Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Favorite Books of 2021

For every book I read, I read with the intention of falling in love with it. It would be silly to say this happens all the time, but it happens more often than not. The books in the list that follows were standouts this year, and I did fall in love many times. Also, this was the year I added lots of graphic novels and memoirs to my reading list. Cheers!

All the Way to the Tigers by Mary Morris (memoir)
A memoir that bounces back and forth in time, from the moment the author broke her ankle in seven places to the time she spent in India, searching for an encounter with a tiger. In between she recalls troubling times with her mother and how, as her ankle started to heal, she tried to heal her relationship with her not-so-motherly mother. It’s quite a page-turner, and Morris knows how to describe everything using all the senses. Love her writing. It’s also about privilege and understanding how injustice permeates all our lives regardless of status.

Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner (essays)
I thoroughly enjoyed these short essays (felt like a new genre). He is painfully, sometimes brutally, honest when he relates books and the stories he’s read to his own life. The ones about his dad left me breathless. Middle-aged never felt so relatable.

Appleseed by Matt Bell (novel)
Ambitious in its scope and agenda, this novel is unlike anything I’ve read before: magical, mythological, radical, genre bending. One of the main characters is a faun, so that sets the stage right there. Bell’s writing allows for this (although he loves to repeat himself in different ways, but that is part of the fabric of this novel). Fascinating that the most human and fully realized character is C, remade 433 times and now “living” one thousand years in the future. The will to live is strong. Humanity cannot fix the climate mistakes made. But life will go on.

Beverly by Nick Drnaso (graphic stories)
Six creepy interlocked stories about the banality of evil, white middle-class anxiety, and racism. Nick Drnaso sure knows how to write dialogue and shape a story. You can feel the seeds of his next work, Sabrina, being planted in this collection. Riveting. His simplistic style fits the dialogue and storylines to a tee.

The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey (novel)
Another robust novel from Howrey. She writes about performance so cleverly and emotionally. I loved this one because of the world it presents: ballet. The author was a great ballerina and actor, and she combines the two here. A novel about finding oneself when you’ve been strapped to a sibling your whole life. I could have read hundreds of more pages of this.

Days without End by Sebastian Barry (novel)
This novel is magical. The writing is poetry, both epic and personal. Thomas, a starving teen Irish immigrant, befriends another lost boy, an American named John Cole, and the two fight wars and make love together. My favorite line: “And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.” Thomas identifies more comfortably as a woman, and feels more at home in women’s clothing, having had a revelation after seeing the berdache during one of their campaigns. Spoiler alert: I love a happy ending. So much love for this book.

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (science)
You can’t help but think about your own body and what microbes are lurking within when reading this book. The author is a terrific writer and really makes his point without using too much scientific jargon. His tone is appealing and refreshing. This is the kind of science book I love. And I learned so much. It seems revolutionary.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (memoir)
A great American book written by a great American writer. I first learned about her when I was young but never read the entire book. So I got this copy and started savoring every word, then started gulping toward the end. Every word was chosen with love, pain, erudition, and emotion. Once, I sat next to her at a bar in Princeton. I wish I had the balls to buy her a round, but I was poor. But I like to think that the light emanating from her seeped into my body and made me a better thinker.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy (graphic memoir)
What a brilliant approach to writing about the growth of white nationalism in Portland from an artist who limits their palette to black and gray watercolor on cheap student-ruled elementary school paper. Perfect read for the times in which we live.

If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan (short stories)
The best stories are at the beginning and end of this collection of ten, some containing magic realism, all lively and filled with characters on the brink of self-discovery and catharsis, usually with a gay male in his later forties or fifties. It’s such a pity that the author died the month this published. It is a book filled with surprises.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine (graphic memoir)
This memoir is written and drawn classically. Each scenario starts with joy and hope and ends with the cartoonist being put in his place or undermined. It is a classic and funny device and works perfectly for this graphic memoir, which ends with the idea for the cartoonist to write a graphic memoir. A circle.

Lot by Bryan Washington (short stories)
Characters on the brink of self-revelation and self-determination struggle to find their places in a world that is hostile. Is love possible? All the stories take place in Houston, and as a white reader I was definitely the other, which always fascinates me and makes me turn the page even more. The whole point of reading is to feel the experiences of the characters, and when they don’t look like you or patronize the same places or do the same things, you learn more about yourself through learning about otherness and oppression. There was not one bad apple in the bunch. You get used to his nonuse of quotation marks. I would definitely read his novel.

Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov (poetry)
A paean to the comforting and smothering city of New York. A young gay man’s musings on life, love, death, the City, and the Cosmos. He cries a lot and it is cathartic. Lots of meta narration. The last poem, written during three cab rides on an iPhone, is stupendous.

Monkey Bay by Elaine Ford (novel)
I waited thirty-two years to read the now-yellowing pages of this short but mighty novel about the denizens of a north Maine coastal town living hardscrabble lives. Love and honesty seem impossible, but this character study packs a powerful punch. Maine slang! The cover seems a little too eighties cozy. So I was not expecting the fall-to-winter landscapes Elaine Ford so brilliantly captures. The cover must represent that impossible thing we all strive to obtain, which wends its way through Monkey Bay like a venomous snake.

Montana Diary by Whit Taylor (graphic memoir)
In simple yet multilayered renderings, the author explores what it means to be a person of color while exploring big sky country. We learn about York, a slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark, and about the Native Americans who still live on the land of their ancestors. Subtle and at times breathtaking.

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (short stories)
Resplendent writing, every story a diamond. The author acknowledges the zeitgeist by fictionalizing current events about race and self-determination and societal acceptance. I loved this and want to read more by her.

Packing My Library by Alberto Manguel (essays)
Some short books are perfect, such as this one. The author had to pack up his library after collecting books for twenty years (a lifetime, really). He moves to NYC, then back to Argentina, where he becomes the head of the National Library. His personal accounts of growing up and his books and library are interspersed between philosophical digressions reacting to the personal counts. I felt a kinship. The last essay was magnificent, about what libraries are for and why we need them on a national and universal level. Reading makes us more empathetic and less selfish.

Pastel & Pen: Travels in Europe by Carol M. Cram, art by Gregg Simpson (essays and art)
Lovely juxtaposition of Carol’s writing and Gregg’s abstract art. Many of the essays share negative stories, but they add to the fun. One of them, about Carol’s great-grandfather, made me cry. Some made my laugh out loud. I envy their gumption to live abroad for weeks and months to pursue their arts.

Pencil Revolution by Johnny Gamber (zines)
A monthly zine from the man who first started a pencil blog of the same name. Who knew that pencils were an inexhaustible topic? I’ve always loved pencils and have over a thousand in my and Steve’s collection. Johnny juxtaposes seriousness and his wry sense of humor to make a point (pun intended).

Persepolis and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi (graphic memoirs)
This graphic memoir is excellent: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. A girl grows up in war-torn Iran before and during the Shah’s reign in the 70s. At times it’s harrowing, but what makes it truly special is the wry humor that I welcomed with open arms. Can’t wait to read the sequel. ¶ Sometimes the sequel is better than the first iteration. Don’t get me wrong: I adored Persepolis, but Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return is richer and digs deeper; our heroine grows up before our eyes and is exposed to more cruelties in our ugly world.

Paul at Home by Michel Rabagliati (graphic novel)
This graphic novel about a fiftysomething Montrealer really spoke to me. Paul is not having a good time as his world around him and his body seem to fall apart. I cringed at times, but I also was deeply moved by not only the words but the images and metaphors. A slap in the face, but funny. I want to read the earlier works in this series.

Pittsburgh and Pompeii by Frank Santoro (graphic memoir and graphic novel)
From the first image I was in awe of this memoir about growing up in Pittsburgh with parents who divorced once the grandparents moved to Las Vegas. The narrator/artist tries to figure out what happened and why, tracing everything back to his grandparents and how they handled the rift between the families. The art is simple and colorful but with intense perspective. I tried to figure out what kind of paper he used for the main panels and think it is a velum or tracing paper, as it appears the images come through in a faded quality on the other side. Brilliant! ¶ I love Frank Santoro’s work because you see the process along with the storytelling. In one shade, ash-brown red, he captures the feeling of people living their lives when disaster strikes. Very moving and loving portrayal of an artist’s apprentice and his lady embracing as the ash descends. I think Santoro based these on actual lovers found, who turned out to be two men!

The Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss (novel)
The author’s hybrid novel/memoir sparkles and pops with scintillating language and characters in search of more than life is throwing them. Bebop tempi reverberate throughout the pages. We are privy to so much inner life that Lucille Ball became a real person for me. I love his writing.

Shakespeare Our Contemporary by Jan Kott (theatre essays)
A deep dive into the plays of Shakespeare, Kott posits that we ned to look at modern life in order to understand the Elizabethan world and stage of Shakespeare if we want to get it right. I loved his observations and innately have felt many of them, especially in my handling of the endings of Romeo and Juliet and What You Will, or Twelfth Night. I like how he explains how the post-Elizabethan theatre eras and directors now fall into traps, rendering the plays something other than what Shakespeare had intended.

Summer by Ali Smith (novel)
How I adored this novel and the series it is a part of. This edition unites many of the characters in the prior books and captures the zeitgeist to a tee. I love the author's writing and what makes her juices flow. I will have to read more of her work.

Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski (novel)
A slim and compelling novel about ultimately standing up for what you believe in in order to maintain your sanity and identity. A young gay man falls in love in 1980 pre–martial law Poland only to come to terms with hypocrisy and the lack of self-determination. Written in a formal manner, in the second person (to his ex lover), and that seemed the right tone. I think this would make a riveting miniseries. I love how he describes the songs that are playing without having to rely on the lyrics and the reader’s knowing them. I always try to convey this to writers whose work I am editing. Looking forward to more by him.

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (short stories)
One of the best short story collections I have ever read. There is so much heart and humanity among these six longish stories. Each one moved me in its own way. The last story, “The Old Paniolo Way,” is masterful in its depiction of Big Island life and accretion of isolation and longing for acceptance with the main gay character. I will never forget this one.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (novel)
I wept at the end when I figured out what happened based on earlier narration. What an original story about love, but mainly about self-determination (sovereign power). The last forty pages I read though apace because everything that had been set up was finally being revealed. Many times as I read this, I thought, How can Hazzard get away with writing like this? But she did, and it was a beautiful, emotional ride.

The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert (essays)
Brilliant, powerful essays about how we react to and deal with disasters and other life-changing events. Gabbert's erudition and turns of phrase are commanding, and quite frankly a joy to read. This book is all about paradoxes. I dug it!

Whatsa Paintoonist? by Jerry Moriarty (graphic memoir)
The layers upon layers of narrative beautifully show how artists create and why they make choices they do. I loved how Moriarty includes ink sketches for his main narrative, and watercolor sketches for his layout, and then his final paintings for each section of the book. I must learn more about this artist I have a deep fondness for.

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna (graphic memoir)
I was so moved by the images in this harrowing and hectic graphic memoir about the author’s family’s experiences living through the Khmer Rouge. A difficult read but filled with love and hope. Very timely.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Favorite Books of 2020

These books stood out for me in 2020. Here are the notes I wrote after finishing each one. (It was difficult to start reading fiction again after lockdown, but after reading some memoirs and nonfiction, I was able to get back to reading novels and short stories. Whew!)

The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker (personal growth)
Lots of inspired and inspiring ideas here to jump-start your creativity, many of which I have been employing over the years. A balm during difficult times.

Blind Spot by Teju Cole (essays and photographs)
This collection is a beautiful meditation on how pictures and place trigger memories, sensations, and connections with other places, ideas, and forms. I felt I was in the hands of a caring and loving world guide. It is brilliant. A must-read.

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell (short stories)
The last story, “An Evening Out,” ends perfectly, with a gesture that sums up this golden book. I felt like the dog Mama, in the narrator’s arms, feeling treated to something so pure and loving. First-person narration doesn’t get any better.

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (poetry)
Wow. I was blown away by the first poem in this book: it distilled America down to its current essence, and it’s grim, because we are satisfied consumers. What follows is a parable about State oppression and protest—a rally cry for the fuckedupedness that’s happening right now as the GOP continues to impose its menace. Do read this! Find the beauty.

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (poetry)
A deep and upsetting and elegiac collection of poems by the brilliant poet. Should be required reading, especially the opening poem, “summer, somewhere.”

Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson (novel)
I love Johnson’ writing: a tour de force of language and storytelling set in postapocalyptic Key West, where survivors and progeny of nuclear war try to create meaning in their new world. The beauty in his sentences slowed down my reading and made me sigh and mark passages.

500 Handmade Books Volume 2 curated by Julie Chen (art)
What a source of inspiration! So many ideas now bouncing around in my head for book-making ideas. I have been wanting to make a book for over thirty years. It’s time.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (novel)
I love this book. I saw the movie Housekeeping over thirty years ago, but nothing prepared me for the beauty and poetry of this word conjurer’s novel. One of the best novels I’ve read. Is it too soon to reread it? (All hashtags are rendered useless and reductive.)

In Awe by Scott Heim (novel)
I was blown away by the poetry in the writing in this deep, deep character study. Everyday objects and nature are personified, as if each thing has a spirit and will. The last fifty pages set my heart apace: so much beauty in agony. Macabre, but truly about how one survives abuse and creates a sense of family and love where none exist.

Inside/Out by Joseph Osmundson (memoir)
It took a lot of courage to write this brief but powerful memoir about his psychologically abusive relationship. Many of us have been through what he experienced; it’s hard to break free but so liberating and empowering once the strings are cut.

Just Kids: Illustrated Edition by Patti Smith (memoir)
I read this nine years ago and loved it deeply. I remember her emerging in the ’70s and was captivated by her androgyny and voice. I would stare at her photos at the record store. In the ’80s I became enraptured by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs.

Later by Paul Lisicky (memoir)
This is a memoir of place and contagion, a deep study of the self, as a gay man navigates life, love, and AIDS in Provincetown (a main character) during the early ’90s. I love Lisicky’s writing, his ability to keenly analyze every breath, every glance. This man is not afraid to hold a mirror up to himself. He navigates his own queerness through a lens of disease and self-worth. The writing is brilliant at times, probing the microaggressions that others impose on us and we impose on ourselves. Communication is never easy. For older queers, it is a long journey to know/love thyself.

My Struggle: Book 6 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (fiction/memoir)
I brought this longest and final My Struggle with me to Hawaii. Read the last words upon touchdown in NYC. This memoir/novel of ideas and searching for authenticity moved me on so many levels. The Hitler section is riveting. He integrates his own life and past with Hitler’s life story. He deals with his wife’s mania and learns to find love. I was fascinated the whole time. Moving. A man grows up. Grateful to have read all six books. Defies genre.

On Writing: Tenth Anniversary Edition by Stephen King (craft of writing)
I liked this so much. Very practical. He is definitely not boring. He is a writer for the people, but he does not abase himself. He also is not trying to be a writer he is not. I like his turns of phrase and his potty mouth at times. His advice is practical and he tells is like it is: not everyone can be a great—or even good—writer. The memoir portions interspersed were terrific! Time to read another of his novels. Perhaps Christine, but Misery keeps calling.

Runaway by Alice Munro (short stories)
I identified with so many of the main characters in this collection of longish short stories of people dissatisfied with the status quo and what is expected of them. Each story a lifetime of searching for something “other,” “better,” “truthful,” “fulfilling.” Deep. What a probing and gifted writer.

Spring by Ali Smith (novel)
Ah, spring. In which a girl tries to aid detainees interred in horrible conditions in the UK while the world stands around watching. Another brilliant novel from Ali Smith. This one will get your dander up. I love Smith’s style. It’s all her own and bloody readably good. And the novel is told out of time, which is wonderfully jarring at times.

Telling Stories by Lee Martin (craft of writing)
Attention fiction writers and memoirists. Have you read this remarkable book? Martin’s insight into writing has inspired me to start short story writing again. The exercises—to energize your writing and get you back on track while providing examples for literature and his own writing—work wonders if you are stuck. Time to lift myself out of the muck and into the light.

The Urban Sketching Handbook: Understanding Perspective by Stephanie Bower (art technique)
Helpful for the newbie, a refresher for the skilled. I tried a perspective drawing using this book; it helped. I was actually gobsmacked by how much it helped!

The Written Word by Martin Puchner (nonfiction)
What a delightful journey through the history of foundational texts, such as The Iliad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, holy scriptures, The Tale of Genji, One Thousand and One Nights, Popol Vuh, The Communist Manifesto, The Epic of Sunjata, and Omeros. Fun and scholarly. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Favorite Books of 2019

These books stood out for me in 2019. Here are the notes I wrote after finishing each one.

After the Blue Hour by John Rechy (novel)
This is a thrilling, paranoic, meta 200-page slow burn that I could not put down. I dig his style.

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva (short stories)
Characters on seemingly impossible journeys, some magically realistic, and at times frightening. The writing is straightforward in the way a fable is, both in words and how the story unfolds. Reminds me of Carmen Maria Machado, but politer. I am drawn to these.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (novel)
Shades of gray abound in this tale of young marriage and wrongful incarceration. Emotional complexity is an understatement. No easy answers. Stunning.

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter (craft of writing)
So well written. He is a master of providing cogent examples of his theses and statements. I learned a ton and hope to apply some concepts to my own writing. I also want to read many of the books he uses for examples.

Bed-Stuy Is Burning by Brian Platzer (novel)
A page-turner that makes you think it will be about the injustice of gentrification, told as a cautionary tale, but it turns out that the leads are like the Macbeths. Almost like a satire. Fascinating cultural dissection.

Black Jesus and Other Superheroes by Venita Blackburn (short stories)
A mixture of very short and long stories, but those that are longer and have a more straightforward narrative are quite magical. Characters having to make the better of bad decisions. Most of the characters are black, living in Arizona. From different walks of life. Thwarts expectations.

Block Print Magic by Emily Louise Howard (art technique)
Much inspiration found in this book, especially technique: multifold booklets, multiple colors.

The Book by Keith Houston (nonfiction)
Well researched, excellent scholarship. The book in all its forms, from papyrus to parchment to paper (and pixels). It inspires me to make my own book.

The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux (poetry)
These relatable poems made me pause and contemplate each. Existential but not metaphorical. The poet is pretty direct. The narrator/voice looks back to a working-class past. I look forward to reading these poems again. Provocative cover!

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz (essays/memoir)
I am overcome by how much I identify with the author’s words. This book has left me shook but oh so woke. How little has changed in the twenty-eight years since its publication. O Saint David, the sage, the warrior, the martyr for us all.

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard (historical fiction)
Quiet story of unspoken desire between Abraham Lincoln and his bedmate, Joshua Speed. Then there’s Mary Todd, who tries to understand Lincoln as others help her to woo him. No sex occurs in the tale, just frustrated desire. The author paints lots of period details, which enhances the characters’ situations. The wit these people toss about is infectious.

Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (grammar)
Who knew grammar could be hilarious? Well, I did. I felt a kinship with him. I only disagreed with him twice: for example, he allows colons to be dropped in the middle of a sentence. But to each their own. Highly recommended, especially for those in the know.

Fashion Climbing by Bill Cunningham (memoir)
Charming memoir by the fashion writer and milliner. I love it when he grandstands. He is Mr. Joie de Vivre, always looking on the bright side! 

Furious Hours by Casey Cep (nonfiction/true crime)
A biography of three people: murderer, lawyer, writer. Harper Lee is the focus of the second half. Penetrating writing. Thrilling nonfiction. The author explores her subjects microscopically and with verve. Capote seems to be a strong influence, hence Lee.

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon (memoir)
Fun read. She is fair regarding her breakup. I felt a certain connection with her and her views about art, and her sensitivity.

Greek to Me by Mary Norris (memoir/grammar)
Delightful memoir about the author’s fascination with Greece, its language and alphabet, and the origin of words. Funny too. I love her easy, breezy style.

Hungry by Jeff Gordinier (nonfiction)
I have admired Jeff’s writing for over thirty years. It’s like butter in all its forms: sometimes clarified, sometimes compound, always delicious. His chronicle of an obsessed chef and how Redzepi’s restlessness and search for new flavors saved him from his middle age is a page-turner. His metaphors, similes, and word combos—plus references to music—make me smile a lot while I read. My face hurts.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (nonfiction novel)
One of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Capote’s language is thoroughly evocative: images, some gruesome, danced around in my mind every minute I was reading it. A truly American tragedy made famous by one of the best American writers.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (memoir)
This memoir is written in a new form, almost like lit crit with short chapters marked by telling titles. The author dissects the story of her domestic emotional and psychological abuse by her lover, clearly a fucked-up monster. Like a horror story, it unfolded with anticipatory dread. Brilliant!

I Remember by Joe Brainard (memoir)
The list of remembered seeming banalities becomes a litany of a young gay man’s life. Remarkable stream-of-consciousness quality.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (history)
A fun, sometimes witty presentation of the young Frenchman who enchanted Washington. As a result, I learned more about the Revolutionary War. She brings in comparisons to today’s events, which helps put things in perspective.

Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen (novel)
A novel about coming out from a queer writer from Greenland. It’s powerful reading, about five characters negotiating love and loneliness. It reminded me of being closeted and yearning for touch.

Linocut for Artists & Designers by Nick Morley (art technique)
Comprehensive. Inspires me mucho. This is the book that made me believe in myself as a printmaker.

Love Stories by Jonathan Ned Katz (history)
Erudition is top-notch. Exceptional scholarship. Readable and relatable. The author focuses on the words men-loving men used to describe themselves and their feelings. Whitman and Symonds are the focus. I learned so much!

Mastering Colored Pencil by Lisa Dinhofer (art technique)
Indispensable. All your questions are answered, as well as those you didn’t know you had.

Mountain Language by Harold Pinter (play)
Reread on 12/20/19. Still chilling and very upsetting. Fuck totalitarian bullshit. Resist.

My Private Property by Mary Ruefle (essays)
I connected with these (she is in her fifties) and she writes about whatever is on her mind. The title essay about shrunken heads is perfect. I wish the collection were a little longer. 

Nanopedia by Charles Jensen (poetry)
These prose poems capture the zeitgeist to a tee. A nanopedia is a reference book with tiny entries. “Identity Theft” hit me in the gut. I love all the titles, as they relate to current topics and coinages.

No Straight Lines edited by Justin Hall (comics)
Comprehensive, funny, serious, diverse. I got a lot of great ideas from this collection of queer cartoons.

Notes from the Larder by Nigel Slater (cookbook)
A joyous celebration of ingredients throughout the year. This cookbook memoir instills in you the power to create something delicious from whatever is in the larder.

Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris (travel memoir)
A woman travels alone in early-eighties Mexico and Central America and records her observations and encounters. At times moving, the descriptions invoke all the senses vividly. (The smells made gag a little.) She is not sentimental, which I appreciated greatly. There’s a streak of magical realism that runs through it. I cried at the end.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (novel)
Some beautiful poetry among the prose making metaphorical connections. This sad tale of Vietnamese immigrants in Hartford and first love butting up against notions of masculinity is quite painful. I would like to read his book of poetry.

On the Move by Oliver Sacks (memoir)
A memoir about the late doctor’s books and peripatetic life. This is a perfect place to start for those who heave never read Sacks. He seemed to be a charming man. I now want to read all his other books.

The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel (novel)
One of the best opening paragraphs ever, pitting idealism against the fucked-up world of capitalism in the eighties. The main characters are indelibly rendered—all flawed, all seeking something beyond their grasp. Looking forward to more by the author.

The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder (novel)
This book took me by surprise: yes, funny and bitchy at times, but it was very serious. The characters are all caught in secrets and misunderstandings. Even though they appear as unlikable, they crave connection deep down. Even the minor characters were three dimensional.

A Recent Martyr by Valerie Martin (novel)
The plane landed, and I burst into tears as I read one of the final chapters. The plague is rampant as a trio of people encounter one another. Eros and Thanatos dance a slow pas de deux in this character-driven novel set in New Orleans where devotion and sex bleed into one. Brilliant. Moving.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
This book homes in on the zeitgeist: crazy motherfuckers who cling to conspiracy theories who eventually kill. This is the creepiest book I’ve ever read; the banality of the dialogue among the blandly drawn, greige-tone characters add to the overall chill. Also reminded me of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Second Empire by Richie Hofmann (poetry)
Utterly relatable. Seemingly everyday events and vistas are seen through the lens of time, uniting other ages with our own. Beautiful language. I could envision every word as each poem unfolded.

The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair (nonfiction)
The author explores historical colors with stories about their provenance. Delightful. Her style is breezy yet erudite, with a splash of cheek.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (novel)
A novel set in bayou Mississippi about ghosts, addiction, death, and sixth sense, with a road trip and images of brutal murders and abuse. It’s a lot to take, but the author works magic with her language and storytelling. Essentially a mother-and-son story, told from both points of view, plus a ghost’s. The claustrophobia and nausea I felt during the road-trip section made me realize how great this book is.

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick (craft of writing)
Insightful, helpful, and direct, this book shows by example how you can be a better memoirist. Know who you are in the context of what you’re writing.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (novel)
Propulsive storytelling that humanizes the tale of Achilles and his companion Patroclus. Their love is unbreakable. Miller writes ostensibly about the nature of love and the things we do for it, unless honor and revenge get in the way.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (short stories)
I loved this collection of seven long stories about the relationships between daughters and immigrant mothers from China, living in Queens. Funny, brutal, tender—all in the lightly interconnected tales of self-discovery and surviving through hardship. Remarkable voice and vision.

Splendiferous Speech by Rosemarie Ostler (grammar and history)
What a fun book. Americanisms began with the introduction of Algonquian words (my favorite). I enjoy the author’s easy way with a turn of phrase. For the word nerd in all of us.

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash (novel)
Reality and possible psychosis are sometimes indistinguishable in this tale about a collegiate wrestler obsessed with winning. I shook reading some of the wrestling passages because I was so in his mind. Excellent debut. Good scary!

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (biography)
Six hundred pages pages of in-depth analysis of the plays and his relationships with others and himself. Seconal and alcohol combined creates paranoid delusions, which Williams was no stranger to (Bob Fosse, as well). This biography deals with the good and the bad and the ugly equally. It has inspired me to read as many Williams plays as I can.

Too Much Is Not Enough by Andrew Rannells (memoir)
This was a fun read. The voice in the book is the same as the voice in real life. Go after your dreams, motherfuckers! 

Volcano by Garrett Hongo (memoir)
This book moved me on many levels: remembering the Big Island—seeing it through the author’s eyes—was a trip. So poetic, so vivid. And his struggle with finding a sense of identity as he searches for the ghosts of his ancestors in Volcano. I now want to read his poetry.

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan (history)
Brilliant and thorough scholarship, my former office mate wrote a kickass history of queer Brooklyn. It gets better with each chapter. This book is sure to be cited in the future. He uses the word fuck once, and brilliantly.

White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar (short stories)
Excellent, probing short stories that do not pull punches. “Orange Popsicles” and “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” left me shaking. The stories expose scars and battle wounds we normally wish were hidden by bandages. Beautiful, painful truths.

Winter by Ali Smith (novel)
Puns and politics abound in this post-Brexit novel about a British family quite estranged, and strange. I loved it. And the author’s style.

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (memoir)
I read part of this in college for a women’s studies class and then bought the whole book. I read it only recently and have never read anything like it. Speechless. Breathtakingly painful and beautiful. The criticism of it is fascinating and telling.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Favorite Books of 2018

These books stood out for me in 2018. Here are the notes I wrote after finishing each one.

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos (memoir)
Haunting in a deep and loving way. The author reveals things about herself that are hidden in us all. What a generous book, written from the heart and mind. An original voice and great American book.

All in the Family by Courtney LeBlanc (poetry)
The metaphors of family bonds and family strife are heartfelt and utterly relatable.

All Strangers Are Kin by Zora O’Neill (travel memoir and language)
What a treat. As the author travels through disparate Arabic, Muslim countries to learn the various dialects and connect with the real people, she discovers how universal humanity is, despite our differences. I relished her love of Arabic and her constant battle between her Apollonian and Dionysian sides.

The Amoeba Game by Tara Skurtu (poetry)
I felt an immediate connection to these lovingly written poems about family, religion, and homeland. I look forward to more from this poet!

Autumn by Ali Smith (novel)
A quiet story of a twenty-year friendship between an elderly gay man and his young female neighbor, considered the first Brexit novel. Written in an idiosyncratic style that works magic. Inspired and touching.

Brass by Xenet Aliu (novel)
A mother-daughter novel written from both perspectives in two time periods. Loved the wry sarcasm and the women’s stubborn willfulness. The solo birthing scene made my heart race.

City of Night by John Rechy (novel)
Written in 1963, this novel broke ground in its frank depiction of hustlers and drag queens, and trans people across the country. Philosophical at times with sublime language. I adored every word, many of which are still slung by queers today.

Dirty Work by Larry Brown (novel)
Two men, disfigured in a VA hospital, share stories of their hard lives. Not all maudlin, though. Powerfully told through both their points of view, in dialect. The ending is hallucinatory and haunting.

The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis (novel)
A frank, short novel about a young gay man escaping his oppressive heteronormative life in Picardy, northern France. Stellar storytelling.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (novel)
Metafictional novel about the nature of friendship and suicide amid the writing milieu and a big dog. The author examines every aspect of her life, talking to her dead friend and the Great Dane he left to her. So satisfying.

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast (memoir comic)
A love letter to NYC, the greatest city in the world. Wry, shrewd. I’ve always been a big fan of her work.

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara (novel)
A lovingly told tale of friendship and family among the denizens of the House of Xtravaganza. The characters are fully fleshed and you can’t help but feel for them at every moment. The injected Spanglish was perfect for authenticity.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (essays)
These essays force you to face your demons and kill the golem that has been keeping you from being the writer you were meant to be. Very inspiring.

IRL by Tommy Pico (poetry)
The poem straggles between the worlds of the poet’s ancestry/life on the res and as a gay man with an iPhone in NYC. It’s a beautiful struggle both linguistically and culturally.

Jelly Roll by Kevin Young (poetry)
Musical poems that truly sing: the musicality of the lines of love and loss had me making up tunes in my head. The short poems speak volumes; the longer ones, lifetimes.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (novel)
Beautiful, shrewd, and funny. A fifty-year-old gay novelist traverses the globe to avoid the wedding of his ex. Echoes of The Odyssey throughout. The final message: love.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (novel)
Everything about this novel—the exceptional storytelling of intertwined lives, the indelible prortraits of characters going through major internal changes, the expert plotting and backstories and future revelations—left me breathless.

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (short stories)
Every story vibrates with humanity; the author writes lifetimes in each tale, and the characters resonate beyond the stories. One of the best collections.

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson (novel)
What a trip! The slave trade is the background to this novel about an ex-slave unwittingly boarding an illegal slave trade ship in New Orleans. High-seas high jinks ensues. At times philosophical, other times revolting and metaphysical. This novel defies genre. Every page brims with the unexpected.

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin (short stories)
One of my favorite collections of all time. These are dark tales. The stories’ intimacies and characters’ inner lives made me gasp and sigh and smile and cry. It will haunt me (in a good way) forever.

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim (novel)
One of the best novels I’ve ever read. The author’s use of simile and metaphor is perfection, every word and image relating to the accretion of dread the story projects. No tears, no mea culpas. Refreshing in its frankness. A great American novel.

Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve by Ben Blatt (statistics)
A fun read. The author, through statistics, proves that -ly adverb use diminishes a novel on several levels.

Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution by Stephen S. Mills (poetry)
This book is in two parts, in two centuries, about two redheads: a devout eighteenth-century woman’s dalliance with suicide by proxy and a twentieth-century unabashedly sexual gay man’s brush with vandalism and the law. Powerful stuff about those who question societal norms.

Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen (poetry)
Upsetting. Pulls no punches, but not brutal. The poet deals with issues related to his mother, body size, creativity, and immigrants. Fascinating.

Now I Sit Me Down by Witold Rybczynski (history and design)
Reading this history of the chair and its designs throughout the ages has changed me forever. I will never look at or experience one so casually anymore. Love the author’s writing and erudition.

Orphic Paris by Henri Cole (memoir)
A loving paean to Paris, the city of poets, and beauty and flowers. A slim book overflowing with a master’s insight in to the tangible and he intangible, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, friendship and solitude. And, ultimately, love.

Paul by Howard Brenton (play)
The story of Saul’s conversion told as a spin-doctor tale. I couldn’t get enough of this. The playwright is a great writer. He knows how to write from both sides while still maintaining his liberal stance.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor (novel)
Paul can change himself into a woman in this Gen-X nineties picaresque bildungsroman. Wry, insightful—a fascinating distillation of gender and fucking. So relatable to queers of my generation.

The Pencil Perfect by Caroline Weaver (history)
The author organizes the book thoughtfully—by pencil brand/family history, then by a pencil’s aspects. A fun read. I learned so much! The illustrations by Oriana Fenwick are gorgeous—nonpareil.

The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco (memoir)
The poet laureate writes about his childhood and teen years in Miami. I felt a strong kinship: never feeling like you fit in because of the Closet. The last two pages made me weep.

Razzle Dazzle by Kevin Boyd Grubb (biography)
The life of Bob Fosse, with many words from his friends and colleagues. Reading it makes you want to watch all his movies and wish you had seen the stage work. I’ve always felt an affinity for his work, especially his choreography.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (novel)
A chilling tale that takes place in the near future of America, when women no longer have reproductive rights. The narratives of these indomitable women are a balm of hope during this fucked-up time.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (novel)
An unabashedly, unapologetically told coming-of-age romp. Loved it!

Severance by Ling Ma (novel)
This zombie apocalypse reads as a satire and indictment of American consumerism and capitalism (the death of NYC) and how everything is tainted to the point of lifeless monotony. Scary and funny, sharp and unsettling. Wry. A page-turner.

Shady Characters by Keith Houston (nonfiction)
The grammar geek in me loved this thoroughly researched and fun, well-written guide to the history of obscure or strange punctuation, like the pilcrow and interrobang.

Some Hell by Patrick Nathan (novel)
Redoubtable and stunning debut novel of a teenage boy coming to grips (or not) with his dad’s suicide. A harrowing tale of Eros and Thanatos dancing a dangerous and breathtaking pas de deux. I did not foresee that ending! I will never forget this book.

The Songs of Trees by David George Haskell (nature and science)
The author is a poet and scientist, a lover of trees. The central thesis revolves around the connectivity of all organisms. Profound, liberal, moving. I’ve always adored trees. Now I understand more of my own connection to all living things.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (novel)
A modern tragedy, and what an indictment of our times. Slim yet packs powerful punches. Beckettian in that we must go on, even after we are ravaged by the horrors of injustice and heartbreak. The deliberate bad punctuation drove me a little batty. But, then again, reading Pride and Prejudice did the same.

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard (essays)
The author grew up an only child with parents who always seemed to be searching for something, resulting in Christian Science faith and Amway. Very personal and well researched. Excellent long essays that read quickly.

Sweet and Low by Nick White (short stories)
Provocative characters fill these Mississippi tales with unexpected outcomes. The gay characters woven into them fit perfectly among its denizens: Queers act funny and are a part of the social fabric. Just don’t talk directly about them. I can’t wait to read more from this writer!

Tango by Justin Vivian Bond (memoir)
A short but honest memoir of the author’s childhood sex life, growing up closeted and confused, learning to hide and be hypervigilant. Slightly scattered, which mimic’s their ADD, but effective. I wish I were their friend growing up.

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins (essays)
The author is unabashedly frank but never vulgar or trendy. Here is an intellectual’s foray into the intersectionality of being black, a feminist, and female. Her letter to Michelle Obama is golden. I have been taught and learned so much.

Twentieth-Century Boy by Duncan Hannah (memoir)
A wild and name-dropping ride through the seventies and early-eighties New York art, music, and literary scenes. The author is very literate and engaging. I read this so quickly, devouring his language. I like his figurative art too.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (essays)
The author is a true curmudgeon, and I laughed my ass off while reading it on the subway. I also felt for her, as she comes from quite a broken family. One of those books that should be required reading. I also love her pet cat as an antagonistic character.

We’ve Already Gone This Far by Patrick Dacey (short stories)
Excellent collection that explores in thirteen interrelated stories vivid characters mired by their sad and sometimes humorous existential crises. The last story, ending the collection in full circle, gutted me.

World’s End by T. Coraghessan Boyle (novel)
A page-turner about the battle between generations of capitalists and patriots versus communists and the underdog laborer. No one wins. The perniciousness of patriotism is exposed. Timely.

You Must Remember This by Michael Bazzett (poetry)
Loved the wordplay! These poems take unexpected, slightly macabre turns and forced me to interact with them on not just an intellectual but a visceral level.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

I read a lot of books in 2017 (you can see the list in the right-hand column if you view in web version). I like to vary the genre, so I have developed a list and usually read books in the following order:

  • short stories
  • grammar/writing/books about books
  • novel
  • general nonfiction
  • play/theatre
  • classic (at least forty years old)
  • queer
  • literary magazine/journal
  • memoir
  • new release
  • poetry
  • random (I let the computer decide)

(Yes, I am a like that. It’s a constant battle between my Apollonian and Dionysian natures.)

The plays and the books of poetry usually take a day to read (for instance, poet Major Jackson’s excellent book Roll Deep), but there are some thick books which take a little longer, such as one of my favorite novels, Tim Murphy’s Christodora. I keep a record of every book I read, including the date on which I finish it and a few musings regarding my overall impressions. Here are ones that stood out for me over the year, in alphabetical order by title. (Note that not all of these books were published in 2017.)

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (essays)
She tells it real. Trenchant. Better to be a “bad” feminist, says she, than no feminist at all. Recommended reading for everyone.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (essays)
Musings that are abstract and philosophical, honest and personal, and corporeal and spiritual about the color blue. Each paragraph is numbered and, even if it’s one sentence, states its case. Lots of through lines held together deftly, as characters appear and reappear, challenging her, loving her, and bringing her closer to her understanding blue.

Boy Erased by Garrard Conley (memoir)
A young evangelical man grapples with his homosexuality, family, and the ex-gay movement insanity. Sensual writing. A loving memoir about self-loathing. Conley does not play the blame game; he made the decision to go into therapy and the decision to leave.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking (science)
I understood about 70 percent; a few equations, which he eschewed, could have helped. Nevertheless, it blew my mind. I finally understand time as a fourth dimension. The book is twenty-nine years old, so a lot has changed. I’ll have to do some research.

The Business of Fancydancing by Sherman Alexie (poetry and stories)
Alexie’s poetry is relatable, funny, and magical. He feels that the reservation is no longer his home, but he always returns. Lots of seeds planted here that sprout in his later work.

Christodora by Tim Murphy (novel)
Indelible characters, multigenerational and multi-socioeconomic, spanning thirty years in this story of New Yorkers. Drugs of all kinds and activism, both political and personal, tie all the story lines together. A page-turner.

Dubliners by James Joyce (short stories)
Mostly sad slices of life about people who feel trapped. Written over a hundred years ago, but feels very modern. I liked it much more than I thought: I remember having read some of them when I was much younger, but they did not affect me as much then. Joyce wrote this before writing his stream-of-consciousness fiction.

The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich (poetry)
The land, the heavens, the animals—all interwoven in gorgeous litanies.

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick (memoir)
One of the best memoirs I have read. A mother’s ruinous notion of romantic love versus her daughter’s struggle not to turn into her mother. Poetic but precise, loving and scolding, it is what it is (said with a Yiddish accent).

Fitting Ends and Other Stories by Dan Chaon (short stories)
Pre-Internet stories about young men who are lost in the world. I felt a certain kinship with many of them.

The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell (nature and science)
Learned so much about forest ecology and human beings’ relationship to nature. Thoughtful and insightful. A model book. Loved it all.

Founding Grammars by Rosemarie Ostler (history)
An in-depth look at the history of grammar books in America. Intriguing because their writers were often so bitchy to one another. Ostler’s research is impeccable and easy to follow.

God in Pink by Hasan Namir
The Islam-gay struggle is explored. This at times brutal short novel reads a little like a screenplay. But the story, characters, and otherworldliness elevate it. The reversal is done really well.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (short stories)
Masterful, sensual, haunting stories, with dollops of magical realism. Frightening, at times. “The Husband Stitch” ends with one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever read. A punch to the gut.

How They Were Found by Matt Bell (short stories)
These are disturbing tales—retellings of fables with otherworldly modern-day twists. Haunting.

The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris (novel)
Truly memorable characters help shape this story of musicians and club owners in Jazz Age Chicago. Sad lives of Jewish and Black habitués that find redemption in the end. The five senses get fully rolled out, which made me feel as if I were part of its fabric. The first and last paragraphs should be taught in writing class. The first ten pages are unforgettable, showing how peace can turn to tragedy in a heartbeat.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (short stories)
Johnson blends reality and drug reality seamlessly—a master of this. Redemption is hinted at, in the last story. I really like his style.

Kid Champion by Thomas Babe (play)
The fleeting fuckedupedness of fame. Babe was a great playwright. Meaty roles. An American tragedy.

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (poetry)
Relatable and topical: Bowie, father's death (he worked on Hubble), space, God, the future planet. All interwoven. I will return to some of these again.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (novel)
A truly original novel. Existential, touching, funny, heartbreaking.

Miss Lonleyhearts & The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
The character descriptions are beyond vivid. Actions are a little mysterious at times, but ultimately I was okay with that because West is capturing the human condition in all of its mercurial emotional zigs and zags. Extremely frank for its time (1930s).

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal (novel)
I fell in love with all the characters. Great novel, mixing humor with pathos. I love how all the disparate stories come together—and (spoiler alert) the happy ending.

The One You Get by Jason Tougaw (memoir)
Lovingly written memoir interweaving a frank coming-of-age story amid hippie dysfunction, with neuroscience mixed in (for the layperson). I felt a rush and blush of so much recognition.

Party of One by Dave Holmes (memoir)
An extremely funny (wry), honest, and at times touching, sad-sack memoir by the gay Gen Xer MTV VJ. He slept through most of 9/11 (as I had done) and doesn’t suffer fools. The title did not become completely apparent until the very end after he realizes he only has to be himself and not feel like he needs to belong to a group that in all honesty doesn’t deserve him as a member.

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (novel)
The sheer breadth of the tale telling is a marvel. The plotting was operatic as were the characters. Rich in period details. The lack of emotion evinced by the main character is intentional: she has no real speaking voice for she is a woman trapped in a man’s society. She does not want to be defined that way. She is no crybaby.

Roll Deep by Major Jackson (poetry)
I was overwhelmed by the beauty and scope of the language. So many riches, like “Aubade,” a poem of love and companionship. “Reverse Voyage”—Wow.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (novel)
The plot is told out of time from multiple third-person points of view, spanning decades. A pandemic wipes out most of humanity. Probing questions about life and death, our responsibilities as human beings, how art can transform us. The first few chapters are thrilling.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (novel)
I read this in six days, which truly is a record. Such a page-turner!

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (memoir)
She has always been a great writer, and her memoir of her early years proves delectable. With recipes!

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (novel)
A short novel l that ends with a visceral punch. Achebe shows how a native man's life can be reduced to a mere paragraph in the mind of a colonialist. Powerful.

Transitory by Tobias Carroll (short stories)
The Shadows of ghosts darken these characters’ lives as they ruminate their places in the world: I’m a middle-aged misfit; how do I fit in, or does it really matter? Existential, musings, alcoholism.

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (novel)
Three astronauts prepare for a journey to Mars by taking part in a long, long simulation. Very deep. Explores the relationship between the self and the perception of the self; human v. simulation; what is real? I learned so much about myself (and about the science of space, too).

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (novel)
The world-weary landscape of Bulgaria is seen through the eyes of an American teacher. I learned how to write a novel by reading this and did not realize that till I was finished. It broke my heart and should be required reading.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (short stories)
These stories blew me away. Fierce young women, mostly at sea, trying to find their identities in a patriarchal world. Magical, original, and, most important, entertaining.

Word by Word by Kory Stamper (nonfiction and grammar)
Stamper comes across as erudite, wry, obdurate, yet always fair and in a way moral. I would love to be in her shoes, at her job with Merriam-Webster.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Afraid of Apostrophes? Fear No More!

I admit it: I’ve always been a grammar geek. In the second grade, I had missed a few days of school for whatever reason. When I came back to the fold, the teacher was going over the proper way to use apostrophes to show possession and told us that there would be a quiz following the recap. Was I not exempt from this quiz because of my absence? No. “It’s easy to learn, Paul.” Okay. I understood the concept of adding an apostrophe-s to words and names, but my young mind could not grasp the s-apostrophe, or plural possessive. I had a mini panic attack. I was a smart kid; why could I not figure this out? I realized that missing a few days of school could change your life and make you a dunce (I vowed never to be sick again). The knot in my stomach tightened, and it felt like the time during recess when Lee Ann Nolan punched me in the gut after I took a cookie from her. I remember taking it from her because I liked her and wanted her to notice me. (I was “straight” back then.) Maybe this is why as a middle-aged adult I don’t like to be noticed too much. (Psychologists, any input?)

Back to the quiz. Because I did not like feeling like a little dummy, I vowed to figure this stuff out ASAP. So, I asked Sheri, the girl next to me, to explain it. (I didn’t want to ask the teacher because I felt she was a little mean that day, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of the entire reading group.) So Sheri told me in a sweet whisper that whenever a word is plural, you just add an apostrophe. Of course I tried to analyze her simple instruction, which made me panic even more when I was confronted with the word “children.” Christ, if I was a child who couldn’t even figure out how to show possession to the word that represented my peers, what kind of a child was I? So I took a deep breath (I knew breath control could make or break you), turned to her again, and she saw me about to cry. Trying to ameliorate my addled temperament, she quickly added, “If the word ends in an s, just add the apostrophe.

Okay, I could grasp that quick and efficient dictum. So, when it was time for the quiz, every time I saw an s, I added the little apostrophe. Phew.

For the remainder of the school day, whenever I had a free moment, I looked at all the examples of possession in my workbook, and finally my brain was able to grasp the concept.

Why am I telling you this tale? Because if a six-year-old can figure out how to use a damn apostrophe in less than four hours, so can you.

If you don’t know this already, the British are notorious for not understanding how to use apostrophes. Lynne Truss wrote extensively about this in her cute book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, excoriating green grocers for adding apostrophes to, well, just about everything. Says Truss, “I don’t know how bad things are in America, but in the UK I cannot emphasize it enough: standards of punctuation are abysmal.” She goes on to list some funny examples of improperly apostrophized signs, my favorite being “XMA’S TREES.” (That one defies logic.)

British author Simon Griffin, a man after my own heart, believes that you can learn the proper way to use apostrophes. He recently wrote a wee book called Fucking Apostrophes. From the get-go, Griffin tries to understand why the British populace cannot understand the difference between its and it’s. (Here’s a little quiz: can you use both properly in the same sentence?)

Says Griffin: “The basic rules of fucking apostrophes are, as you’d expect, quite basic, but as the English language has evolved, so the use of fucking apostrophes has become more and more complex.” (Every time the word “apostrophe” appears, it is preceded by the word “fucking.” Trust me, it works.)

He goes on to state: “The fact is that the rules for using fucking apostrophes have changed massively over time, and different people have adopted different versions. Just look at King’s Cross, which is written both with and without a fucking apostrophe; or Waterstones, which dropped its fucking apostrophe; or Hear’Say, who used a fucking apostrophe to make them look groovy.” (This reminds of the time when Barney’s dropped its apostrophe because Ivan Chermayeff, its adman, thought it would look better in its logo, hovering above “New York.” It does.)

All of these misplaced apostrophes suggest that as English was changing from an oral to a written language, writers and scholars and printers all had different ideas for how to use an apostrophe. As the language progressed, and grammar rules became more rigid, the general literate population became confused. I imagine the frustration of those who truly gave a crap: “When do I add that squiggly, arrogant little bugger?”

Here are a few of my favorite examples from Fucking Apostrophes. They are cheeky, irreverent, and tossed off in a manner so nonchalant that I can’t help but love this man.
  • “You’re an idiot = You are an idiot.”
  • “He’d like you to buy him some cocaine. = “He would like you to buy him some cocaine.”
  • “The children’s wage was low. (Not ‘The childrens/childrens’ wage…’)”
Alas, Mr. Griffin and his editors are not perfect: At the end of the book, we read the following two examples explaining the difference between your and you’re:
  • “Your test results are back Mr. Armstrong.”
  • “You’re next Mr. Wiggins.”
Can you spot the errors? Someone should write a book called Fucking Commas.

Oh, as we enter the holiday season, please don’t add a fucking apostrophe to your last name on your family’s holiday card. If your last name is Smith, you are not the Smith’s; you are the Smiths. If your last name is Griffiths, you are not the Griffiths’ or the Griffiths’s; you are the Griffithses. Heck, if your last name is Papadopoulos, you are not the Papadopoulos’s; you are the Papadopouloses. Yes, it looks weird, but that’s the way it is. Better right than looking like a fucking—well, you get it.

Have you thought of a sentence using it’s/its? Here’s my example: It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and its celebrants can’t wait for the holiday season to be over. 


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Grammatically Speaking, Is It Possible to Care Less?

When I was a young man, my friend Kristen corrected me after hearing me say “I could care less.” I don’t remember the context, but I do remember being slightly mortified but also grateful that it was she who corrected me before I went out into world to embarrass myself again.

The proper phrase, “I couldn’t care less,” has been around for over a hundred years. It simply means, “I have no interest in what you are saying. I could not possibly care any less than I do right now.” Its import is literal. When we utter this phrase, we generally emphasize the contraction couldn’t, which makes sense, since that is the most important word in this utterance.

Now say “I could care less” out loud. You most likely emphasized the word less, not the word could. When we missay “I could care less,” we are literally saying, “Yes, it is possible that I could care less than I do right now.” This means that you actually do care a wee bit. But we really don’t care a wee bit, do we, or any size bit for that matter. Therefore, unless you are trying to be intentionally ironic—which I assure you, you’re not—it is incorrect to say “I could care less.”

If you find it impossible to stop saying “I could care less” because you have missaid it this way for eons, you might be better off (and closer to what you really mean to say) if you emphasize the word could instead of emphasizing less. By doing so, you leave the listener with a lingering anticipation that there’s more to come. We can represent this as such: “I could care less . . . .” (The ellipsis (“. . .”) represents the lingering anticipation.) If we choose to fill in the blank—to finish the sentence—it may sound something like “I could care less . . . but I really don’t.” Which is really the same thing as “I couldn’t care less.” But, because we’ve missaid the phrase so often, and it’s become part of the American patois, we don’t even have to fill in the blank. Even though it’s wrong, we know exactly what is being said: “I don’t give a shit.”

I have a theory how “I couldn’t care less” has devolved to the troublesome “I could care less.” Although I like some theories that suggest that New Yorkers in the 1960s, influenced by the inflections and irony of Yiddish (such as “I should be so lucky”), had a hand in all this, I think it’s much simpler. We like to garble our words, especially when we are around like-minded individuals, those who share the same patois. It is this garbling that has led me to speculate why this wrong phrasing popped up. Follow me, if you will:

“I could not care less” gets contracted to:
“I couldn’t care less,” which gets garbled to sound like:
“I coulda care less,” which is shortened to:
“I could care less.”

But because that makes no sense, and we like to make sense of things, we switch the stress to

“I could care less.”

Voilà!

So, think before you speak. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that saying “I couldn’t care less” is the appropriate response. It’s direct (remember, it’s literal), and it’s snarky. Say it out loud. “I couldn’t care less.” Or better yet, for extra bitchiness, “I could not have cared any less.”