Nominally, on giving up
Two books I read and one I couldn't finish
warning: flashing gif at very end of email
I predicted in my May reading roundup that with my trip to visit my parents for my dad’s birthday I would get out of my reading slump, and boy howdy have I! I’ve read five books since I’ve been home and decided to give up on another, which feels like progress.
I am not, typically, a person who gives up on books. What usually happens is I keep the bookmark in and put it back on the shelf, for the hypothetical future point when my brain is in the right place to receive. This has led to the current situation, where my decorating style can charitably be described as “books” and less charitably as “too many books.” So I recently decided that if I pause on a book for more than a few weeks, and if I pick the book up again and can’t get more than 25 pages, it’s OK to give up on that book.
Not every book is for everybody! The book in question was The Man With the Compound Eyes, and in the end it was just a little too literary for me. Listen, man, when the copy promises me that a giant island of trash is going to slam into the coastline of Taiwan, and it hasn’t happened in the first 100 pages of a 300 page book, I feel a little cheated! The writing was good and there were some interesting things about it, but ultimately it didn’t hold my interest.
Perhaps it would have gone better if I hadn’t tried getting back into it in the wake of four spectacular other books. I began by reading the first two Murderbot novellas by Martha Wells, about a security robot who has hacked its own interface and achieved selfhood and who only wants to watch TV and be left alone. They’re drily funny and bring up a lot of really interesting questions about what it means to be a person, and of course I deeply regret not bringing the other two I borrowed with me on this trip. I then read two books of Patricia Lockwood’s: No One Is Talking About This and Priestdaddy.
I finished reading these days ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. Lockwood’s subject is herself and her family: she grew up one of many children of a Catholic priest, who’d gotten ordained after he was married. Priestdaddy, her 2017 memoir, chronicles this strange childhood through the lens of the time she and her husband were forced to move back in with her parents after her husband’s cataract surgery made them run out of money. No One Is Talking About This is technically a novel, but draws heavily on her own life and the lives of her family members.
Lockwood’s alacrity with language is astounding. When I’m reading a physical book I often take pictures of the pages if there is a passage I really like or a line that tickles me, and if it’s digital I do the same with screenshots, and I had over 100 in various folders when I was done reading these two. By turns hilarious and moving (sometimes in the same line) Lockwood’s prose feels like it was baked in the kiln of the internet and glazed with a childhood and youth spent reading obsessively anything she could get her hands on:
“The Don Pablo’s in Cincinnati was a large converted factory, so it looked vaguely like a nightclub where people went to have wrong ideas about Mexico.” “The words rang with meaning, because I had been raised that way. That is the vestigial organ of religion—the voice that speaks, the hand that reaches out to hold.” Of a bishop she meets once, she says “He has the look of someone whom a great deal of reverent attention has been poured into for a long time.” When she gets an email from a publisher after one of her poems goes viral, her husband makes her read it out loud to him over and over:
“You did it,” he says, bursting into tears. “This is just like when an animal succeeds in a movie.”
“There’s nothing in this rulebook that says a dog can’t play basketball!”
Much of the book is howlingly funny. Her older sister has six children with another on the way, and so they purchase a used van that once belonged to a rap entourage and has www.thegrindup.com stenciled on it. On a trip to Savannah, her mother becomes convinced that there is sperm on the hotel bed, and is determined to call the police about it. She gets intensely drunk at Christmastime on martinis made with Julia Child’s original recipe and attempts to show the seminarian living in her house her stomach, describing the six stages her of drunkenness thusly: “There is Talkativeness, Dancing, Grammar Derangement, Showing You My Beautiful Stomach, Reading your Tarot With Such Intensity That Both Of Us Begin To Weep, and finally Blessed Unconsciousness. I’ve never hit the fourth stage so fast.”
But underneath all the hilarity is a very real conundrum: she is a woman and she is the daughter of a Catholic priest. Her father is extremely conservative, and listens to Rush Limbaugh on the radio and Fox News on TV at the same time. She attends anti-abortion rallies as a child with her parents. She attempts suicide in her teens. “Sometimes, when the ceiling seems especially low and the past especially close, I think to myself, I did not make it out. I am still there in that place of diminishment, where that voice an octave deeper than mine is telling me what I am.” The bishop she described as someone into whom reverent attention has been poured is revealed to be one of the bishops who covered up the sexual abuse of children by priests in his diocese. Another priest, beloved by the seminarian who lives in their house, is revealed to be one of the abusers.
The ramifications of this upringing are even more deeply felt in No One Is Talking About This. In the book, the unnamed narrator has grown famous and travels the world on the strength of one viral tweet: “can a dog be twins”, much like Lockwood’s own journey to fame. (She once tweeted to the Paris Review: “So is paris any good or not). The first half of the book is wrapped up with the protagonist’s engagement with the internet, called the Portal, but her (large, Catholic) family is present throughout. In the second half, she is called home when her sister’s pregnancy goes sideways- the baby has been diagnosed with Proteus syndrome in utero. They do not know if the baby will make it to term. They do know that there are no options, because her sister lives in Ohio, which just passed an extremely restrictive ban on abortion, including outlawing inducing labor before thirty-five weeks. Against all odds, the baby lives to be born and lives for six months after that.
It’s written in a series of disconnected paragraphs that somehow form a whole - much like Jenny Offill’s Weather, which came out last year. In one paragraph, she’s trying to get her father to understand that her sister is suffering because of things that he crusaded for his whole life. “‘Surely there must be exceptions,’ her father ventured, the man who had spent his entire existence crusading against the exception. His white-hairy hand traveled to his belt, the way it always did when he was afraid. He did not want to live in the world he had made, but when it came right down to it, did any of us?” He speaks of “health of the mother” with sarcastic quotes. The book starts out urgent and funny, but as the family tragedy unfolds, the humor grows more intimate, more touching. I was reading it by the pool towards the end and realized I was crying, awkwardly, as teenagers splashed each other eight feet away from me, and as on the page the protagonist and her family try and find ways to mourn the baby they all loved beyond reason. ‘“Touch me!” the baby demanded at all times. “Touch me, I am in the dark!”’
I’m failing to figure out a way to wrap up this newsletter, except to say that you should definitely read these two books. I had intended to try and articulate why I couldn’t finish one book and could finish four others, but I can’t. Mostly, I think it’s because I’ll probably learn nothing from this experience and try the unfinished book again. Just because the wave of trash hadn’t hit yet doesn’t mean that it won’t. It’s always a pleasure to be wholly absorbed in a book, even if it makes the books you read after look a little dimmer.
Have a question? Want me to talk about something related to reading, writing, books, publishing, etc? Leave it in the comments or in a reply to the newsletter!
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Two of you wrote in to say that you do actually read this section, and in honor of Jason, I will endeavor to learn something about the Minnesota Wild. Alas, they’re not in the playoffs anymore, but I did find this amusing picture of Jared Spurgeon trying to fight Mark Stone, so I’ll keep an eye on them next year. We’re down to four teams, including the Knights (ugh) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (uuuuuugh) and I have the terrible feeling we’re up for a Tampa repeat this year.
Private Lives, Public Faces: On What’s Revealed by Hannah Arendt’s Public Archives by Samantha Rose Hill (LitHub)
Etymologically, an archive “houses.” It is a kind of dwelling space. When I first entered Hannah Arendt’s archive at the Library of Congress in 2010, I felt like I was trespassing into somebody’s home. I kept waiting for somebody to come and take the folders away from me. There was a sense of transgression in touching those private things, which spend their time away from public sight. It is no wonder that our modern conception of pornography was born in archives, in those windowless backrooms where the illicit treasures of Pompeii were held.
How the Personal Computer Broke the Human Body by Laine Nooney (Vice)
What Getson was discovering, like all the rest of the personal computer early adopters of the 1980s, was just how much using computers hurt. Turns out, monitors caused eye strain. Or, to put it more accurately: living with computers routinely strained eyes. Vision problems were the embodied human residue of natural interactions between light, glass, plastic, color, and other properties of the surrounding environment.
Insane After Coronavirus? by Patricia Lockwood (London Review of Books)
‘It’s barely a flu,’ my friend said when she came over the next night to watch Titanic with me. I’ve always been partial to disaster movies, particularly ones where a volcano erupts and people have to run really slowly away from rivers of lava, but Titanic is the granddaddy of them all, and the situation seemed to call for it. ‘Why isn’t he turning the wheel? why isn’t he turning the wheel?’ we screamed, when the opaque iceberg of history first appeared in view, and the ship of the people couldn’t swerve in time. ‘Fools,’ I said, delighted, and coughed the hot breath of John Harvard into my elbow. ‘Look at them. They’re about to get so wet.’
Preorder my friend Kendra’s book Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School! | Jo Walton’s April & May Reading List. | Patricia Lockwood’s Infinite Scroll. | Rape Joke. | A Dicey Situation: Truck Spills Dice, Deals 216,000d6 Bludgeoning Damage to Atlanta Freeway. ‘Survial energy:’ how COVID-19 and pregnancy fueled a fierce new book. | A 6-Year-Old Requested a Birthday Cake Showing the Execution of Anne Boleyn and That’s Exactly What She Got.
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.