Reading

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

Full disclosure -I suffer from depression. I take medication and participate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I have tried to manage this depression unmedicated -I have exercised and ate ideally, and I’ve spent cumulative weeks and months living out of backpacks in the backcountry. I’ve meditated and even fought in amateur MMA. I have tried supplementation and nutritional remedies. None of this has been sufficient. I am in possession of the kind of brain that does not function well without pharmacological intervention. This is not something that reflects poorly on my value as a person, but, obviously, neither is it something I’m inherently pleased about. I am one of the luckier ones -my mood disorder responds well to a single frontline SSRI, at a relatively low dose that elicits few side effects. I do not need to keep in balance a constantly rotating program of disparate classes of drugs, and the medication I do take leaves me mostly unencumbered. It is off-patent, cheap, and easy for me to obtain -even if I were to lose my health insurance.  

 

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression is by far the best book I have read on the subject. Andrew Solomon is not only a competent and engaging writer, but a humblingly studious and thoughtful one. His prose is subtle and incisive, and the human empathy he brings to his work is made even more powerful by his own debilitating experiences with the disease. The kind of writing he has done here might be described as brutal were it not handled with such care. Every line has the feeling of meticulous editing and reworking, the kind of obsessive polishing that only very good source material can stand up to. This book is personal narrative and case study and sociology and advocacy writing and medical exposition and history. It comes at the topic of depression with the aim of encircling the vastness of it and its many practical concerns in a totally holistic fashion. The evolutionary impetus for the disease is addressed, as is the history of treatment. Many people of every imaginable experience are profiled, and the research for all contemporary methods of treatment are examined. Race, gender, sexuality and class are all considered at their points of influence. At over six hundred pages, the book seems like a daunting endeavor, and I took my time with it, but I can’t think of any part I would want to cut.

 

Depression is a mostly unseen epidemic, and because many of the deaths that it contributes to are so seemingly unconnected, it’s difficult to say how many people die as a result of their depression, beyond the most obvious examples. But the taboo against discussing it seems to be growing weaker all the time, and everything we can do to further weaken it makes it easier for people who cannot yet seek vital help. In that vein, Andrew Solomon’s work is both compelling on its own objective merits and on the imperative conversations it opens up.

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Books We Need to Read in Trump’s

In light of the inauguration of an American president with a now-indisputable fascist bent, I’ve put together a reading list for a Trump presidency. These books are either lesser-known or often pigeonholed in other niches -there are a few of these kinds of lists going around, so I’m trying to offer some suggestions that might be a bit more novel.
Abolition Democracy: Angela Davis’s very long-form interview. A manifesto for most political realities, especially relevant now.

Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay’s essay collection, dealing with race and gender and the intersection of the two.

Notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a stone cold bad ass.

Long Way Gone: The memoir of a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, a story that speaks to the physical and psychological realities faced by children living in constant war.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Why families migrate, how they seek to survive in extreme poverty and in adverse surroundings.

Notes From No Man’s Land: Essays on how America has handled race, on NAFTA, and one absolutely brutal essay I’ve taught many times about lynching and telephone poles.

Fun Home: One of the best graphic memoirs I’ve read, addressing gender, sexuality, suicide and mental health, and how all of that shit mixes together in the USA

Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion’s crushing novel on the experience of a woman who is tired of living in a certain kind of male reality.

The Bell Jar: A good poet’s excellent novel. Gender, femininity, mental health, and a seemingly intractable fortresses of sexism.

The Demon-Haunted World: The King of Nerds explains why we all need to science way harder.

MAUS: Because this shit has happened before.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Because war sucks, and children wind up with the heaviest shit piled on them.

The Pillowman: A Fascist police state that pretends to care about children and tries to censor artistic expression. Imagine that.

Animal Farm: A pig that superficially resembles a human fucks everyone over in order to obtain an unprecedented and obscene amount of power, then continues to fuck over everyone, especially those who have worked very hard in his service, so as to make himself more comfortable and to further cement his power.

Blackout, Sarah Hepola, and Addiction Memoir

Sarah Hepola’s memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is probably the best memoir I read in 2016. It’s not only exceptionally well-written, it’s brutally self-honest and open in a way that is sometimes unflattering but never sinks to the kind of misery-porn wallowing that makes addiction memoirs such a mixed bag. The self-reflexion and self-condemnation are firmly rooted in reality and don’t seek any end other than the narrative itself.

It’s a long-reaching memoir, a directed autobiography. Hepola’s relationship with alcohol is both the narrative focus and the frame of this story, but this doesn’t feel like much of an external imposition on account of the major role that drinking (and selectively, temporarily not drinking) plays throughout her entire life. The voice is conversational and confessional, refraining from any linguistic backflipping, but this restraint serves to emphasize the thoughtful and deliberate simplicity of Hepola’s communication, her skill displayed well at low wattage. It’s easy and enjoyable to read, in spite of the sometimes difficult subject matter.

A well-framed and well-executed memoir is almost always worth reading. There’s certainly no shortage of books detailing some aspect of somebody’s lived experience, but they are far too often either well-written fluff that teeters toward self importance or a fascinating story that’s told adequately at best. It’s nice to not have to settle. This book is up there with Wolff and the like.

Emma Straub’s Other People We Married

Emma Straub is best known for her novels, but I came to her by way of this short story collection, as is my preference with new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered by chance as much as anything. She seems to have received the most attention for her novels -in interviews, this collection is treated more like a footnote than a full-fleshed part of her body of work. Regardless, I enjoyed it. I had some concerns, do to the way some of her books seem to be marketed, that the book would be a bit fluffy. Fortunately, this is not the case.

The “literary” label is a frustrating one. How does one define literary fiction? Is it “moral” in the John Gardner sense, or an existential striving? Is it defined by its removal from sparkling vampires, mommy-porn BDSM Lite, swords and sorcery, or spaceships? I’d like to think it’s a qualitative determination based on the prose itself, but there’s some bad writing that is proclaimed “literary”. I think, unfortunately, it has more to do with the kinds of publishing imprints that take on a piece and the way it’s marketed than anything else. Thus, the definition becomes rather literally useless.

Bringing things back to Straub, her stories are defined by very good sentence-level writing, compelling characters with interesting thoughts expressed well. The stories are ordinary and focus on human interaction, on documenting it and making sense of it. It’s a good read -nothing that’s a revelation, just good writing. But I feel like I don’t have much to say about it beyond “it’s good, I guess”. There’s nothing that transcends. Straub is a very good writer, but I’m not finding myself especially engaged with this particular work.

Recommendation: Give it a shot, or at least pick one or two stories and see what you think.

Consider the Lobster. Please Start Here.

The essays in Consider the Lobster span around thirteen years, and offer thought on the adult film industry celebrating itself, the 2000 primary campaign of John McCain, the sad decline and increasing indefensibility of John Updike’s novelistic output, and a 62-page review of and commentary on an American English usage dictionary. One of the best benchmarks I’ve found for excellent writing is its ability to make me give a shit about something I have not and do not give many shits about -like John McCain’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. All of the writing in here clears that benchmark easily, although I must confess that I’m probably going to be way more into a protracted monologue on Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary than most.

Wallace’s nonfiction has always been a favorite of mine -even throughout the years where I was dismissive of his fiction, I always had, at the very least, grudging respect and tractable positivity about essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (not in this collection, but the first piece of his that I’d read). The sometimes-cascading footnotes require a lot less mental work for me when found in nonfiction, a reality that reflects solely upon myself and the conventions that I’ve grown accustomed to, but still, customs that many share and do have an effect on the experience of reading. As such, familiarizing oneself with Wallace’s voice via his nonfiction is probably the best way to work your way into his body of work. And if you don’t like this shit, man, you are gonna hate Infinite Jest.

Recommendation: Read it. This is the best starting place I can think of, and if you’ve read other Wallace but haven’t got to Lobster yet, you’ll love it.

Steven King’s “Guns,” Jon Ronson’s “The Elephant in the Room,” and Amazon Prime Reading

Amazon is now offering Prime Reading to those of us who have capitulated to a Prime membership. It’s quite the collection of free reading material. This is a different beast than their Kindle Unlimited program (an additional subscription that buys access to many, many more books). While I wouldn’t recommend getting Prime specifically for this service, it’s certainly worth glancing at if you already have a subscription.

The two most notable reads I’ve come across are Steven King’s “Guns” and Jon Ronson’s “The Elephant in the Room”. Both are longform essays (25 and 48 pages respectively) by major authors, and while this isn’t a form in which I’d previously encountered King’s writing, I am pleasantly surprised by how good he is at it. “Guns” is an informed and reasonable attack on the state of our public discourse on the things, not the things themselves. King owns a few of them, and his nuanced position (we need more and better regulation, but widespread bans and buybacks generally don’t work) is sure to piss off people on both sides. He is blunt and direct, employing an extremely personal mode of address and judicious profanity. Not only is this piece thought-provoking and very well done, it’s as fun to read as any screed that involves the death of a roomful of six-year-olds can claim to be.

Ronson’s piece is a timely bit of work on Donald Trump’s courting of and influence by the Alt-Right movement, specifically dealing with the Republican nominee’s connection to Alex Jones of InfoWars and others like him. While the immediacy and importance of the topic at hand will likely diminish in a few months, (and let’s not spend too much time thinking about the alternative) “”The Elephant in the Room” is a well-written and thoughtful bit of journalism, well worth the read regardless of our national timeline if you are a fan of Ronson’s work. And as for our national timeline, Prime Reading and Amazon’s Digital Singles are one more aspect of digital publishing that might be of value to writers and readers. It’s a distinctly different animal than traditional longform publication, and only time will tell whether or not it’s a force for good.

Recommendation: Check these two out and scan the offerings for anything else of worth. Let me know what you find, and let me know what you think about Prime Reading and its ilk.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

David Foster Wallace is best known for Infinite Jest, but secondarily for his magazine and nonfiction writing. This collection of short stories is neither but is certainly worth the read, especially if you enjoyed his most popular novel. There is a reoccurring format here in which many stories (all of which share their title with the book) are presented as transcriptions of interviews with a variety of distasteful males. The interviewer’s questions are omitted, and both specific questions and the larger structure must be inferred only from the answers given, a technique that was also well-employed in Infinite Jest. In this story collection, standing on their own, these “interviews” are even better -hilarious and fucked up little vignettes that you don’t want to come to the end of.

The other stories here are thematically linked, even if their structure is radically different -although DFW does really gravity to the kinds of postmodern structures that depart radically from those employed in conventional narratives, so expect stories in the form of essay questions, lots of fourth-wall busting, and other assorted hand-waving. While sometimes irritated by the author’s drive for architectural novelty, I can’t help but admire his implementation. These stories are very, very good, and they stick well in the brain. And as to the thematic links, we find the staples of DFW: horrible people behaving badly while still somehow (sometimes) sympathetic, obsessively wrought recursions, B-list sexual deviancy, depression, and alienation.

Most of this book was written after Wallace had received a fair bit of critical success and approval, and it’s tempting to dismiss some of the more obsessively backflipping stuff as show-off literary masturbation -and I have to confess to being extremely dismissive of his work for a few years for this exact reason- it’s going to be a loss. This book is good, and it’s fucked up in the kind of ways that lead to productive thinking about upsetting shit, and it’s an example of a very difficult form of writing done very well. It might not be for everyone, and if it isn’t for you, you’ll know pretty quick.

Recommendation: Read it! Or at least try.