Self-Help

I finally finished a book, for the first time since I read Dave Eggers’ The Wild Things in one sitting on May 10th (according to GoodReads, which I still oh so diligently update, even in these days of sorrow and strife). Yay!

The book in question was the short story collection by Lorrie Moore, Self-Help, which I believe is her very first book. It was a reading assignment from the brand spanking new women-only book club I just joined (we’re meeting at my house next Tuesday!). Self-Help contains the first story I ever read by Moore, the wonderful “How to be a Writer.” (“You’re Ugly, Too” is my other all-time favorite Moore piece, which sets the bar high for stories about pulling little black hairs from your chin.) Even though I first read it yonks ago, all the way back in one of CTY’s nerd camp summer sessions, it still contains the best advice about writing I’ve read in its gem of a first sentence (“First, try to be something, anything, else.”)

I really liked most of the short stories in this book. My favorites were the ones that follow the same method of “How to Be a Writer,” narrated in the second-person, Choose Your Own Adventure style. The only full length novel I’ve ever read that was narrated in this manner was written by Tom Robbins (“Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas”? Was that it? I remember enjoying it but I would probably appreciate all the extraterrestrial kidnappings and Timothy Leary references now as my post-college self, as opposed to my sixth-grade self). We’ve done some exercises in my creative expressions class, writing in the second person, and it’s interesting to consider what the style does to your writing. It always makes me feel so… I dunno. Like what’s happening in the story is so immediate. The other thing that’s really weird, is that even though the story is narrated as “you,” it’s not like Choose Your Own Adventure, where the characters are completely bland and you can just insert yourself in them–thus replacing the “you” character as “me”, seeing yourself as the deep space explorer, the deep sea diver. In these Lorrie Moore stories, the “you” characters have very distinctive personalities: brothers wounded in the Vietnam war, names like Trudy, mothers that die of cancer and heart problems. So when I read “you,” I don’t really think “WHO ME?”, it’s more like “oh ok this distinct female character who’s being addressed as you.” Anyway… it’s an interesting technique.

God, I just love female authors like Lorrie Moore, Melissa Bank and Ali Smith who can write such cutting and funny and emotionally devastating sentences that just feel so true. Maybe for the next month or so I should try reading only female authors and see what effect it has on my emotional state. Of all the stories in this book, I HIGHLY recommend tracking down and reading the last one, “To Fill.” It is just a killer.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll just quote one little bit, from page 138 (it’s not even the best part of the story, but it still made me LOL, and it feels good to LOL these days):

He’s not really interested in what’s inside, complains Amahara. I want a guy who wants my heart, you know? I want him to look for my heart.
You know when he’s fumbling with your breasts? I flutter my eyes at Amahara. He’s looking for your heart. They all do that.
What a bitter hag I have become.
Amahara grins. He’s really into orange.
But what does that mean, into orange?
Like really into it. She smiles enigmatically.
The color?
Yeah. Really into it.
But what do you mean? His car? His hair? Your hair?
His life, she says dramatically. He’s really into it.
Into it, I repeat dumbly, believing I am trying to understand; what is wrong with me, I thought we were on speaking terms, what are speaking terms am I on them with anyone am I from outer space, is she?
I can’t believe, I say firmly, hoping it will pass, that a person could be so into it.
For damn sure, says Amahara.

Love it. I also loved “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Lorrie Moore is the only writer I have ever encountered who possesses such a wonderful understanding of the love that exists in the relationship between a girl and her cat, and I am so, so grateful for that.

I’m currently reading A Gate at the Stairs now (Moore’s latest novel). By currently reading I mean I’ve read the first two pages : ) I think maybe I’ll read some works by Jennifer Egan next; I really enjoyed all her short stories that appeared in the New Yorker and Tin Drum. I have an ENORMOUS stack of library books currently sitting on the shelf that makes me feel horribly GUILTY: The Lost City of Z, Imperial (I should just give up the ghost on this one and return it, seriously), Valis, The Spell of the Sensuous, The Secret Life of Plants, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Eaarth, The Yellow Wind, The Farmworker’s Journey, Anna Karenina, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East. Fourteen books!!! My GOD! How many more times will the library let me renew them without impunity? I had to return The Pedagogy of the Oppressed yesterday, which had remained unread for a good two months, and I fear that this is to be the fate of many others……………….

Some random images of what comes up in the google image search for “Self-Help.”

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Filed under books, comfort food, depression, self-help, short stories, women writers

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