Dear teacher: Hope I can still get partial credit for these books I read in December!
The Seas by Samantha Hunt
Hooked by the cover and couldn’t be happier about it. Narrated by a woman who might be a mermaid and who lives in a small, sad, seaside town, it’s as gritty and romantic and depressing and lusty and poetic and clever as you could want. That’s why Maggie Nelson wrote the introduction — two women obsessed with the color blue. There’s a grandfather setting type by hand for an infinite dictionary. There’s a man named Jude who won’t give in. There’s a perfect wobble to the scrim between reality as we know it and its outer dimensions. Definitely goes on the list of books you desperately wish you’d written yourself (subcategory: while humbly acknowledging you would not have produced exactly this exquisite specimen).
Days of Awe
A.M. Homes’ book of stories reads like a mini master class in stories. They are not thematically or stylistically similar, so I found some of them hard to recall when I got to the end, but each is its own artwork. Three form a triptych about an extravagantly shallow family in Los Angeles. Several verge into surrealism. A couple are built on incredible dialogue between romantic partners. All of this is well and good. And then:
There are two absolute diamonds in here: The National Cage Bird Show and Days of Awe. Cage Bird is (like the story A Prize for Every Player) works in similar terrain as stories I’ve read by George Saunders, sweet-raw pathos, like the toast topped with raw garlic and honey I sometimes make when I’m sick. A story told in a chat room, it’s so contemporary it burns. Days of Awe exists in a different, edgier and more sexual register, but also lives in the very-very now (though you could imagine modern European writers with similar shticks), with its main characters, War Correspondant and Transgressive Novelist both attending a conference on genocide, where they receive welcome bags “laden with genocide swag.” Read these.
Quality of Life Report
Though written more than a decade ago, the story of a young woman in New York struggling to figure out how to get from point A (mediocre apartment, mediocre job, bad love life) to point B (envy-inducing home, impressive and meaningful job, good boyfriend) and wondering if leaving New York is the solution … well, I think that still resonates. Lucinda Trout is this woman, the narrator of Meghan Daum’s 2003 novel, and she moves to Prairie City to report on the Quality of Life out there for a lifestyle morning show in New York.
Daum dares to let Lucinda wander into some pretty rough territory, which is a pleasure and good model for a writer (moi) who isn’t sure sometimes how to let highly functional characters veer (or be knocked) off track. While the “lesson” that the simple life isn’t always so simple may seem obvious, for cityslickers it may need to be read, blow-by-blow, to be truly believed.
And Daum writes what I found to be a brilliant philosophical insight about what she calls “the margin of error” — wonderfully distilled in the image of a plane landing at LaGuardia airport (no room for error!) versus landing near Prairie City (if you miss the runway, any pasture would do just fine!).
If you’re an ambivalent New Yorker transplant, or an Ambitious Young Creative-ish Woman, you can add this to your shelf along with Daum’s My Misspent Youth and Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in that House. A trilogy of learn-from-my-mistakes books for those who identify with Daum’s relatable if dubious aspirations and preconceptions about what adult life really means.