A Year in Reading: Michael Schaub

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For the past few years, I’ve used these essays to reflect somberly on the events of the year, and how they have shaped me as a reader and a person. Unfortunately, I have a selective memory, and can generally only recall the events of the year that have been horribly depressing. I blame this on my Catholic upbringing, and the fact that many of the first books I ever read were about boys who loved dogs who then die. (Either the boy or the dog. It doesn’t matter.) So the end result has been a series of essays more dismal than a Leonard Cohen concept album about children who have burned to death in chemical factory explosions.

But this year has been different! I mean, a lot of depressing things have happened, but thanks to my therapist (by which I mean my dog, because I have shitty health insurance), I’ve learned to deal with it with a mixture of denial and gleeful resignation. I also started reading funnier books, because life is short — too short for books where dogs die at an alarming frequency. (Except for The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams, which does have more than one dead dog, but which owns.)

One of the funniest books I read this year was also one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is chiefly about racism and slavery, neither of which, of course, are traditionally fodder for light humor, unless you are Donald Trump. The book opens with the African-American narrator sitting before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he’s landed after trying to reinstate slavery in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.

The court’s sole African-American justice, who is not named but who is clearly Clarence Thomas, is not amused. “Racial segregation? Slavery? Why you bitch-made motherfucker, I know goddamn well your parents raised you better than that! So let’s get this hanging party started!” The thought of Justice Thomas saying anything from the bench is funny enough; imagining him calling someone a “bitch-made motherfucker” is genuinely inspired comedy. The Sellout is a serious book, but it’s also a masterpiece of inspired humor.

Politics is also at the center of the debut book The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim. The author worked as a writer in the press office of Mark Sanford, the then-governor of South Carolina who later inspired the (still hilarious!) euphemism “hiking the Appalachian trail.” Swaim’s portrait of Sanford is scathing but funny, particularly when he discusses Sanford’s tenuous grasp on language. In one passage, Swaim warns his co-worker that Sanford hates sentences that begin with conjunctions, urging him to change a sentence that begins with “Yet.” “He doesn’t know ‘yet’ is a conjunction,” his co-worker responds, correctly. It’s a great, frequently hilarious political memoir by one of America’s smartest young writers.

Another great debut is Lauren Holmes’s Barbara the Slut and Other People. Holmes deals with serious subjects — broken families, AIDS, slut-shaming — but she has a brilliant sense of humor that shines through nearly all of her stories. Particularly great is “I Will Crawl to Raleigh If I Have To,” about a young woman’s abortive attempt to break up with her boyfriend while on the way to a vacation with her family and their friends. Her description of a pre-teen boy that the protagonist loathes is especially funny: “Dylan was twelve and seemed like he was two or three years away from realizing that he hated his parents. For now, though, he liked to sit as close to his mom as possible, and other than that his only hobbies were whining and watching anime.”

It’s no secret that the author Mat Johnson is hilarious; he has one of the funniest Twitter accounts of any writer. Johnson mixes humor and pathos in Loving Day, a novel about a biracial comic book artist who discovers he has a teenage daughter. The book is both sweet and funny, with some of the sharpest, most amusing writing of the year. On a comic book-obsessed man who has invited the narrator to sign his work at a convention: “Travis is so happy. He smiles the width of his wire-framed glasses. He looks like he just received an official letter that says he is not a juvenilia-obsessed dork. The letter is wrong.”

Finally, there’s the absurd and anarchic The Mark and the Void, by Irish author Paul Murray. This one is special to me — on a recent episode of The Book Report, Janet Potter and I discussed the novel, Murray’s follow-up to his amazing Skippy Dies. (If it weren’t for Murray, The Book Report might never have happened; Janet and I first met when I edited her review of Skippy Dies for Bookslut.) The Mark and the Void is one of the few books that made me laugh out loud multiple times, especially this passage, where the French protagonist and his Australian co-worker are talking to a mysterious writer who has entered their lives:

‘I’m Claude’s best mate in this dump,’ Ish volunteers. ‘Which is funny, because people say that Frogs and Ozzies don’t get on. ‘Cos the Frogs are all, you know, Shmuhh-shmuhh-shmuhh, and the Ozzies are all, Wa-hey! But we get on like a house fire, don’t we, Claude?’

I picture the flames, the screaming. ‘Yes,’ I say.

Murray’s novel brings back great memories for me — talking about books that made me laugh with one of my best friends, as opposed to, say, talking about books that chronicle the Armenian genocide with my therapist (read: dog). And while I’m never going to give up on depressing literature — it is in my genes — I’m going to keep making myself follow up every soul-crushing war novel with one that’s more light-hearted. Unless Donald Trump gets elected president next year. Then it’s all books about dead dogs, and I’ll be writing my next Year in Reading essay from my tar-paper shack in rural Canada.

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A Year In Reading: Michael Schaub

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When I was in college, I joined, very briefly, a writing group. It wasn’t the worst decision I made as a student, but it was up there, in between, perhaps, taking a calculus exam while profoundly stoned (I failed, for which I blamed the drugs, until I took the same test sober the next semester, and somehow failed even worse) and trying to make conversation with a police officer while on LSD. (I am now noticing a theme with my poor college decisions. Don’t do drugs, kids. Or if you do, don’t ask cops how they’re doing. They’re not doing well.)

Anyway, the writing group had no clearly defined mission or meeting place, which meant we always ended up in a bar. At the few meetings I went to, the only constant members were a tall pretentious graduate student who dressed entirely in purple, and a slightly shorter, slightly less pretentious senior who wore reading glasses that, I remain convinced, were unnecessary. I called them Prince and Reading Glasses, respectively, though not creatively. They both hated poetry. I liked poetry. I carried books by Leonard Cohen and W.S. Merwin around with me everywhere. I smoked French cigarettes, too. Prince and Reading Glasses didn’t like me, which is understandable.

I bummed Prince a smoke one time. He thanked me, and in the next breath, told me I should be reading Marcel Proust, which he said with a weird pronunciation that seemed to be in the same subdivision as French, though not the exact neighborhood. “You know why you like poetry?” he said. “It’s because you have to borrow other people’s pain.” Then he went and tried to hit on a Russian girl, which, again, is understandable.

One of the books I was obsessed with back then was Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems. Kinnell had been recommended to me by my best friend, Stephanie Saldaña, now a writer living in east Jersualem. I had read it maybe once a month then. I read it again this year, after Kinnell’s death in October. The version I have is out of print, although there’s an expanded edition, A New Selected Poems, which I should get, but, having been burned by change at least a million times in the past few years, I’m uncomfortable with it. Pain, I’m fine with, borrowed or otherwise. But not new pain, and not, for the most part, new joy.

Anyway, Kinnell was something like a connoisseur of loss, both actual and anticipated. And he anticipated his own, often. Here he is in “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” a poem he wrote for his daughter, Maud: “Yes, / you cling because / I, like you, only sooner / than you, will go down / the path of vanished alphabets, / the roadlessness / to the other side of the darkness…”

This was a season of loss, but good luck finding a season without it. In September, my friend and professor D.G. Myers died. A month after that, so did our cat, Dangermouse. Three weeks after that, so did our other cat, Starla. (If it seems disrespectful to note their passings this way, as if they were equivalent, I would point out that David was a huge cat fan who was also allergic to sentimentality. Also, I promised him I wouldn’t stop making fun of him after he died, which was a weird thing to promise an ailing man, but he made me, and it’s bad luck and rude besides to ignore the wishes of a dying man.)

Do I love Kinnell because I’m addicted to borrowing the pain of others? I don’t think so, though maybe that’s because I’ve never understood what the hell Prince was talking about anyway. He could have a point. Most of the poetry I loved then was about sickness and death; I was too young to understand what any of that really felt like. God knows I’m not now. When I heard about David’s death from a mutual friend, I thought immediately of another one of Kinnell’s poems, “Spindrift,” which concludes: “Nobody likes to die / But an old man / Can know / A kind of gratefulness / Toward time that kills him, / Everything he loved was made of it.”

I think maybe rather than borrowing pain, I was trying to outsmart it. Maybe I thought I could do a dry run through loss. If so, it didn’t work.

Galway Kinnell seemed to embrace and taunt loss with every other poem. And I think I get it now in a way I didn’t when I was a teenager. I honestly don’t know how to explain it. In his poem “Goodbye,” Kinnell wrote, “It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we learned, the embrace is all.”

Sometimes things that you love disappear, and sometimes they stick around. I guess it seems fair. It makes sense when I read Galway Kinnell’s poems, anyway, and that’s kind of enough. You’ll think you see your friend somewhere on a random street corner, one second before you realize that’s impossible, and you’ll still turn around when you hear a phantom meow, one second before you think, Oh, right. Of course not. And once in a while you’ll remember the people around you, the family and friends who refuse to be embarrassed by you despite a contradictory preponderance of evidence, the dogs staring you down as you write something because they’re convinced you’re going to give them leftover chicken (and they’re right), the books you love and the people who love them, some of whom you also love, and things seem okay. Sometimes for a moment. But sometimes much longer.

That was my year. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, except when it was.

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A Year in Reading: Michael Schaub

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You can go home again. I’m barely living proof. I’m writing this on Thanksgiving, in my childhood home in San Antonio. I drove here from Austin last night, with my partner, Leela, and our three dogs. Downstairs, my mother is peeling potatoes and watching MSNBC. Leela is drinking coffee and making a pie crust. I’m staring at a bookshelf in the room where my brother, Randy, used to sleep — there’s Flann O’Brien, John Updike, Stephen Jay Gould. Randy died in 2010. This is my first Thanksgiving at home without him. I’m listening to Alejandro Escovedo sing “Five Hearts Breaking,” a song I’ve had stuck in my head ever since Leela and I crossed Loop 1604, on repeat: “Everything will be all right,” he promises, over and over again.

Ever since I came home, I’ve been thinking of the best novel I read this year, A.M. Homes’s stunning May We Be Forgiven. That’s not surprising — the book opens and closes with family Thanksgiving dinners, the first one dreadful, the second, triumphant. It’s the same family, except that it’s not — the protagonist Harold Silver and his niece and nephew are there at both dinners, but not much else looks the same. Harold’s wife, brother, and sister-in-law have all gone away. It happens.

In the years since I lost my brother, I’ve been thinking a lot about the moral force of literature, which didn’t mean much to me as a smirking faux-postmodernist teenager, but means everything to me now. May We Be Forgiven is a deeply moral novel, though it’s never moralistic. The characters cheat on their spouses; they lie and neglect and even murder. Homes keeps a distance throughout; she’s not judgmental, but neither is she naive enough to presume that we won’t, or shouldn’t, judge one another. One of the book’s main characters — in absentia, obviously — is the famously amoral President Richard Nixon, about whom Harold, a historian, is writing a book. Another character is the Internet, which ends up acting as both destroyer and redeemer:
There is a world out there, so new, so random and disassociated that it puts us all in danger. We talk online, we “friend” each other when we don’t know who we are really talking to — we fuck strangers. We mistake almost anything for a relationship, a community of sorts, and yet, when we are with our families, in our communities, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitized version — it is easier, because we can be both our truer selves and our fantasy selves all at once, with each carrying equal weight.
You could call that moralizing, of course, but only if you’re completely oblivious — only if you’re too far gone to realize the difference between liking something and “liking” it. Don’t worry if you are; you’d be in good company.

It’s an unbearable cliché to say that a book can change your life, and the fact that sometimes it’s true, perhaps, doesn’t make it any less trite. I don’t know whether May We Be Forgiven has changed my life; if it has, it will be years before I realize how, or why. I do know that it’s affected me more than any novel I’ve read in years, and I do know that it’s a masterpiece.

And I know that it’s courageous, and an unambiguous force for moral good. If you’re too young or distant or callow to care about that, don’t worry — you will someday, and it’ll hurt like hell, and you’ll be glad, at some point, that it happened. May We Be Forgiven is a prayer, like the one I learned as a child in Catholic school, and found myself reciting a few years ago, over and over again: “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”

I’m not a religious man, except maybe I am. All I know is that I don’t know. Whether we’re forgiven or not, may we be worthy of our families, the living and the dead, the ones for whom we’d give all we have. May we learn to forgive ourselves. May everything be all right. Amen.

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A Year in Reading: Michael Schaub

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In a promotional video for The Great Frustration, Seth Fried’s debut book, the author deadpans, “Technically, the book is a collection of short stories. Though I prefer to think of it as a novel that doesn’t make any sense. [Pause.] That is how we’re marketing it.” On his “Bare-Minimum-Blog Blog,” he fantasizes about ditching literary fiction to become an advertising copywriter hawking “Seth Farm Pigeon Butter” (“the pigeon butter that’s a smidgen better”); and urges fans who want to help sales of The Great Frustation to “social media the book with social media.” And before Hurricane Irene, he offered some (good) advice to New York apartment dwellers by way of a hilarious tweet which ended up going viral.

Fried, 28, is one of the funniest writers in America. But it’s not just his sly, absurdist sense of humor that makes him an author to watch — his short stories manage to be both hilarious and tragic, both surreal and enormously sensitive. The Great Frustration is a debut, but it’s also something most writers, even the most acclaimed ones, have never accomplished: it is a perfect short story collection. It’s also the best book I read in 2011.

Too often, fiction written by very funny people can turn either frivolous or precious, but Fried’s stories never even come close to trivial. He’s a brilliant humorist — see “The Frenchman,” one of the funniest stories I’ve read in years — but he doesn’t use jokes where they don’t belong, and he never uses humor to show off, or to avoid tragic conclusions that many authors would rather not face.

Humor isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal. Fried has a keen sense of history and science, which he uses to great effect in stories like the heartbreaking “The Misery of the Conquistador” and the uniquely beautiful “Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures.” (I wouldn’t be surprised if both of those stories someday end up in a definitive anthology of American fiction; they’re that good.) Like Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders, Fried is a master at the absurdities, small and large, that make up the human condition. He’s a deeply funny, deeply generous author, and on the basis of The Great Frustration, I’m ready to pay him the biggest compliment I could ever give an author: there’s never been a writer exactly like him before.

I should mention some of the other great books I read in 2011. This year brought some amazing fiction — Alan Heathcock’s dark, beautiful short story collection Volt, and the brilliant novels Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and, especially, The Vices by Lawrence Douglas. I was happy to read two wonderful essay collections, If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter, and You Must Go and Win by Alina Simone (who, like Fried, is also a gifted humorist). And the books The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean were shining examples of flawless nonfiction. And finally, this was the year that I promised myself I would catch up on the classics I’ve missed, and read Bleak House.

I did not. Here’s to 2012.

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