind enough to encourage me to keep going, to tell me that my little corner of the internet makes them hungry for more and better books. I couldn’t be more grateful for this kind of connection. Reading these books has made me a little better than I am, but telling you about them has changed my whole life.

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Vanity Fair, U and I, The Books in my Life, Bookside TableFor the most part, I purchased all the books I read this year.  A few were from the library, and a couple were gifts. The rest I bought. When it comes to books, I find that I frequently buy more than I need, or put comfortably as a cliche: I quite often get more than I bargained for. Here are some notes on a few of the books I have purchased, but remain unread.

1. Vanity Fair, by W. M. Thackeray

I first read this “novel without a hero” as an early adolescent. I didn’t really get that you weren’t supposed to like Becky. I was super impressed by her ability to assess any situation,  and I liked her immediately because she’s just so damn smart.  To be honest, I think part of what I liked about her was that she had a sort of power over men. This appealed to me, as an awkward adolescent. Also, I am a product of perpetual financial precarity, and I empathized with her money hunger, having felt those pangs myself. It’s been a little more than a decade since I read Vanity Fair, and I don’t remember any details of the plot, or the ending, though I’m sure it’s ugly. That’s something I learned from re-reading Cakes and Ale, that I tend to remember beginnings more strongly, especially when it comes to books I read at the beginning of my rewarding reading career.  This is probably especially true when the first two thirds feature the characters in their youth. Basically, I want to figure out whatever became of my old friend Becky.

2. The Books in My Life, by Henry Miller

Around this time last year I took out James Wood’s How Fiction Works from the library. I read it in one sitting, and then a lot of different parts of it again, out loud to my partner. I was inspired to read more, and I really think that I wouldn’t have started this project if I hadn’t happened upon that book. I felt a renewed interest in both stories and language, and I knew that I could be a better reader, both in terms of quality and quantity. Wood had given me some tools, and lit a little fire. Not because I love the same books he does, but because I aspire to love the books that I do in the same way. When I saw The Books in My Life at Balfour Books, the first time I went into their new shop in the spring, it felt like fate. Here was an author who know how to love the dirty, the drunk and deranged writing about how he learned to love books! This would be exactly what I would need to guard against the return of that cold sense I’ve had in the past, that reader’s apathy or, worse ennui. I’m still keeping it for when I feel those first few symptoms come on.

3. U and I, by Nicholson Baker

After I read The Mezzanine, I wanted more Baker. I was gearing up to read this year’s release, House of Holes, but for some reason I never actually felt compelled to plunk down $30 on it. Every time I went to BookCity, since its release, I  would run my finger over it’s glossy jacket, and open ‘er up at random and dip in for a bit. But I just never walked it up to the ’till. I did however, ask them to order in U and I. Because for a while I was obsessed with How Should A Person Be?.  I still am. But it was unhealthy. I would follow Sheila Heti around the internet, and I would try to go places that would invite scenes and phrases from HSAPB into my head. I took the book to the bar, by myself, practically on dates. We would sit together, me and this book, and I would swim around and pull up sentence after sentence for my note book and try to make a new world out the one Heti made. I would get angry when I read less than glowing reviews, even when they were sound and pointed out what I considered forgivable flaws in an otherwise perfect work. I was a mess, and I thought that Nicholson Baker would be able to help, because he seems to have gone through a similarly traumatic (and equally one sided) relationship with Updike. But then I read a few more books and the suffocating feeling passed. And then I went to the book launch for The Chairs are Where the People Go and saw Heti in person, and felt ashamed of the squalid (but let me reiterate: one sided) intimacy I forced upon her. And then I heard her on the radio, talking about how her friends and her all agreed that the book is smarter than she is, because she spent five years working on making it the best it could be, and she would never spend five years on just walking around, talking to people, like a normal person, and I felt a little better about the whole thing. I’m still looking forward to reading U and I, especially because now I can probably actually read it instead of mining it for solutions to my problem.

The Chairs, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

The best thing about The Chairs Are Where the People Go is the way that Misha Glouberman talks about his frustrations. The book’s forward, written by Sheila Heti, describes the text that follows as the product of morning meetings, where Glouberman would talk to her about “everything he knows.” As it turns, out, he knows a lot about negotiation, about managing expectations, and about how people communicate with each other. That’s why, I guess, he also seems to know so much about frustration.

The book is arranged into little meditations of various lengths that are centered on a specific idea, observation, or experience. A lot of them are about the games that Glouberman teaches as part of his Charades classes (–Yeah, he teaches classes on how to be good at playing charades–) : “Get Louder or Quit”, “The Gibberish Game”, “The Conducting Game”, “Fighting Games”, and, naturally enough, “How to Play Charades”. (There’s also one called “These Projects Don’t Make Money”.) There are sections on conferencing, on neighborhoods, on why getting piss drunk is only fun when you’re still really young, and on quitting smoking and wearing a suit. But a lot of them are about living in a city and remembering a lot of almost obvious things that I, for one, often forget: For instance, one section is called “Doing One Thing Doesn’t Mean You’re Against Something  Else”, which uses a few examples from Glouberman’s work with Trampoline Hall and his experimental noise classes to illustrate his point, being that choosing to set some perimeters on whatever you’re doing or making doesn’t automatically mean you oppose everything outside of those perimeters (“Like, if you write a book about Paris, it’s not a statement that no book should ever take place in New York.”). This is helpful advice, and the book has a lot of similarly simple ideas that are sometimes not put so simply in our day to day lives.

In fact, The Chairs, with Glouberman’s casual and friendly tone fueling an abundance of good advice, is arguably a self help book. But before I read it, I didn’t realize just how badly I needed the help.

1. Sheila Heti lives in my neighborhood, well kinda. She’s a youngish white woman in Toronto worried about what art should be like, and what people should be like.

2. How Should a Person Be? is like an incredibly localized map of the neighborhood of these concerns, and Heti’s cartographic co-adventurer is her invariable friend and painter Margaux.  I definitely definitely felt like this book was a map for me, specifically, in a lot of really good ways.

3. But not an official map, more like the kind of sweetly personalized map that a friend will draw of where the good croissants are and how to get back to their house when you visit them in the city that they live in, where you don’t live and only go because you want to see them.

4. But better than that kind of map because I’ve never worried, not deeply, about where to find great croissants, but I have worried about betrayal, and lonliness, and fame, and friends, and whether or not I’m good enough at blow jobs, and what it means to be accomplished at something, like painting or cutting hair or imagining grilled cheese sandwiches. And I’ve also felt that maybe I’m not important, in a lot of ways, and I’ve agonized over my own equivocal enjoyment of that feeling too.

5. That whole business of ‘recognition’ is only part of the reason I liked this book, though. In addition to filling in a little bit of my life by way of reading about hers, this book was also funny and sad and sweet.

6. I read this book because one of my pals said the second time I met him that Sheila Heti is one of his favorite writers. He’s also a Torontonian, and he likes Trampoline Hall and other little things that make Toronto a place worth living and really local and lovable. He said that that he likes her, but is kind of wierded out by the degree of that like because she’s not only ‘from around here, but she’s from around here.‘ Which I took to mean that she’s like us, more so than other people are like us, because not only does she go to the same bars and concerts and pop-up venues that we do, but somehow she’s even more like us, in the ‘we, all of us, are having a moment’ kind of way.

7. And, not to spoil anything, but I kind of felt like that moment, the one we are all having, and by ‘we all’ I mean a very small number, in the long run, but still, that moment is kind of the answer to “How should a person be?”

8.  So I guess a person should be themselves, but throwing their hands in the air, and making a go of it, having a moment.

9. If only we could all make a go of it with the grace and humor and deceptively light touch that Sheila Heti does in How Shoud a Person Be?.