24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: essays

Abby Reads: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
HarperCollins, 2007, 290 pages
Nonfiction

I vaguely remember being introduced to Annie Dillard in my tenth grade English class. Long after having forgotten her – and Dylan Thomas, who I read around the same time and often wondered was being confused with Dillard (Dylan, Dillard, it was all the same to me) – and her story about snowballs and being one of the boys, I sent in my acceptance form to Hollins University which was, little did I know, Dillard’s alma mater. I walked the same paths as she, sat in the same classrooms, even shared a teacher or two. I have yet, sadly, to become the sensation she has been, but I hold out hope. But I’m digressing.tumblr_nxofghFTcT1qe4vfco1_1280

I finally got around to reading Dillard’s best known work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek this past fall. While I had felt guilty about not having read it as a student at Hollins, reading it post-Hollins was probably for the best. Pilgrim’s look at Roanoke, Virginia, though its focus generally sits outside of the Hollins’ campus walls, made me feel as if I was visiting home again. Dillard’s grip on exploring her surroundings in every sensory permutation possible brings the environment to life.

I also want to admit that I went into Pilgrim expecting to dislike it. Also in high school, I’d been introduced to Thoreau and Emerson. Despite the pair’s ties to Louisa May Alcott (who I love), I hadn’t been impressed. In fact, the magnified look at ants one of them described – to be honest, I can’t remember which of the two existentialists wrote about the ants, I hated them both so much at the time – bored me to death. I expected Pilgrim to be much the same, as it had been advertised. The guilt pulled me into it, however, and since I was determined to read collections of essays throughout November, I couldn’t think of a better time to get it over with.

The only word that comes to mind here is, indeed. Indeed, indeed. I savored it. In either the foreword or the afterword, Dillard explains that Pilgrim is not so much a collection of essays as so many critics described it at and since its publication, but a narrative of an environment throughout the seasons. And that much is true, though it’s a winding and unfocused narrative that you may not be aware of until the thing is through and that narrative structure has been explicitly pointed out for you, as it was for me. Dillard works through the metaphysical and philosophical in indirect, meandering ways. It’s not until her inevitable punch that you realize all of the minute description leading up to it had not just been for the aesthetics, but for the thesis that the chapter led up to. With a theme for each chapter, Dillard sprinkles in other poignant lines between comments on squirrels, cicadas, and other creatures of the Roanoke Valley.

I’m often hesitant to read NYT Bestsellers or Pulitzer Prize Winners and whatnot simply because the topic of the book isn’t in my realm of interests. I imagine I’ll dislike it because I’ve read others that appear to be similar and hadn’t liked those. But each time I do, I’m surprised. This was the case with Pilgrim and others I’ve read. Even if natural observance isn’t your thing, give Pilgrim at Tinker Creek a chance – slow in some parts as it may be – and go on a journey of your own.

❤❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays by Elinor Lipman

I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays by Elinor Lipman
Mariner Books, 2014, 176 pages
Nonfiction Humor Essays

Elinor Lipman’s collection of essays is not a new set of material. Instead, it is truly a collection of her essays – pieces she’d published in journals, magazines, newspapers, and one or two fresh pieces. Despite the age of some of the essays, Lipman’s commentary on life in general remains pertinent to more modern times. Lipman’s main focus rests on her family – a husband and son. Family life frequently intersects with her Jewish heritage while Lipman muses on relationships, blunders, and gratefulness.IMG_0193

I recall one of the blurbs on the book comparing Lipman to a modern-day Jane Austen in the light of social observations. While I agree that Lipman is observant and often amusingly so, I wouldn’t go as far as to say she’s the Austen of the Twenty-First Century. That said, I enjoyed Lipman’s tamer take on the humorous essay. Where other, younger writers come across as having something to prove (often with crass humor that has its place but can become tiresome), Lipman’s age is reflected in her wisdom and her desire to prove something, if it ever existed, has gone long ago. At the same time, Lipman’s prose is that of an old friend’s. That is to say, while Lipman’s maturity is evident in both her content and style, this was not my grandmother writing. Lipman is friendly and engaging, reaching out to women in particular but offering something for everyone.

As different essays are pulled from different sources, I did find the lack of chronological order somewhat disjointing. While Lipman discusses her husband at length, one essay reveals his death shortly before other essays speak of him as a living person (which, of course, he was at the time of their original publication). The organization of essays as it currently is doesn’t add anything particularly compelling to the book as a whole. A chronological set, in fact, might have provided more as Lipman’s opinions change and grow over the years. This “character development” would have been more evident and therefore more interesting if the essays appeared in order.

The words I’d use to describe I Can’t Complain are all pretty bland: nice, pleasant, enjoyable – but don’t let that deter you from picking it up. It’s a fast read. Reading I Can’t Complain will be like spending a few hours with your mother in her most candid state on all topics, but most of all, on life.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race by Sara Barron

The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race by Sara Barron
Three Rivers Press, 2014, 320 pages
Nonfiction Humor Essays

It’s admittedly been a while since I’ve read The Harm in Asking. I toyed around with the idea of not writing a review for it at all because, frankly, I have few positive things to say about it. In fact, I never even took a picture of the book because I was so sure I wouldn’t review it. However, I’m committed to reviewing as much as I read as possible and, despite being woefully behind in that, I have no real reason to not review Barron’s collection of essays. If you’re interested in the particulars of why I was less-than-impressed by this book, read on.

Barron’s essay collection is very like many other essay collections: she describes her various misadventures as a twenty-something living in New York City while pursuing the seemingly unreachable goal of a profitable career as a holder of a Bachelor’s in English. Barron suffers getting locked out of her apartment multiple times within a day, breaking a leg, and the horror of washing her landlord’s back on a regular basis among other tales. There is, in true white-girl-English-major fashion (yes, I’m aware I’m a white-girl-former-English-major), lots of alcohol involved. Overall, the theme of Barron’s collection can be summed up in two titlewords: privileged irresponsibility.

I get the whole self-deprecating humor thing. In fact, it’s something I love to do (and feel I’m pretty good at, if you don’t mind me saying so) myself. It’s my intimate knowledge of this particular brand of humor that leads me to believe Barron fails at it. While feigning self-loathing, Barron actually turns the hate on everyone around her in each of her stories, managing to blame just about everyone except herself for her problems. To her credit, she does sometimes admit to this and it’s sort-of-kind-of in her subtitle. But I found it to be a bit much. She’s regularly offensive, using long-outdated and consciously-insulting words for “jokes,” and isn’t above any category of slur. I could go on about why Barron’s take on humor is harmful, but I’ll leave the research to you (unless it pops up in the comments, in which case I’m happy to oblige). In any case, Barron’s essays felt condescending while she played the victim and everyone else was a villainous *insert racial/homophobic/ableist/sexist slur here*. It was disheartening. And this isn’t to say that Barron necessarily is condescending and plays the victim and all that — I haven’t met Barron. Her writing may be an act for all I know. This is merely how these set of essays came across.

If you can get past the general offense of Barron’s writing and take a look at the writing style, it’s really nothing remarkable. Overall, it’s not poor writing, but it also doesn’t tickle any particular sense to life. There are no especially clever turns of phrase, no heart-stopping similes, no exciting plays on words. The pace flows quickly enough and doesn’t feel disjointed or anything like it, but you’re not going to hold up this book as a piece of Great Literature.

Of the stories Barron tells, most of them are fairly similar if you take enough steps back. Barron thinks things are going well, she makes a bad decision, she complains about the situation she’s now in, she blames it on those around her, someone else solves the problem or she ignores it until it goes away (or it turns out to not really be a problem after all). With this predictable formula present in each story, it’s easy to become bored, especially as you’re inevitably turned off by one or more of her comments that somehow feel like person attacks even though she’s not saying any of this directly to you. I hate to come back to this issue and I know I’m what people like to call a “sensitive person,” but the ongoing offense became tiresome. Not only was it in poor taste, but it seemed to be a main theme and it just felt old and not funny and unoriginal. Because this was the foundation of so many of Barron’s stories, it’s hard to come away from the book with any sense of joy. If Barron’s collection is supposed to be a book of humor, I think she missed the mark.

I did manage to finish it, if only just, so it gets a heart for that. But nothing more.

❤ out of ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤

Abby Reads: Is Everyone Hanging out without Me? (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging out without Me? (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Three Rivers Press, 2012, 222 pages
Nonfiction Humor Essays

I am embarrassingly unfamiliar with Mindy Kaling’s work. I mean, I know who she is and I know some of the things she’s been in, but I’ve never seen her in action. I know she was in and wrote for The Office. I know she’s got The Mindy Project going on. But really, that’s it. While I had planned on waiting to read this until I’d become more familiar with her other work, I decided there was really no point and jumped right in. I am now even more curious about her main works. Is Everyone Hanging out without Me? is fun, mostly. Kaling plays around with differDSC_0250ent styles and formats, she includes pictures from her life, her voice is very much her voice. But I was troubled by how cheaply she often pursued jokes, while at the same time berating comedians for going for low forms of humor.

While telling readers a bit about her past, how she got to where she is now, and airing general grievances about the injustices of life (trivial and otherwise), Kaling resorts to making light of sexual assault, mental illness, disabilities, Jews, trans* people, body image, and sexism. As Kaling is a person of a marginalized group (women of color), I was surprised to see all of this. I was disheartened at her use of slurs for people with mental disabilities. I was disappointed at her entire chapter on Jewish stereotypes because, “No, really, all my friends are Jews.” It’s all rather hypocritical, too, as she dedicates an entire chapter to why comedic “roasts” (in which a comedian targets a particular individual with some harsh words about them meant to be humorous — you can imagine many pieces on the Kardashians, for instance, and likely find at least a few roasts there) are inappropriate and pathetic attempts at humor. Okay, Mindy.

Despite my feelings about these issues, I did finish the book and it wasn’t all bad. Kaling has her funny moments and, when she’s not stooping to the likes of what I described above, she’s very good. Moments I wouldn’t expect to translate well in text worked. Small observations of life that, in the right light are hilarious, were riots. Kaling has the tools to do this well. She wouldn’t be where she is without her talent and skill. But the harm she does with jokes about how girls are all about getting their nails done and cupcakes (and much worse) is hugely problematic and severely knocked down my enjoyment of the book.

I found Kaling’s use of footnotes charming, if a little spare. Rather than feeling like an important piece of the way Kaling approaches comedy, they felt like an after-thought gimmick with so few sprinkled throughout the book. I’m also a fan of footnotes, though, as someone who uses too many commas and even more parenthetical asides, so maybe I’m biased.

Personally, I feel Kaling could have done better. The skill is there, the writing is there, the content isn’t.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Shut Up, You’re Welcome by Annie Choi

Shut Up, You’re Welcome by Annie Choi
Simon & Schuster, 2013, 270 pages
Nonfiction Humor Essays

In an effort to make NaNoWriMo to go more smoothly this year, I’ve been trying to read exclusively collections of humorous essays by women. There are a ton of them out there, but they are not all stellar exemplars. Shut Up, You’re Welcome by Annie Choi isn’t, either, but it’s also not bad. Choi writes largely about her family, though also about friends and other personal adventures in her life. Unlike many similar collections, Choi’s book has the relatively unique perspective of growing up Korean American. This in itself isn’t completely unique. There are many Korean Americans living in the DSC_0025United States. However, Choi’s perspective as an author is unique — racism, intended or otherwise, is alive and well in all facets of life, publishing included. Many of the essay collections you’re likely to encounter are written by white women who grew up in middle class families, probably had a publishing internship, and now live in New York. Such is not the (complete) case for Choi, which makes this selection stand out from the others. Combined with Choi’s generally excellent sense of humor and balanced writing style, it makes Shut Up, You’re Welcome an enjoyable read.

After reading a few collections already, one of the things I most appreciated about Shut Up, You’re Welcome, was Choi’s sense of humor. All humor essayists have some sense of humor or they wouldn’t be writing what they do. Choi’s humor, however, generally refrains from much of the problematic “jokes” I’ve read in other books. It’s not completely free of issues, but is far better than some of the others. The Harm in Asking by Sara Barron, Is Everyone Hanging out without Me? by Mindy Kaling, and The Idiot Girl’s Action-Adventure Club by Laurie Notaro (at least what I’ve read so far of that one) fares far worse with “humor” about rape, trans* people, eating disorders, self harm, and various other things that really should not be joked about, some while decrying cheap humor based on “roasting” individuals. Choi, for the most part, avoids this. This does not mean her book is any less funny. In fact, I think the lack of these “jokes” makes the book more hilarious because I’m not constantly stopping to think, “Woah, went too far there. Now I’m going to be uncomfortable for the next five paragraphs.” This also indicates to me that Choi is reaching for higher forms of humor that are not as easy to achieve, but more admirable both in content and effort.

Choi also strikes the delicate balance of making fun of her family and their particular ways without making them totally unlikable or crossing the line after which they’d no longer wish to speak with her. (At least that’s my guess; I don’t know Choi’s family personally.) You grow to love Choi’s family throughout the book and, by the end, they feel like a part of your family. Chances are, you’ll likely find at least one trait from each “character” that mirrors that of someone in your life.

The prose which makes up Choi’s essays is equally well-crafted. Creative nonfiction can be difficult to do well, as employing too much dialogue ensures a lack of realism while too little can make for boring chapters. Choi seems to rely on regular phrases and verbal quirks of the people around her, picking up on pieces that will make her “characters” memorable for the reader. Setting is done similarly well, as Choi gives enough detail to settle the reader into a scene without drowning them in so much that the action of the scene is lost. Essays are fairly good lengths for people who enjoy reading for half-hour increments or so. They’re kind of like the “pick your own size” paper towels. What I really love about Shut Up, You’re Welcome, however, is its gimmick. I love a good gimmick. For Choi, the gimmick is short letters between each essay. The letters serve two purposes: to provide a breather piece between longer pieces and to introduce the following piece in some way. Letters are addressed to anyone or anything, and Choi refuses to hold back on how she really feels.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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