Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks: Issue 15
Wrapping up 2022, with a frayed bow
I spent some time in December clearing the decks, finishing off a few things ahead of the new year, starting with Midwest Futures, by Phil Christman, a slender but interesting consideration of a chunk of land I may or may not live in, depending on where you draw the borders on your map. What started off touching somewhat self-awarely on familiar points about how we're all so gosh-darn nice here and just what is and isn’t the Midwest, anyway?, soon gave way to an argument that escalated up from how the Midwest has always been a place used by the nation to various ends toward the conclusion that we're doomed to be the nation's life-raft when global warming and rising oceans push everyone inland, and how we should, maybe, get ready for that. There’s more to it than that, of course, but still, pretty bummer summer stuff. Worth checking out. (Belt Publishing, as a whole, is good, in my experience.)
I wrapped up McSweeney's Issue 66, which I’d been dipping into and out of for a while. Some hits. Some misses! I liked “Dog Lab” by T. C. Boyle, and “The Little Men” by Carl Napolitano. There’s a Stephen King story in there. It’s not bad.
I wish I’d stuck with Abandon Me, by Melissa Febos, when I first picked it up, because I really liked it, and while it felt like a collection of distinct essays, I think maybe the whole was more interesting than I could see when focused on the individual parts. Like, there’s a bit of a pay-off in the closing essay, which offers some illumination into a romantic relationship that had been touched on throughout the earlier pieces in the book, that I think may have helped click some additional focus into some earlier pieces, had I read them all in a single stretch.
It’s probably unfair that somewhere along the line I started mentally triangulating Febos against writers like Sheila Heti and Patricia Lockwood, who I also read for the first time this year. I guess they’re all contemporary women writers taking up their own lives as their main subjects? Something. Febos's book, though, was engaging all the way through, where I recall finding Lockwood’s book frustrating, and Heti’s book to be…not great, I guess. Maybe it’s just that—and again, this is an awkward sample set to be forcing into some kind of thematic focus—Febos was writing about her life with such sincerity, without a note of ironic detachment, and that her life, her subject, felt somehow more real or more focused on the real than Heti’s or Lockwood’s, that following her thoughts on the page just naturally made for more compelling reading.
Back to that closing, small-book length essay, though, which I did struggle with; could it have been 20–30 pages shorter? Maybe. Or maybe I would have welcomed a dose of ironic, self-aware distancing along the way. In that essay, she entwines a story about reconnecting with her birth father and other relatives, which was great, with a story about the romantic relationship she’s been touching on throughout the book, which we come to fully recognize is not healthy. From my perspective, that piece of the story didn’t hold my attention nearly as cleanly as the family drama did; it cast some necessary light on the rest of the book, without exactly feeling terribly revelatory overall. Febos has a friend who tries to support her through the relationship but who eventually gives up, basically saying to call the friend when the story’s over. As a reader, it was a bit too easy to identify with the friend in that moment.
Still, while this bit wasn’t my exact cup of tea, I’m sure it works for, and is important for someone. There’s certainly enough else going on across the book, as a whole, that my concerns feel more like me-problems and minor quibbles than actual critical flaws. I’ll read more of her work, for sure.
I finished off the year with Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don't Rhyme—And Other Oddities of the English Language by Arika Okrent. This was a fun collection of examples of English being a weirdo, helping explain things like why "colonel" is spelled with mostly all the wrong letters, and just what it means, from a historical and cultural perspective, to have all these other languages pouring into English as it developed. Interesting stuff, and while it could have felt dry, it was all related with a pleasantly light touch, the sort that made for perfect holidays reading; it was easy to pick up after naps and also easy to put down before other naps.
And then I finished it.
And then I just took naps.
And then 2022 ended.
There. I wrote at least a little bit about every single book I read in 2022. I did it. No: we did it. Well, okay, fine, sure, it was me. I did it. But you! You subscribed! You came along for the ride! And I thank you for that. You made me feel slightly less like I was talking to myself the whole time, which is about all an Internet nobody can ask for.
I considered doing a 2022 best-of list but it pretty much would just look like:
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Mordew by Alex Pheby
then like half the other books I read this year which I liked or loved for many reasons, some of them complex
Which is fairly useless, for you.
For me, it’s more interesting thinking back about my thoughts about how I felt about all these books and how they filter through my vague recollections about writing about them, about what I wrote about them. [ed note—think some more about the sentence about thinking.] Not that I'm reading my old issues, yet—gross! I would hate all of it and I would quit writing forever, just when I was starting to kind of like it again. Still, it feels like there were interesting differences between books like Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, which I absolutely loved reading, but I don’t think I said anything interesting about it, and something like No One Is Talking about This by Patricia Lockwood, which I did not love, but did not love in a way that triggered the part of my brain that really wanted to explain why, or Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka, which I liked quite a bit, but in a complicated, convoluted way, one that I needed to explore a bit in writing. I mean, not to go Captain Obvious here, but the books that troubled me made for superior newsletter fodder, at least from my perspective.
I have some lingering fears about what I’ve been doing here. Like: when you commit to writing about everything, you know you’re going to have to go negative, now and then. That’s kind of a whole thing, isn’t it? Clearly, there’s writers who I think I can get away with tossing snark at, but then at other times I’ve worried about coming across as unkind. It’s easy to say I’m trying for fairness and honesty, perhaps harder to keep putting that into sincere practice; hopefully I’m building a context here, one where trust and progress are built into the fabric of the discussion. To put it another way: I hope what I do never comes across as being negative for the sake of being negative, or effusive purely for the sake of furthering my ultimate goal of becoming a Literary Instagram Hype-Boy With Tons of Followers.
To that end, I do want to bring more reconsideration into the mix, to explore when I'm afraid I’ve gotten it wrong. Like, I'm really worried about what I wrote (whatever it was I actually wrote) about The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy! Of all things. I'm still thinking about it, and not just because I just started reading Stella Maris. I've read some takes on The Passenger since my issue came out, and while I don't think I was lying about it, I'm not convinced I was adequate to that books, or my thoughts about that book. Unfortunately not every book I read is going to come with a second, 200-page coda that I can use to re-explore my thinking about the previous book, and clearly, I'd have to get over the sick-gut feeling that comes from reading my own writing in order to do proper reconsiderations, and also E. has a good long laugh at my expense every time I start talking about the books I’d like to reread. But the urge is there. The final thought doesn’t have to be final, does it? Maybe I'll come around on The Wheel of Time series! I don't know!
Finally, looking ahead, I hope to do more writing like I think I did, or at least like I think I intended to do, with the Twitter issue, the one about the books by Jenny Odell and Manoush Zomorodi. I don’t want to turn the newsletter into homework, because I’d bounce hard off that, and I don't even know if that issue was actually good or not; still, approaching an issue from the perspective of a topic (in that case, a deeply personal one) remains intriguing. Now, if I can just convince Elon Musk to sponsor this newsletter, so I can do it full-time….
Those collections I finished off, up above—I do love the idea of slowly working through story and essay collections, reading shorter pieces between other books, I'm pretty bad at doing that, in practice. I get impatient for the consuming consistency of full-length works, the satisfaction of conclusions. Still—I recently unearthed a note where I was starting to assemble a personal syllabus of short stories, what I’d teach were I a teacher, which list maybe is something I’d consider trying to complete this coming year? Someone check in with me in 12 months to see how that completely failed to work out for me.
As long as I’m tossing out dumb ideas I’ll never follow through on: would anyone anywhere ever be interested in doing a read-along or some kind of scheduled read-together thing through a newsletter like this? Like if I said, “Hey, I’m going to publish an issue about book X by July 1, send me your thoughts on it by June 1, so I can fold a bunch of voices together into a single issue,” or “Hey, I’m going to read book Y in March, keep your thoughts to yourself but have them ready ahead of time so you can see more clearly why I’m a huge idiot you shouldn’t trust,” would anyone be into something like that? I will probably never actually get my life together enough to organize something like this, but I like the idea.