Edmund White’s My Lives

Edmund White is gay. If you’re not famil­iar with him—and I wasn’t until recently—this is the first thing you’ll notice about him in his mem­oir My Lives. You’ll notice other things, too: his name-​​dropping, over-​​sharing, and devout hedo­nism. These traits are unavoid­able in the con­text of White’s inter­est­ing life, described in vivid, con­ver­sa­tional prose.

Rather than walk­ing through his life from birth to present, White gives us the­matic chap­ters. This for­mat gives us more insight into White’s view of him­self than a timeline-​​bound for­mat. For exam­ple, the first chap­ter  con­cerns his shrinks from child­hood through adult­hood. The chapter’s promi­nence sug­gests that he learned intro­spec­tion early and kept up the prac­tice. His par­tic­u­lar intro­spec­tion was closely tied to his own homo­sex­u­al­ity, which his ther­a­pists saw as sick. Though he would later embrace “the gay,” he agreed with his ther­a­pists then, and his strongly self-​​critical streak shows itself through White’s book and life.

And just as with the first chap­ter, the sec­ond (“My Father”) and third (“My Mother”) out­line patterns—difficulty with ’50s-​​style mas­culin­ity and more-​​friendly-​​than-​​maternal inter­ac­tions with women—that per­sist through later chap­ters. These themes build upon each other, cul­mi­nat­ing in the much-​​foreshadowed final chap­ter, “My Friends,” where White waxes about a series of more and less famous friends, rep­re­sent­ing the cap­stone of life lived by a boy who just wants to be noticed, irre­spec­tive of love or hate.

White does man­age to elide por­tions of his life that he would rather not share, but he doesn’t appear to be hold­ing much back. He goes into very pre­cise detail about gay expe­ri­ences. From sexually-​​charged child­hood games to pay­ing for tricks (and being paid for being one), the reader gets an awful lot of dirt on the author. (Depending on one’s curios­ity, pro­cliv­ity, or dig­nity, the chap­ter on White’s year-​​long rela­tion­ship with a much younger S&M mas­ter should be either devoured or avoided with relish.)

My Lives depicts the absorb­ing path of a gay man who lived through the clos­eted 1950s, the free-​​spirited but bour­geois mod­ern gay life, and every libidi­nous period in between. If that’s the sort of thing that inter­ests you, then White’s book is for you.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

The Road is Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-​​winning 2006 novel about a man and his son sur­viv­ing in a post-​​apocalyptic dystopia. A spare, nerve-​​wracking, often fright­en­ing tale, it’s the sort of book you can’t put down but want to, lest the images invade your night­mares. But in the end, though the plot is relent­lessly bleak, McCarthy is telling a valu­able story about the power of moral stead­fast­ness in the face of dan­ger and starvation.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthyI didn’t choose to read The Road. That is, some­one else in my book club chose it, and I went along with the choice because That’s What You Do in Book Club. McCarthy has a rep­u­ta­tion for grip­ping, vio­lent works, not nor­mally Yours Truly’s cup of tea. (He wrote No Country for Old Men, the book that inspired the 2007 movie—I haven’t par­taken of either of those.) I warned my fel­low book-​​clubbers that I was liable to stop the book if it got too gory. I was ready to stop halfway. But after I looked up the syn­op­sis on Wikipedia, I was sat­is­fied that I wouldn’t totally hate the rest of the book, so I fin­ished it, and I’m glad I did.

The novel’s name­less pro­tag­o­nists jour­ney along a road in an unrec­og­niz­able America where noth­ing lives or grows. Nothing, that is, except for the humans who can get to the dwin­dling food stores left behind in aban­doned homes and the occa­sional fall­out shel­ter. And the heinous gangs of brig­ands who sur­vive through cannibalism.

One reviewer believed that The Road was “the most impor­tant envi­ron­men­tal book ever,” because its bleak vision of the future could stir read­ers to avoid eco­log­i­cal holo­caust. That’s good and well, and per­haps even true, but to me it misses the point. The ashen set­ting that McCarthy so aptly por­trayed is just that, a set­ting. The man and boy’s resolve to sur­vive, and to sur­vive with­out eat­ing other humans—the barest min­i­mum of civ­i­liza­tion, and prob­a­bly the most essen­tial instance of the golden rule—are more pow­er­ful “teach­ing moments.” In his review, Ron Charles sug­gested that, despite a McCarthy’s weak­ness in depict­ing women (“Most middle-​​school boys have a more nuanced under­stand­ing of the oppo­site sex than McCarthy demon­strates in his fic­tion, and he does noth­ing to alter that impres­sion here.”), the novel’s lessons about “innate good­ness” and the “sim­ple beauty of this hero’s love for his son” are “profound.”

I agree. The book engaged me and pro­voked deep thoughts about liv­ing in extremis. Is sur­vival worth­while when the world is bar­ren and most evey­one you meet is a sav­age bar­bar­ians? Are any prin­ci­ples bind­ing when sur­vival is on the line? Do prin­ci­ples mat­ter when there is no soci­ety to speak of? McCarthy implies his own answers to these ques­tions through the pro­tag­o­nists, while show­ing that the cal­cu­lus of prin­ci­pled sur­vival can be harsh and unpleas­ant. If you have a strong-​​enough stom­ach for that sort of book, I rec­om­mend The Road.

Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice

Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is so ubiq­ui­tous that I thought it would be famil­iar and unsur­pris­ing. After all, my sis­ters tor­tured me through one junior-​​high sum­mer with repeated view­ings of the BBC minis­eries, and I saw the 2005 Keira Knightley film in the the­ater.  But after read­ing the actual text I can repeat that trite dic­tum: the book was better.

Because you’ve prob­a­bly already been acquainted with P&P, there’s no need to dilly dally by sum­ming up the plot. (If you don’t know who Lizzy and Mr. Darcy are, you’re either a sis­ter­less guy or a romanti-​​phobic gal, and you should check out Wikipedia.) Instead, I want to focus on Austen’s writ­ing: deft and witty. Her prose is tight and her dia­logue is engag­ing. As one might expect, she uses cadences and words that are a touch for­eign to the mod­ern ear, but the words and descrip­tions are so clear that the for­eign “accent” becomes familiar.

A few sam­ples from the book—

Mr. Darcy explain­ing his views on char­ac­ter defects to Lizzy:

There is, I believe, in every dis­po­si­tion a ten­dency to some par­tic­u­lar evil—a nat­ural defect, which not even the best edu­ca­tion can overcome.”

And your defect is to hate every body.”

And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is will­fully to mis­un­der­stand them.”

Mr. Bennet dis­cussing the snivel­ing Mr. Collins’ mar­riage pro­posal with Lizzy and his wife:

I under­stand that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of mar­riage. Is it true?” Elizabeth replied that it was. “Very well—and this offer of mar­riage you have refused?”

I have, sir.”

Very well. We now come to the point. Your mother insists upon your accept­ing it. Is it not so, Mrs. Bennet?”

Yes, or I will never see her again.”

An unhappy alter­na­tive is before you, Elizabeth. From this day, you must be a stranger to one of your par­ents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

And, of course, the famous open­ing line:

It is a truth uni­ver­sally acknowl­edged, that a sin­gle man in pos­ses­sion of a good for­tune, must be in want of a wife.

Which reminds me: one must be care­ful read­ing Austen. A mod­ern reader might be tempted pass on her, per­haps con­sid­er­ing her an out­moded tra­di­tion­al­ist. But that famous open­ing line is imbued with the tren­chant, cut­ting cul­tural crit­i­cism that fills the novel. Austen eval­u­ates her char­ac­ters hon­estly, and so she skew­ers many them in a way that pre­fig­ures 20th-​​century crit­i­cism of “tra­di­tional” fam­ily roles. Lizzy’s sis­ters do not sim­ply want to be mar­ried, they are mar­riage hun­gry. Her father is a well-​​meaning but reclu­sive and neglect­ful man, one who is very nearly emo­tion­ally absent toward his fam­ily. And the upper class are not always afforded the dig­nity that they think they deserve.

I was sur­prised and thrilled by how much I enjoyed Pride & Prejudice, and by how famil­iar it was, though set in the early 19th century.

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine

The Mezzanine, by Nicholson BakerNicholson Baker’s first book, The Mezzanine (1988), is a decep­tively small book. As a mem­ber of my book club noted, phys­i­cally, it con­tains more words than the spine’s width would sug­gest, because nearly a third of the book’s text is found in the foot­notes. The “plot” of the book con­sists entirely of one man’s thoughts at the end of his lunch hour as he approaches–and then rides up–an esca­la­tor up to the mez­za­nine in his office. Too, the sub­jects of the narrator’s thoughts in the book appear imma­te­r­ial on first read­ing. But, through the nar­ra­tor, Baker plumbs these mun­dane top­ics to rarely-​​seen depths. With incred­i­ble atten­tion to detail, Baker crafts a book that both amuses and enlightens.

Howie (the nar­ra­tor) thinks about much the same things that most peo­ple do. Most peo­ple don’t talk about these sub­jects, though, because they seem so small. One chap­ter dwells heav­ily on cor­po­rate bath­rooms. Considering the slightly odd fact that one is gen­er­ally paid for using the bath­room, Howie expounds:

[T]he stop at the men’s room was of a piece with the morning’s work, a chore like the other busi­ness chores I was respon­si­ble for, and there­fore, though it obvi­ously didn’t help the com­pany to make more money, it was part of my job . . . . What that meant was that my com­pany was as a rule pay­ing me to make six vis­its a day to the men’s room–three in the morn­ing, and three in the after­noon: my work was bounded and seg­mented by stops in this tiled decom­pres­sion cham­ber, in which I adjusted my tie, made sure that my shirt was tucked in, cleared my throat, washed the newsprint from my hands, and uri­nated onto a cake of straw­berry deodor­ant rest­ing in one of four wall-​​mounted porce­lain gargoyles.

Howie gives long shrift to many such top­ics, includ­ing pop­corn (and its Jiffy Pop incar­na­tion), vend­ing machines, straws, bags, foot­notes, and shoelaces. Shoelaces, in fact, are some­thing of the novel’s theme, since one of Howie’s tasks on lunch hour was pur­chas­ing a pair to replace the two that broke within a day of each other. The serendipity–or not–of the two shoelaces snap­ping so near in time occu­pies much of the book.

In exam­in­ing the minu­tiae of life so closely, Baker lux­u­ri­ates in the thoughts that most peo­ple would sim­ply leave as half thoughts. Gracefully fol­low­ing those thoughts to their log­i­cal con­clu­sions allows Baker to paint a remark­able por­trait of mod­ern life, full of beauty, com­plex­ity, and serendip­ity. His por­trait is both famil­iar and strange; famil­iar because it is so sim­i­lar to the half-​​thoughts we all have, and strange because it is so fully formed.

After read­ing this book, one can’t help but appre­ci­ate more of the  previously-​​ignored details of quo­tid­ian life.

Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project

Do you want to be happy? Sure you do—everyone does. (We’ll pre­tend that will­ful depres­sives don’t exist for the moment.) How would you like to take a year to focus on being happy? That’s what Gretchen Rubin did, and she decided to write a book (and blog) about about her efforts through­out her year-o’-happiness.

The Happiness Project

In writ­ing The Happiness Project, Rubin iden­ti­fied 11 focus areas—one for each month of the year, plus one month to focus on all 11 areas at once. January was focused on energy, because she deemed it the “basic ingre­di­ent for the suc­cess of the entire project.” Other focus sub­jects included rela­tion­ships (mar­riage, par­ent­hood, and friends, with a month for each), work and leisure (a month each of work, play, and pas­sion), and money. Mindfulness and eter­nity (spir­i­tu­al­ity or reli­gion) rounded out the top­ics. One chap­ter was devoted to each of the months.

As one might expect from a book divided into 11 focus areas, the chap­ters feel stitched together. Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to expect  more from a book with the ambi­tion of cov­er­ing such a vast field. And of course, as Rubin notes in a prefa­tory “Note to the Reader,” “because it’s the story of [her] hap­pi­ness project, it reflects [her] par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, val­ues, and inter­ests.” Such a project would nat­u­rally be very indi­vid­ual, and she con­cedes that a grand nar­ra­tive arc isn’t quite what she’s look­ing for:

I often learn more from one person’s highly idio­syn­cratic expe­ri­ences than I do from sources that detail uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples or cite up-​​to-​​date stud­ies. I find greater value in what spe­cific indi­vid­u­als tell me worked for them than in any other kind of argument—and that’s true even when we seem to have noth­ing in common.

(Legal-​​minded read­ers might note that both Rubin’s both approach to her hap­pi­ness project and her writ­ing style mir­ror for­mer Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s approach to the law and to legal writ­ing. Justice O’Connor was famous for an idio­syn­cratic view of the law that was often trans­lated into con­vo­luted seven-​​part tests that were of ques­tion­able use to lit­i­gants and lower courts in need of guid­ance. It’s debat­able whether such practically-​​minded approach is help­ful in the law. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Acknowledging the lim­i­ta­tions of her book makes it stronger, since the reader feels per­fectly com­fort­able in pick­ing and choos­ing among the exper­i­ments Rubin tries. Among the ideas that yielded some suc­cess for me is “Act[ing] the way I want to feel.” As a vari­ant on the fake-​​it-​​till-​​you-​​make-​​it approach to life, this admo­ni­tion (one of Rubin’s 12 com­mand­ments) has proven empow­er­ing to me. Another admo­ni­tion that res­onated was accept­ing that “ ‘Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.’ Activities that con­tribute to long-​​term hap­pi­ness don’t always make me feel good in the short term; in fact they’re some­times down­right unpleas­ant.” These nuggets are sprin­kled lib­er­ally through­out the book: read­ing it is a bit like talk­ing to a well-​​meaning, weather-​​worn aunt who wants to make sure you avoid her pit­falls and know her lit­tle life hacks.

One thing that she rec­om­mended very strongly was cre­at­ing a res­o­lu­tions chart, a daily scor­ing chart on which she would record her suc­cess in each of her 11 focus areas. That’s one exper­i­ment that I have yet to earnestly delve into, though it makes a lot of sense to me. Although lazi­ness is the main rea­son I haven’t begun using such a chart, I’m also hes­i­tant to start mea­sur­ing myself too much. I’m a bit of a mea­sure­ment fetishist, and I often spend more time focus­ing on a mea­sure­ment than on the rea­son for mea­sur­ing in the first place.

In the end, The Happiness Project is a series of small inspi­ra­tions. I rec­om­mend to the reader who approaches it as a work­book full of optional exer­cises. And like any good work­book, the stu­dent will only get from it what he puts into it.