It's not the books, it's me.
I’ve had a rough reading stretch. Things I’d usually love I want to hurl across the room; things I wouldn’t normally read I’m adoring. It’s not the books, it’s me: I’ve got contractors doing work inside our apartment, contractors drilling into bricks outside our apartment, and intermittent jackhammering by Con Ed out on the corner. It’s throwing my judgment off.
I assumed I’d love Jessi Klein’s I'll Show Myself Out: Essays on Midlife and Motherhood, because I’m a mother and I’m in mid-life. And look at all these people promising it’d make me laugh:
A laugh-out-loud book of essays. — Glamour Of course hilarious. — Kathryn Hahn Pee-in-the-pants funny. — Ali Wong
I could use a whole lot of funny right now, but these essays aren’t making me laugh. In one, Jessi finds the picky eating of her five-year-old son, Asher, “enraging. Enraaaging.” I’m a fifty-three-year-old picky eater, so I’m Team Asher. I’m Team Asher for much of this book, actually. If three-year-old Asher only wants to pee in his teal plastic potty, is it really so wrong to bring the teal plastic potty with you when you go places? At least for a while? Ease into things? You’re in L.A.; you’re driving everywhere; it fits in the trunk of your car, surely. Whatever the downsides, they can’t be worse than “every outing bec[oming] a ticking time bomb, taking him to a place until he would feel the need to urinate, at which point he would always refuse to go to the bathroom, insist he didn’t need to go, but then also start crying that he had to go home.”
I understand being worried that Asher might someday show up to his first date with a teal potty under his arm. My older daughter used to sleep only in her infant car seat stroller and start screaming when we set her in her crib. I used to worry that as a college student, she’d sneak out of her dorm room every night and climb into a giant car seat in the back of her Ford Focus to get some sleep. (It was always a Ford Focus; I don’t know why; I’ve never owned one.) Meanwhile, in my mind, her younger sister–also a teenager in this scenario–would still be sucking her thumb.
I’m not saying I don’t understand where you’re coming from, Jessi. I’m just saying, I needed you to make me laugh this month, and it didn’t so much work out.
Now seems like a good time to emphasize that Jessi is the Emmy and Peabody award-winning head writer of “Inside Amy Schumer,” which produced some of the iconic comic sketches of our time. She’s also written for Netflix’s “Dead to Me,” among other hit shows. I loved the early seasons of “Dead to Me”--maybe I should re-watch them now? Maybe that’s what I need?
And get a load of this incredible fact: one of the stars of “Dead to Me,” Linda Cardellini, also played perm girl in “Legally Blonde.”
But I digress. My bigger point is: I should probably try I’ll Show Myself Out again at a later date.
This is a sad reality for writers: It’s not just that there’s a wide swath of the population that isn’t drawn to your chosen genre. It’s also that you have to, for example, catch the people who do like essays about midlife and mothering in the right moment. With that said, I’ll Show Myself Out was an instant New York Times bestseller, so it doesn’t have to be a tragic reality.
After Jessi, I swore off comedy and went dark. The New York Times recently proclaimed Christoffer Carlsson’s Blaze Me a Sun “the first great crime novel of 2023,” so I bought it and moved it to the top of my (towering) stack. It took longer than I’d like to admit for me to realize that being the first great crime novel of the year doesn’t mean the book will be any better than the fourth or fifth great crime novel of the year, and it’ll likely be worse, since publishers don’t tend to release their most promising books in January. No matter. I love great crime novels generally, and what better way to escape from your own difficulties than to immerse yourself in the devastation wrought by a fictional murder?
Blaze Me a Sun tells the story of a Swedish police officer who becomes haunted by the case of a serial killer he can’t catch; the son of the police officer, who ultimately joins the police force himself; and a novelist fascinated by their lives. I liked it better than most of the crime novels I’ve read—it’s thoughtful about characters; its pacing is gripping without ever feeling pell-mell; and it raises interesting questions about how we judge family and assess truth.
Blaze Me a Sun was of limited help to me because I flew through it while, like Celine Dion’s heart, our renovation goes on and on. Recently I found myself wishing I was floating in outer space rather than sitting in our kitchen—which got me reading a book I’d decided to skip. Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary got mixed reviews in places like the Washington Post (“weird plot holes abound”; “the book could have been so much better”) and the New York Times (the main character “tends to resolve each setback almost immediately, and his relentless quips read like the output of an algorithm that was fed nothing but Joss Whedon scripts: ‘Astrophage would be the best thing ever if it weren’t, you know, destroying the sun.’”). The critiques aren’t wrong. The characters are stock; the humor is too one-note; the plot eventually starts to boggle the mind; and the attempts at emotional resonance fall flat. But for a good, long time–I mean hours and hours–I pressed play on the Project Hail Mary audiobook, walked the streets of Brooklyn, and loved the story. It’s high stakes–the sun is dying! The fate of all humanity is on the line! If, like me, you can’t remember anything about science, you’ll learn a lot (then quickly forget it all again, but shh). For a while, until the shtick grew old, I found the jokes funny, at least as read by the audiobook narrator, Ray Porter. (On the pages of my Kindle they don’t work as well.) It’s not a great novel, but it’s a very diverting one for a nice stretch of time, and I’m looking forward to the movie, starring this guy:
One nice thing about our apartment renovation: While clearing books off shelves, I found some forgotten gems, like Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place for Us. It opens with a wedding and the return of the bride’s estranged brother. I remember reading that first scene years ago and thinking, Yes. I love family sagas with lots of tension; I’m trying to write one myself. But A Place for Us has many jumps in time and perspective, and, back then, I found them disorienting. So I stopped reading and set the book on a shelf. Now, with my jittery brain, the shifts seem true to how memories, and shared stories, work. I like how Ron Charles puts it in his Washington Post review: “[Mirza] wanders through the attic of this family’s memories, lighting upon old and new incidents, little betrayals and secrets scattered across their collective consciousness.” He gets this right, too: “Mirza finds in the intensity of a faithful Muslim family a universal language of love and anguish that speaks to us all.”
One last book for the month: I managed to focus my mind enough to read a phenomenal work of nonfiction (because, and only because, we chose it for our book group): Annie Ernaux’s The Years. Boy, am I glad I did. The Years is a memoir that spans decades and is told from the perspective of an entire generation, while at the same time weaving in Ernaux’s personal experiences. I’m pretty sure the Nobel Prize committee stopped its deliberations after they read it. “Nobody’s going to top this, right?” somebody impressive said, and someone else equally impressive replied, “Right. Let’s go drink some Absolut.” (Turns out, like the Nobel Prize, Absolut Vodka is produced in Sweden.)
Phenomenal breaking news! We’ve reached the punch list stage of our renovation, so it really and truly should be done soon. Here’s hoping my mind settles nicely. Regardless, I’ll see you next month.
Adjö for now,