My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

New Price: $18.00
Used Price: $2.22

Mentioned in:

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

1.
My first book was published on September 4, and I was supposed to interview the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard in front of an audience on September 24. In early summer I obtained the six volumes of My Struggle, and the four volumes of the Seasons Quartet. I put these together in a pile and added the book he wrote about soccer, and noted down the names of his earlier books. I was going to read them all, I told myself, and I also told this to the somewhat incredulous organizers. The writer who first interviewed him for the same program, I suspected, did not read all of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s works to prepare. But that writer had male authority, and I don’t.

The middle days of summer slipped by. I developed a “bit.” “How are you feeling about your book?” someone might ask, and I would say, jauntily, “I’m glad I have this Karl Ove Knausgaard thing looming, because it means I can’t even be anxious about my own book, haha.” This was not entirely true. It is true that my anxiety was more dispersed than it might have been, but it was still there in quantity. The Knausgaard assignment felt like a metaphor for other things in life—everything I have ever enrolled in and then realized, with absolute certainty and invariably too late, that I do not have the constitution for. (This is usually how I feel about good things: The book that I myself wrote, for example, or sometimes, the children I gave birth to.) How had I, a person genuinely awe-struck by people who do half-marathons, so cheerfully signed up for the greatest feat of endurance in contemporary letters?

The waning days of summer slipped by. I started to panic. There was always a volume of My Struggle with me, and thus Karl Ove, or the version of Karl Ove that Karl Ove had seen fit to enshrine on the page, was with me. Karl Ove was with me when I got into bed at night, before my husband demanded that we turn out the lights. He was with me on the bus. He was with me at restaurants and coffee shops. As my own publication date approached, as I had less and less time to read, I read volumes 1 and 2 closely. I was not insensible to the fact that I had taken on an enormous amount of labor for A Man, and that angst about this was going to overshadow my own big day. I noticed that I was developing a little rash on my neck, just under the hairline (it is still there). Karl Ove was with me when I ate two orders of fried chicken wings from the restaurant around the corner, even as I was supposed to be slimming in advance of my publication date. “I was wondering whether you would finish all of those,” the server said admiringly. She was talking about the wings, which I could finish, and not the books, which it had become obvious I couldn’t. I skimmed volumes 3 and 4.

2.
One problem with reading My Struggle is that after each session I could remember almost nothing substantive—certainly no lines stood out in memory, although there were many that stood out as I was reading, many that I underlined and circled and asterisked. Reading the books was a strange, dreamlike experience, a quiet onslaught. When I first started, when I still felt like I had some time, I took notes on almost every page. When I knew that I didn’t have enough time, I started taking only very crucial notes on the endpapers. I told myself I was only allowed to have as many thoughts as there was room on the endpapers of each book.

What do I remember? I vividly remember the part where he and his brother clean the filthy house of his grandmother after his father dies there. I remember that this was one of the parts that incensed his litigious uncle, who loomed over Karl Ove’s own pre-publication period. I remember that Karl Ove seems to hate things involving book publicity, like, for example, being interviewed on a stage.

3.
I spent a lot of time, after delivering my “bit,” hearing people be scornful about Karl Ove Knausgaard. And I understand it, even though I love the books. I am mad, too. The project is amazing in its hubris. But it is also very interesting. The character of Karl Ove who is written in the pages is maddening. But he is also very interesting. When I was reading I thought about how similar I felt to him in some ways, but how I am really probably more like his second wife, with whom I felt less affinity (he wrote her, after all). I felt utterly reproached by his level of involvement in the housekeeping, by his mania for order, by a participation in domesticity that demolished my excuses about my own artistic production and my domestic shortcomings. I have fewer children, and fewer books written or read, and a messier house. Karl Ove writes about how this discrepancy enraged his second wife, too.

It pained me how good his descriptions were of getting children out of the house, or just doing anything with children. One place where Karl Ove was not with me was when I was on my way to or from daycare and preschool pick-ups and drop-offs, when I only “read” my phone as I swayed on the bus. Sometimes I had a baby strapped to me as I did this, one of the cuter babies in history, and sometimes I would forget that she was there for a while and then look down and find her playing peek-a-boo with a grandmotherly figure on the bus. I felt reproached by this, too. “Put your phone down and notice her, idiot,” I imagined these women were telegraphing to me. “Life is so short.” Now I am reading Socks by Beverly Cleary to my older daughter and it makes me feel a little better: Mrs. Bricker sits at her typewriter typing papers while her baby plays on the mat. She gives the baby spoons and other kitchen junk to play with.

I became obsessed with Norwegian and Swedish social policies. Back with Karl Ove, I underlined every part where he scoffed at Swedish sanctimony and hypocrisy. TRY LIVING HERE, I would scream in my head, to no one. I couldn’t help noting that this reading assignment was the corner office in the women’s work of thinking about men who are not thinking about you.

Rather on the nose, right before my book came out, I was afflicted with strange long-term bleeding (27 days) which, after much poking and scanning and taking of pills, was determined to be the result of inefficiently weaning the baby two months before, and resulting hormonal storms.

4.
Book 6 came with me on my short book tour. When it arrived in the mail I laughed because it’s simply enormous, and a peculiar shape. It became its own metaphor. On the airplane, it was my personal item. I jammed it under the Ziploc bag of 3-ounces-or-less toiletries, in a shoulder bag whose straps weren’t up to the challenge. At JFK, I was called for extra screening. The agent removed the book from the bag and wiped its fore-edge with the strip of paper they stick into a machine to see if it’s a bomb. I had to bite my tongue to avoid saying something like, “It’s not a bomb, haha, just a very big book!”

But it was a bomb. It was a ticking time bomb, poised to blow me up on the stage of San Francisco’s historic Nourse theater, the detonation broadcast by my local NPR affiliate. “How do you think Sweden’s social policies have fit in with your life as a working writer and parent?” I would say. “Why do you want to know?” he would say, smoldering and furious. I would forget everything, I would sound stupid, I would look ugly, I would have the wrong outfit, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce Karl Ove Knausgaard, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce Knut Hamsun, no one would buy my book, I would never write a second book, I would be mean to my children.

Meanwhile, I purchased more makeup products so that if someone took a picture of me at my own book readings I wouldn’t look as shitty as I felt. I calculated the number of pages I had to read per day to finish the book and skim the neglected book 5. I wished I could be reading anything else. My book came out around the same time as a huge glut of wonderful books, some of which I decided to read instead of Karl Ove: Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Incendiaries, Boomer1, All You Can Ever Know, A Terrible Country. Before Karl Ove loomed I read Like a Mother, which every person in America should read whether they intend to reproduce or not.

While on vacation I read Severance and have evangelized madly about it to anyone who will listen: a book about work that puts the work in the context of globalization, a book that is mordant and sad and full of quicksilver allegories. I loved that book so much. I also loved A River of Stars, which checks my favorite boxes for fiction—it communicates something complicated about society, you root for the people in it, you see the sights and taste the food and hold the babies it describes. It’s also a great California book. Before Knausgaard I read other books about the American West, city and country. I read The Wild Birds. I read In the Distance. I read This Radical Land, the parts about California. I read Chosen Country, about the Bundys and Malheur. I read There There. I missed these books. I missed reading books that you could finish.

The prospect of going on the book tour was very exciting from a distance, because as a concept it combines “business trip” with “artistic temperament” and everything decadent and slightly immoral that is supposed to go along with those things. I laugh to think about this now because like many things that seem sexy and glamorous from afar, the reality was somewhat different. The reality was me, and my anxiety and my rash, missing my family and feeling guilty for leaving them, and eating roadside muffins and carrying Karl Ove around in my bag. On the train from Philadelphia to New York I thought suddenly about a book I had read months earlier, Fire Sermon, which is a quiet bomb of a book about fidelity and infidelity and desire. I remembered it being about about the spot where desire and reality coincide, and this applies to sex and love, sure, but also to career and art and everything a person might secretly yearn for in the night, every road not taken, every experience of the thing you want and the thing you get being both the same thing and somehow, different things entirely. I thought about that novel with a kind of yearning. I wanted to cheat on Karl Ove. I also wondered if Karl Ove would have delivered me anything like this amount of angst if he weren’t so handsome in all his author photos, if he didn’t cavalierly smoke cigarettes and famously break hearts. (Probably not.)

All this was irrelevant, because September 24 loomed. With seven days to go until Knausgaard Night, I worked on Volume 6 in the subway during a day off on the tour. I went to the Metropolitan Museum. The subway was nice and cool and I had a seat and a pen and the air felt conductive. I didn’t itch, my brain was working: I was getting serious. And as so often happens in the procrastinator’s life, it felt like I was getting serious just late enough to do a less-good job—to have a sense of the job I might have done, and to mourn it. I paused to mourn; I scribbled notes on the nice woven endpapers. I had questions I was going to ask, about politics and national identity. I could feel a woman adjacent watching me. Shortly before we disembarked she asked me if I was a writer and I said, after some hesitation, “Yes.” She said she wished I could teach her to write and I said I wished so too, although there are many people more qualified. In the museum I looked at paintings and sarcophagi and papal frocks and I was so happy, and the bomb felt light in my bag.

The next day, I was standing in the rain outside a subway entrance and checked my phone before descending. There was an email: due to unforeseen events, Karl Ove Knausgaard was regretfully canceling his appearances. The bomb detonated with a fizzle. I had not even gotten to Hitler. The relief was tremendous, but after the adrenaline something else swept in, something bittersweet.

5.
And then I could freely read other things, books on their way to publication: I read American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson, which is about what it says in the title but about so much more—about patriotism and disillusionment and black Americans in federal service and communist panic and American governmental and para-governmental fuckery regarding foreign governments. I read The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a collection of short stories that finds many terrible and miraculous moments—real and less-real, past and present, in America, in Turkey, in the Ottoman and other empires—and turns them into gorgeous, living, provocative stories and vignettes. I read The Round House, which is not new but which was new to me. I loved these books.

I took a break from Karl Ove, so I have still not gotten to Hitler.

6.
Two months later the organizers of the Knausgaard program, who are lovely people (and who still paid me something for the canceled job), invited me to deliver a brief introduction to Jonathan Franzen as a consolation. This is another man who people are often mad at and whose work I love. This didn’t carry anything like the drama of the thwarted Knausgaard night, because I didn’t have to read anything new and the introduction was three minutes long. It also took place a few days after my father-in-law died, and this had put things into perspective.

Our friends and neighbors cared for my children like they were their own, picking them up and feeding them and putting them to bed while I got my hair blown out and taped up the hem of my formal jumpsuit and practiced saying my three-minute introduction into my phone. Jonathan Franzen was affable, and the writer Kathryn Chetkovich, who was there too, was kind (actually, I did read something to prepare—I read this remarkable essay by her). When I got home I took The Corrections off the shelf. Although the particulars are wildly different it still seemed like a suitable thing to read when you are mourning the passing of a white father from a particular generation in America. My father-in-law, a member of the Silent Generation, was another man with whom I carried on mostly imaginary conversations. Now that he is gone I don’t find myself using Facebook as much, because lately I had mostly used it for these conversations. I had used it to say: “I’m furious about the state of the world.” He had used it to say: “I’m proud of you.” My husband wasn’t home, because he was still with his family doing the much harder work of a grieving son. I kept the lights on in bed as long as I wanted, read a book I knew I could finish, and was briefly consoled.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Complete Visual Map of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’

As a geologist, much of my work is spent reconstructing the earth’s history, poring over rock outcrops, well logs, and geophysical surveys to understand the evolution of given area through deep time. So while reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, my impulse was to map out the series on a timeline of Knausgaard’s life.

For each book, I charted the narrative through Knausgaard’s life, capturing the pages spent at each age and the jumps from one year to another. Seismic shifts, hidden structures, and critical moments reveal themselves, with Book One’s dizzying time jumps and life-spanning energy giving way to the focused romantic/domestic turbulence of Book Two. Knausgaard then settles in, with a more stable narrative proceeding through his childhood, teenage years, and 20s in books Three, Four, and Five. The effect of the series is clear on Knausgaard’s life, with the final volume revolving erratically around age 40 as he grapples with the fallout of the publication of One through Five.

Here, I present the reconstruction of the series book-by-book, with the previous book(s) showed as a gray background. I’ve also included select quotes from each book.

Uncomfortable Territory: The Millions Interviews Meaghan O’Connell

When my friend Amelia Morris and I decided to start a podcast about motherhood called Mom Rage, my first thought was, “We need to get Meaghan O’Connell on the show!”

O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, recounts her accidental pregnancy at age 29, her harrowing birth story, and the angst and anxieties of early motherhood. She writes honestly and with humor about looking at her own body in the mirror soon after returning from the hospital, about her complicated feelings surrounding breastfeeding, and about the time she fled a library story time, unable to connect with the other moms.  When she writes, “I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable,” I nod with recognition, and I cheer when she writes, “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Meaghan is a brilliant writer. I am so glad she became a mother so that she can convey on the page all the muck of parenting that seems—while it’s actually happening to me—impossible to convey.

As hosts of Mom Rage, Amelia and I start every show sharing our own struggles and frustrations as parents, and we investigate the unfair expectations and assumptions placed on mothers. We then interview a guest: authors, healthcare professionals, and regular parents just trying their best. Meaghan fulfills two of those three categories. We talk to her in episode 4.

After our podcast conversation, which focused on parenting and her expectations for her soon-to-be-born second child, I sent Meaghan some questions via email. These were about the craft of writing a book like hers; they were my way of asking, “How did this masterpiece come to be?” She was kind enough to shed some light on her process.

The Millions: You were penning regular columns on parenting for The Cut before your memoir came out. Were you writing the memoir alongside these essays? I’m curious how the shorter work informed the book, and how writing about parenting related to parenting itself. More to the point: How does writing help you process motherhood?

Meaghan O’Connell: I was. The book came out of the regular freelance writing I was doing and then became its own, separate thing. I would have loved to only write the book but couldn’t afford to do that. So it was a year or two or three of being completely immersed in this subject, for better or worse. At the beginning it was where my brain was anyway, so it was very convenient in a sense. Like being paid to think about what I was already thinking about in the first place.

Web writing became a sort of farm team for my brain. Some of it ended up being adapted into the book; some just led to deeper thinking; some was about getting things out of my system. It was also nice to publish little things along the way, proof of life, getting to feel like I was part of the conversation, etc.

I thought writing a book would be so much more overwhelming than writing a column, but I was surprised by how much safer it felt. Just spending the time on it, in what felt like a secret document. And then the year of editing that went into it! It is overall much less terrifying than writing 1,000 words in two to three days and then seeing it online with a comments section under it. That is a different kind of fun!

Writing helps me process everything. There is a sweet spot for me with essays where I know I have a lot of ideas about something, but they’re only 60-80 percent formed, and getting to that last 20 percent can happen in the writing. Or maybe it’s just 10 percent more and you leave the rest open because certainty is a lie. That’s what’s been funny about doing interviews. If I could easily talk about this stuff in a way that is neat or cogent, I would not have needed to write a book about it.

TM: What was your process for putting this memoir together? Was each chapter considered a discrete section, planned ahead of time as a separate essay, or was it all in your head as an overall arc?

MO: Well, I will start by saying I never thought of it as a memoir! It’s certainly autobiography, and I wouldn’t argue it’s not a memoir, but the m-word has really only come up now that the book is out.

In the writing (and selling) of the book, it was always “essays.” Granted, some chapters (technically the word “chapter” is not in the book either! But I keep falling back to it, so maybe that is a tell) are more essayistic than others, meaning there is more of an attempt to figure something out, with a central question or a central idea, and others are more story-ish.

So to answer your question, there wasn’t an arc. I thought of the book as a series of distinct essays around different ideas or experiences: pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, sex, gender roles, etc. The list was always changing, and it was never as neat as that. But still.

The structural challenge all along, though, was that the birth is a natural climax. But it couldn’t be at the end. I had a few talks with editors about putting it at the beginning. It wasn’t supposed to matter whether it was chronological. Part of me wanted everything out of order.

But then you write all these words, and I really wanted it to feel like a cohesive BOOK, not just a bunch of essays “packaged” as a book as a career move (you know the sort of book I mean). I wanted it to be its own world. I wanted it to be propulsive. Or I was afraid to want this and resisted it, feeling it beyond me, until I sent the first draft to my editor. I got the sort of feedback that you dread but more so because you know it’s true, that you have work to do, that it’s not quite there yet, etc.

The trick for this particular book was how to have each essay/chapter have a mini-resolution but not enough of one where the book loses momentum. It also took me a long time to figure out how to end it in a way that could carry all the emotional weight that came before but not be false or too tidy or undermining. I think at one point I literally Googled “suspense.” I was semi-resentful initially at having to even think about this stuff—what was I, a fiction writer?—but really, I was just in uncomfortable territory, doing something I didn’t know how to do yet.

Then one day on a walk it came to me as almost a revelation: I could structure the last chapter the same way I did the pregnancy chapter (“Holding Patterns”)—short, numbered sections written in the present tense. This form can feel like a cheat to me, and I think people use it when it isn’t justified, so I hesitated. But when I realized it would solve the bigger problem—of resolution and suspense and so on—I just went for it. It wasn’t as simple as cutting the last few paragraphs of every essay that came before and adding them to this last one, but in many cases that’s exactly what I did. And it still feels like a cheat, but I think it works enough to not matter. I don’t know how else I would have solved the structure of the book.

TM: What books on motherhood and parenting did you look to as you were writing yours? I certainly felt a spiritual connection to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which you quote in the epigraph: “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.” I’m curious what other books lit your path, and why they spoke to you.

MO: Well, once I started writing mine I actively avoided reading anything too similar, but I read them all already and had the books sort of ringing in my head, spurring me on.

I read all of Rachel Cusk’s other books, for instance. And Maggie Nelson’s. I remember reading a passage in The Red Parts that unlocked something for me—I’m looking through the book now and nothing jumps out, and I don’t even remember what I took away from it. What I remember and miss now, being out of that stage of the writing process, was the feeling of something being unlocked. It was always a little beyond language, just a sense of possibility, a door opening in my brain after I’d been hitting a wall. Despondency giving way to hope.

I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, which I guess is funny. Her journals, her poetry. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is a genius book. Then a lot Anne Sexton poetry. I also read Knausgaard. Book 5 and then reread Book 2.

I mean if Sylvia Plath can write Ariel and if Knausgaard can write My Struggle…

As a person, I am self-conscious and shy and I second-guess myself, but as a writer I am trying to break out of that, to be unabashed and unapologetic (about being abashed and apologetic) in a way I wish I could be in life. I think I turned to writers who really know how to wield and twist the knife, to remind myself that in this realm, I can be that way, too.

TM: It feels like we’ve gotten some terrific mother-centric literature in the past few years. Moms are really enjoying some cultural relevance right now!  Any hypotheses of why that is?

MO: I could answer this a dozen different ways and none would be the full picture. But from a publishing perspective—maybe the least interesting but most straightforward way to look at this?  My theory is that there were a few breakout hits three to five years ago and we are currently in the next wave of that. Of bigger houses acquiring books that might have seemed like more of a risk before Graywolf published The Argonauts (2015) and On Immunity (2014), for instance. A book of personal essays by an unknown entity about something “ordinary” is a hard sell in publishing, but it’s maybe easier than it’s ever been? Again, look to 2014: Graywolf published the breakout Empathy Exams and Harper Perennial published Bad Feministin an interview for Scratch, Roxane Gay said her advance for that book was $15,000.

I also remember the rave New York Times review for Elisa Albert’s After Birth, written by the inimitable Merritt Tierce, as a particular MOMENT. That was March 2015.

2014 was the year I had my son. So all of this was happening as I started writing my own book. Whether writing about this stuff was respectable, or intellectual, or ART, felt like less of a question than it had ever been. I imagine other writers had the same experience.

TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?

MO: Well, this being The Millions, I have a very relevant answer: Lydia Kiesling’s forthcoming novel, The Golden State. I love the voice and prose style so much, I could have stayed swimming in it forever. It’s the perfect mix of bleak and funny and angry and desperate and tender. Also motifs such as string cheese, cigarettes, small-town restaurants, road trips, work emails—I JUST LOVED IT.

For more about Mom Rage, be sure to access all the episodes here.

A Year in Reading: Michael Pollan

What I get to read is not necessarily what I want to read–research pulls me this way and that, and then teaching exerts its own gravitational force, and then there’s book club, so I’m not exactly the captain of my reading list. But this year I finished a book, which opened some space for actual reading, rather than “research.” The single most provocative book I read this year was The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum, one of those books that changes the way you look at everything, from the feathers of birds to the penises of humans (and ducks) to the ways female choice shapes evolution. Everything about this book is unexpected, including the prose–fine and often funny. I got through book two of My Struggle, which became my insomnia go-to; Karl Ove Knausgaard’s account of becoming a father and at the same time a writer I found deeply affecting, especially as these bolts of bliss burst through his usual overcast of melancholy. I also loved Autumn, his book of short essays about the eruptions of wonder in everyday life. What’s great about liking Knausgaard is you can be sure there’s always more where that came from. The unexpected hit of our book club was Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, probably his best book but so scabrous it’s hard to recommend. The voice of Teju Cole, in both his novel Open City, and his essays, has been great company this year and, while I try to stay off cable news and Twitter, Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland has given me a slant view of the news that makes considerably more sense of it than Anderson Cooper or Lawrence O’Donnell. Writers (I’m embarrassed to say were) new to me whose voices I found particularly striking were Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) and John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead).

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Hamilton Leithauser

My Struggle, Books 1-4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Having two kids has really chopped my reading time up into odd sessions at odd hours — always interrupted. I think that might be why My Struggle worked so well for me. You can pick this book up and read 10, 15, or 50 pages, put it down for an hour or a week, and when you pick it up again, you’ll come right into the same calm, funny, detail-driven narrative you remember…it sort of doesn’t matter whether or not you even remember what’s going on at that moment. Maybe a few lines in, you’ll see a name or place or something, and think “oh, right…teenage years, a band, a girlfriend…” and then you’ll just roll into some winding story. It’s amazing that something this self-analytical doesn’t ever strike me as narcissistic or unduly self-centered. I think that’s because it’s funny, and it strikes me as uncannily honest. Either he is remembering all of these details, and recounting some pretty embarrassing stuff, or he’s really good at faking it. A lot of the praise I’ve read for this talks about its grandiosity and ambition in terms of length and scope (rightfully so…it’s six books long and so far it’s all pretty fantastic) but what I like most about it is his willingness to be small…to focus and obsess on small details of events, or analyze his impulses and desires…not always painting the most likable picture of himself — whether it’s his sex-crazed teenage/early adult years or his current obsessive and difficult self — and somehow keeping it fun and, most impressively, interesting. He’s never been a saint, but he’s always charming in some way. For a 3,600-page Norwegian autobiography titled after Adolf Hitler’s own, it’s surprisingly light and fast-paced. I recommend it.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Vinson T. Cunningham

1.
I began 2015 with my then-girlfriend, now fiancée, and two other couples, at a rented house in the Catskills. The house belonged to a college art professor — Bard, I think — and on every available wall of the place hung some darkly priapic piece of art. There was a small, cold artist’s studio in the backyard where Renée and I were supposed to sleep, but after discovering a bundle of dreadlocked human hair, strung invisibly from the ceiling, and a series of circular collages that can only be described as psychosexually insane (or insanely psychosexual?), we opted for the narrow futon in the main house, near the dry heat of the hearth.

We cooked every night, drank a survey of Caribbean sugar cane — Appleton, Barbancourt, Brugal — went hiking through the crater lakes at Minnewaska, talked and sometimes argued about music, art, magazines. Renée made a playlist I still sometimes listen to when I’m pretending to write, and as we counted down the seconds to the new year, we formed a little crooked circle and danced and sang.

During quiet times, I read poems: Richard Wright’s Haiku, and the Robert Frost collection I always throw into my backpack when I leave the city. This was the beginning of a halting, yearlong attempt to read more poetry. I finally caught up with people like Morgan Parker and Phillip B. Williams, revisited Langston Hughes (and dug into his enigmatic, newly released Selected Letters) and Gwendolyn Brooks and Kevin Young, consulted with the back-pocket edition of Pablo Neruda I used to carry around as an annoying undergraduate, and — speaking of haiku — tried, again and again, all year, to figure out the effectiveness and easy grace of Matsuo Bashō’s frog, slipping into the water with a immortal plop. No luck there.

I have been trying to understand pastoralism — I hit 30 and everything suddenly seems so loud — and so have been working my way, slowly, through a slim Dover Thrift anthology of English Romantic Poetry. (Has anybody, by the way, published a big takedown of the Dover people? What they do — I’m sometimes very cheap, it seems right to mention — seems too good to be morally right.) They’ve all got their merits, but let’s be honest: the whole movement was John Keats and the Pips. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at some point (Dover again! Please tell me this is okay to do), and her prose, and imagination, blows all her husband’s friends’ verse out of the water.

Speaking of publishers, I — like everybody else, maybe — was wowed, and often tutored, by this year’s offerings from NYRB books. Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth helped me to understand the logic and language of Mao’s China; Linda Rosenkrantz’s unruly, addictive Talk drew me closer to Andy Warhol’s drug-and-Freud-fueled New York than I’d ever, at least consciously, wanted to venture.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a book the way I laughed at Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Or the last time I felt as trustful of the control and restraint and taste of a novelist as I did with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Or as happy to be crawling through the oeuvre of a favorite playwright as with Eugene O’Neill’s Seven Plays of the Sea.

I found a first-edition, hard-copy of the O’Neill on one of the uncountable book-lousy folding tables you’ll find, any Sunday of the year, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These tables, and their attendant “book guys,” are a good reason, if you need one, to live in New York. On another day — summer, sun-stunned — after, I’m just now remembering, a long weekend meal with those same couples from the Catskills, I stopped by a book table and picked up Michael Beckerman’s impressive New Worlds of Dvorak, a close reading — journalistic and musicological at turns — of the great composer’s years spent in America, trying to bequeath to us the “national music” we kind of already had.

I cherish Saul Bellow, so I started but am hesitant to finish his newly collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. I cherish Flannery O’Connor, so I read a few more of her beautiful, chastening letters and left her alone. I cherish Ralph Ellison — third big cliche in a row, I know — so I read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial, appropriately tragicomic biography — very late to that particular party, I know — and went sprinting back to the essays in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act.

Speaking of cherished writers and unfashionable lateness, I finally picked up my copy of Mansfield Park (Dover!!!) and wished I’d read it 10 years earlier, for all sorts of real-life reasons. I finally read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, and felt the same way. I read Hilton Als’s White Girls and felt awkward about the looks I got on the subway. (The dynamics of reading on the subway are another essay entirely.)

And speaking of taking things slowly, for fear of ever catching up, I read the second of the Karl Ove Knausgaard novels and called it a year.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haunting, world-beating Between the World and Me led me back — inevitably — to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Those aforementioned Hughes letters led me back to the Harlem Renaissance — and specifically, for some reason, back to the so-called “passers:” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun; Nella Larsen’s odd, twitchy Quicksand; Jean Toomer’s Cane, an insane, beautiful blend of verse, prose, and drama. Cane’s is probably still my favorite book, and reading it again made me want to someday try to write a life of Toomer, who seems to have been America’s most interesting psychopath as well as its most tragically unrealized and overlooked modernist.

(The Fauset, the Larsen, and the Toomer are collected in the Library of America’s beautiful boxed set of Harlem Renaissance Novels.)

At some point Renée and I began reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex — which she’s already read, and I have not — aloud, in bed, at night, sort of inconsistently. It’s wonderful so far.

As always, I ended up feeling like I should’ve been able to read a lot more.

2.
Maybe it makes sense to share, before leaving this exercise alone, that this has been one of the more emotionally intense years of my life. I’ve been introduced to entirely new, often overwhelming species of joy and anxiety and fulfillment and fear and hope. There were times of ridiculous, almost uncomfortable happiness; other days (weeks, months) I spent wishing for a side exit.

With these extremes came a change in my reading. For the first time since I was a kid, I found myself reading almost desperately, reading as a purposeful means of escape. I guess I’d forgotten (likely during the slow and misguided process of becoming a writer) how effective and merciful an analgesic it can be to leave your own imagination and pick up somebody else’s.

Reading has always been my favorite thing to do. This year it was sometimes the only thing I could do. I felt more grateful for books, and for writers — because I remembered that I need them — than I’d been in a very long time.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

What to Read When You’re Not Expecting

At the beginning of A Man in Love, Karl Ove Knausgaard is at a birthday party with his wife and three children. He eats cake, changes diapers, lets us know how bad he is at small talk and then proves it when he gives a woman his opinion on only children. “The single-child scenario seems a bit sad if you ask me,” he tells her before learning that she has one child, not by choice but because she can’t find a suitable mate for the second. “What the fuck does this have to do with me?” he wonders and is then saved from further awkward conversation by his oldest daughter. For all of Knausgaard’s struggles, procreation is not one of them.

He can even pinpoint the exact moment he and his wife conceive their second child. “When I came, I came inside her,” he writes. “That was all I wanted. Afterwards we lay close to each other for a long time without speaking. “Now we’ll have another child,” I said at length.” If I’d read this one year ago, two years ago, I would’ve rolled my eyes, maybe thrown the book across the room. Instead I was five months pregnant, and although I did think, Oh, come on, Karl Ove, I also thought: how sweet to have that certainty, how lucky to have a memory of that momentous occasion.

Knausgaard writes a lot about his wife’s pregnancies. I found myself studying the details with a strange kind of intensity before realizing that, oh god, I was using the book as a guide to pregnancy and childbirth. This had not been my intention. I thought that when I got a positive pregnancy test I would throw myself into the world of pregnancy literature, but I’d resisted. There was no excited trip to the bookstore to buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It was nerves at first, but even when I passed the first trimester mark, I only halfheartedly picked Ina May Gaskin’s guide to childbirth off the shelf. I flipped through it quickly and then squirreled it away in a drawer, out of sight along with other baby items that had accumulated over the past few weeks – some presents from friends, pamphlets from doctors, samples that had mysteriously found their way to our mailbox.

But maybe it wasn’t so surprising: I’d had the same attitude while trying to get pregnant. It started off fine – I dutifully read Taking Charge of Your Fertility, bought a basal body thermometer, became familiar with my cycle. Then my husband and I figured out that our bodies had different intentions. If we were going to have a baby, it would require more intervention than charting my temperature and monitoring cervical mucus. Everything I learned next came from doctors, nurses, and specific Internet searches. I sifted through pages of message boards, but even the most helpful information was coded in endless acronyms: DH, TTC, OPK, CM, BD, 2WW, HPT, POAS, BFP, BFN, IUI, IVF, DPO, AF. I craved books again, real words, but I was picky about the texts. I didn’t want guides; I just wanted to read what I normally read. I was, I suppose, trying to reassure myself that whatever was happening to me was common enough, normal enough, to easily crop up in my regular life reading.

Only there wasn’t a lot to read. In Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, there were hints of things not going according to plan, brief enough to go unnoticed if you weren’t looking, but I was looking. In a tiny three-page chapter spaced between details of her daughter Quintana’s adoption and early childhood, Didion writes about her sudden desire to have children in her mid-twenties. One day she goes to her doctor because of a pregnancy scare, but he can’t definitively tell her if she’s pregnant or not. “A day later I started to bleed, and cried all night.” She realizes she was sad about not being pregnant. I reread those three pages a few times; the experience was similar to something I’d gone through. I wondered what happened in the gap between the crying and the adoption. Did she try to get pregnant on purpose afterwards? Did she decide she didn’t want to? I had no business knowing intimate details about her gynecological life and that this intrusive musing said more about me and how desperate I was to find someone I could relate to. Still, I couldn’t help but think how reassuring it would’ve been to read an essay on infertility written in that soothing Didion cadence. Imagine! John and I have decided we would like a baby. It is nine months later, and there is still no baby.

After awhile I remembered Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, which I’d read when it was published back in 2002, before the idea of having problems having children or even having children crossed my mind. It’s a slim, pitch perfect book about Fusselman’s father’s death and her fertility issues. I reread it and realized I’d already known how intrauterine insemination – IUI – worked before my doctor explained it because of her description of it. The book is funny and wistful and sad and captures the absurdity of the whole trying-to-conceive process. She calls the company that makes transvaginal ultrasound machines to ask how they work, she plays AC/DC songs on her acoustic guitar to pass the time. And then she gets pregnant and you’re so, so happy for her. 

I found Molly Ringwald’s linked short story collection, When It Happens to You. In “The Harvest Moon”, Greta and Phillip try for their second child despite the quiet, slow dissolve of their relationship. Greta gives herself injections for an IVF cycle relying on a YouTube video for instructions. In “The Places You Don’t Walk Away From”, Greta and Phillip are back. They produced embryos, but didn’t use them. Instead they separated, put the embryos in storage and, a year later, have to document what to do with them in their divorce papers. It’s such a distinctly modern dilemma: who knew that you might have to one day decide whether to destroy, freeze or donate excess embryos, that these microscopic cellular bundles could even be preserved for later use?

And maybe because it’s a relatively new phenomenon that’s finally being discussed more openly, more and more books are being published that I would’ve loved to read then when I was looking. In Ben Lerner’s 10:04, the main character acts as a sperm donor for his best friend’s baby. He writes about the room where men do their thing – the porn, the television, the couch – and then spirals into an exaggerated neurosis of the instruction given to keep his hands clean so he won’t contaminate the sample. It reminded me of a picture my husband once texted me from a similar room: a pump bottle of soap with a label that said, HAND SOAP. DO NOT USE AS LUBRICANT.

There’s a fertility clinic in Emily Gould’s Friendship too. Sally is close to 40 and wants children. In the waiting room she pages through Plum, “the magazine for mature mothers.” It’s a fact that fertility clinics have the most varied selection of magazines. At my clinic I would slip copies of the New Yorker in my bag if I didn’t finish an article before seeing the doctor; I was paying enough to be there, I figured, to keep it.

In both 10:04 and Friendship the cost associated with these kinds of treatments are openly discussed. Lerner uses an IUI as a unit of currency – the “strong, six figure advance” the main character gets for his book is broken down into fifty-four IUIs, and the fact that the money can be used to fund the insemination is one of the main reasons for writing the proposal in the first place. For Sally in Friendship it’s her wealth that allows for the possibility of fertility treatments to happen, and when Bev – younger, poorer – gets pregnant accidentally, the reason they first get involved in each other’s lives is because Sally has the money to afford a baby and compensate Bev, while Bev can barely afford her own lifestyle, let alone one that includes another human.

These distillations of the monetary anxiety, how surreal and uncomfortable it is to assign price tags to it, along with the general existential and physical anxiety that accompanies the problem of wanting a child and not having one were what I was looking for and what I’m still looking for even if I’m not necessarily in that stage anymore. It just took some time to cobble together a reading list to reflect it all.

During that waiting period, a friend who knows things about the Bible and can find comfort in it in a way that I’ve always had trouble with emailed me the story of Hannah and Elkanah from the Old Testament. Samuel 1:1 starts off like this, “Elkanah… had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.” They pray for a child, but Hannah’s fervent, passionate praying is mistaken for drunkenness. When it’s clarified that she wasn’t drunk (even though she should’ve had a few glasses of holy wine to take the edge off), her prayer is granted and she finally has a son, Samuel.

The treatments are modern, I suppose, but the narrative is ancient. As the main character in 10:04 says in an imagined conversation with his potential future progeny, “Everyone gets help making a baby, it’s never just a mom and a dad, because everybody depends on everybody else.” Sometimes it’s your friends and family, sometimes it’s your doctors and drugs, but, I’ve learned, you need stories to depend on too.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2014


 

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
4 months

2.


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
1 month

3.
2.

Beautiful Ruins
6 months

4.
3.

The Round House
2 months

5.
4.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines

5 months

6.
5.

The Son
5 months

7.


Cosmicomics

1 month

8.
6.

Reading Like a Writer

2 months

9.
9.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
2 months

10.
10.

My Struggle: Book 1
2 months

 

When it comes to literary fiction bestseller lists, is there a more reliable fixture than Haruki Murakami? Not only is the author prolific — having published thirteen novels (including a 1,000+ pager!) over his career — but he’s also incredibly popular. It was reported last year that in his native Japan, copies of his latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, were flying off shelves to the tune of a million copies per week. And his reach is increasing, if you can believe it. A recent poll indicated that the author’s popularity is growing in Korea, and his work has been adapted for the screen in Vietnam. (His 2011 doorstopper, 1Q84, was banned from China, but that could be viewed as a mark of success depending on who you ask.)

So of course it should come as no surprise to see his latest novel break into our latest Top Ten, even despite Woody Brown’s fairly tepid review of the work for our site. “All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style are present in Colorless Tsukuru,” Brown wrote back in August. “But for perhaps the first time … they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work.” Ultimately, Brown notes, it’s a novel that, like Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” (which figures prominently in the book), is “aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.”

Here’s hoping his next effort — due before the end of the year — is stronger, although it seems like no matter what, it’ll sell plenty of copies.

Meanwhile, the Top Ten saw the emergence this month of Italo Calvino’s classic work of “scientific” fiction, Cosmicomics. Undoubtedly Millions readers have Ted Gioia’s tantalizing review (“Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece“) to thank for putting the under-appreciated gem onto their radars:
Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre.

And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it.
Rounding out this month’s list, we see the continued dominance of Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. Both Well-Read Women and The Son remain popular mainstays as well. The list is due for a major shake-up in two months, as all four will likely be gracing our Hall of Fame by October and November. Will Knausgaard hang on to the last spot of the list by then? Will it have moved up? Will Book 2 have cracked the rankings? Only time will tell.

Near Misses: Americanah, Jesus’ Son, Bark, and Just Kids. See Also: Last month’s list.

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR