Archive for February, 2014

Lorrie Moore and Me: A Growing-Apart Love Story

Friday, February 28th, 2014

For a time, I was very much in love with Lorrie Moore. In college, I read her hilarious, rueful short stories (Self-Help) and brilliant, heart-breaking sort-of novel (Anagrams) again and again, marveling at their intelligence and wit and sorrow and feeling utterly seen by them, deeply known. She totally understands the essential loneliness of life, was my feeling. She gets that even romantic love is lonely.

By the time I was an MFA student in fiction writing, I was channeling Moore’s voice while pretending it was my own—and ignoring feedback saying that my work was too jokey or that the tone was wrong for the content. I loved what I was trying to do; I figured I just hadn’t nailed it yet.

Of course, I hadn’t nailed it. But now that I’m older, with some years of adult life behind me, I’ve steadily grown away from Moore, precisely because of this tone/content issue. I’ve never stopped reading her work—I pre-order the books the minute they pop up with a publish date—and they’ve never stopped being sharply intelligent and funny. But more and more, I’ve struggled to connect with them.

Bark, Moore’s new collection, may be her darkest work yet. It’s work that seems to emanate from a person who doesn’t believe in the possibility of real human connection, who sees love (of any kind) as something fleeting and unreal, utterly betrayable. And in a way, she’s already lost me there, since I do believe in loving human connection (I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but . . . I live it). So to some extent, the problem for me is that the voice of the book is not rich enough, not fully alive to the full expanse of human possibility. Which is maybe another way of saying that it is the voice of depression.

And then there’s the problem of the jokes. It isn’t that I don’t think funny works with dark—far from it. It’s that, first, every character in a Moore story seems to be the same. They all speak with a very specific witty voice, a voice like nobody’s I have ever heard except Moore’s. So I can’t tell characters apart, and I stop believing in them as people. Instead, they come to feel like mouthpieces.

Beyond that, though, I sense a disconnect between the tone and the content, as though Moore is walking up to the pain, staring it in the face, and then palming it away at the last moment, before she gets to the deeper place with it—and, meanwhile, tossing out puns like so playing cards into the void. I wonder if in that deeper place is where she would find human connection? Or where I would feel more connection, anyway, to her.

I’ll never stop feeling grateful to her, of course. But I wish I could feel closer to her. I wish I were still in love.

On Gary Shteyngart and Facing the Previously Unfaceable

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Back in 2003, I happened upon Gary Shteyngart’s first novel—The Russian Debutante’s Handbook—on a bookstore table and was almost immediately smitten. The opening paragraphs were so funny, vivid, alive, and surprising that I swept up the book, bought it, and devoured it in a few sittings. It was an immensely pleasurable read, rollicking and minutely observed, the hilarious voice both recognizable (witty participant in contemporary culture) (Jew) (Russian) and also, somewhat, not. Shteyngart’s character, like himself, is an immigrant, and while two of my best friends are immigrants (one from Brazil, one from Mexico), I had never heard the voice of a contemporary Russian Jewish immigrant, someone my own age and with some of my own preoccupations.

It wasn’t, of course, emotionally difficult or challenging. Debutante is a comic novel, one of the laughing-over-the-pain sort. We’re never meant to get terribly close to our hero, or to feel too much for him. Absurdistan, which followed, was in the same vein. And I’ve not yet read Super Sad True Love Storyalthough it’s on the shelf, waiting for me—mainly because by the time it came out, I had somewhat tired of Shteyngart’s avoidance. A brilliant comedian and prose stylist, sure. A guy who was willing to face the pain? Nyet.

So when I heard that Shteyngart was publishing a memoir, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I was sure I would read it the moment it came out. I wanted to understand what had shaped him, how he had come to be the person who writes what he writes. But I was also bracing myself for another slightly hollow laugh-fest.

The verdict? Not to worry. Little Failure is not merely cracklingly smart and cannily observed; it’s also very emotionally real, and raw. Shteyngart manages the seemingly impossible: He somehow finds a way to talk about the (dark, dark) abuse he suffered at the hands of his parents (who are very much alive and readers of his work) without hurling it at them in rage. He somehow is able to look at his own pain, and even trauma, and to question why it happened and why it had to happen, without attacking. I would imagine that the book won’t be easy for his parents to read—not least because they probably won’t understand the impacts their actions had; they seem likely to throw up their hands—but there’s nothing in it that they could fault him for, or have a right to complain about. The memoir is simply honest, factual, and real. Shytengart reports what happened. He reports his feelings. And he doesn’t shy away from the pain.

He also very smartly brackets the book with one particular childhood incident, something both shockingly violent and somehow, in the context of his harsh Russian childhood, also eminently mundane. By the time we get to the bottom of the incident, near the end of the book, we know enough to understand how it could have planted the seeds of the panic attack, twenty-five(ish?) years later, that opens the book. But we also understand how it could have gone underground for so long, and why even now, Shteyngart might be questioning its power. The way Shytengart talks about his wounds, and his life, is so large that it leaves room for everyone else’s pain, too. For his parents’ pain, for Russia’s pain, for the history of human suffering, really. That’s quite a generous stance.

Bottom line: highly recommended. And hey—it’s also hilarious. (You can start with the book’s trailer, here.)



Monday, February 3rd, 2014

I’ve been on a felting blitz, which I imagine will have to end soon (thousands of tiny repetitive moments = achy arms), BUT. In the meantime, look!



I mean, they may be twins. They could also be mother (right) and daughter (left). I honestly didn’t intend to give them the exact same facial expression, but facial expressions are difficult in felt. Or at least, they’re difficult for me. I’m just learning how to get that specific, and I don’t have much control one way or the other. In fact, making a mouth that is anything other than a circle is on my wishlist.

Two more portraits:



I really love this lady. I wish she were slightly less surprised, but for now, I’ll take it.

Kid Alien

Kid Alien

And this one: want to hug! Wish I could hug! It wasn’t easy to generate a shape that would sit in that dollhouse chair, which tilts forward—what, do dollhouse people not actually sit in dollhouse chairs? (Perhaps not.) (Or perhaps they have bendable legs?) At any rate, this yellow thing is quite carefully perched.

And here they are with Baby Blue:



Kind of like a little fambly! I tried to get Big Bluey in there, but given that the orange alien has to lean against the wall for support (SOME day I’ll figure out how to make self-standing peeps), I couldn’t quite make it work. Anyway, I’m happy with this group. The monochromatic experiment is yielding worthy results.