The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Month: December, 2015

Tin House, winter reading

Volume 17, Number 2.

I subscribe to Journal of the Month, which sends me a different literary magazine each month. Tin House seems to be heavy on fiction, but it also has essays, poems, some reviews of books, and, in this issue, one comic or graphic novel short.

I didn’t get into any of the poetry, even though they had a lot of pieces by Sharon Olds who I thought I really liked. That’s okay, I don’t get into most poetry. It was all a bit too… wispy for me. Not enough grabbed onto something real that could keep me engaged and or even on point for the entire poem. I didn’t finish a lot, even though they were mostly short, and though the longest poem in the bunch did engage me past the first page it went on too long without any, as far as I could gather, progression.

It had an essay I’d already read called On Pandering by Claire Vaye Watkins which stood up to a second reading well. I skipped a couple of the essays because they didn’t grab me. There was an essay about a woman’s romantic history, tracing back generations, which I enjoyed but felt would have been better as inspiration for fiction.

I prowled through the fiction greedily. I don’t read a lot of short stories, and even fewer outside the context of a single author’s collection. They were all high quality, good stories and I enjoyed them, but only one stuck with me and towards the end I got tired of the format, actually skipping out on the last two. (There were a total of seven in the issue.) The one that stuck with me was Children by Helen Phillips. I happened to have seen a book of hers, The Beautiful Bureaucrats, recommended at the Harvard Book Store recently; she was described as similar to Haruki Murakami if Murakami knew how to write women. I didn’t put this together until halfway through the story, which is wonderful and weird and still sticks with me vividly.


Bird by Bird

By Anne Lamott.

My mum got this book on our shared kindle account and suggested I read it. I read the first three quarters early this year and though I loved it I stopped short of the end for some reason. However, I diligently returned to it after Christmas and finished it on the plane ride home. The whole thing is amazing.

Anne Lamott seems like the perfect writer: honest, articulate, and full of neuroses that make her writing unique and engaging. Bird by Bird is about writing, about how to write and what to write and why this writing thing anyway. It doesn’t sugar-coat the truth. Lamott does not suggest I will get published nor that publishing is really any good, though she admits that the achievement is a little stone she carries around in her pocket. She knows that writing must be read, that the point of articulation is the reciprocal, and she knows that for must of us that reciprocation will just be friends and family. She assures us that this is okay.

But it’s also about how to sit down and write, every day. She’s equal parts ‘hard work and practice will get you through’ and ‘sometimes you have to wait for it to come.’ She smatters her faith in the book in a way that does not upset me at all, and I get upset easily with that kind of stuff.

This book introduced me to Lamott and made me desperately want to read her other work.

A scene that stuck in my head: when she was reworking and reworking her second novel she laid out her manuscript in little stacks on the floor, rearranging the pieces to figure out how the story should go.

The Power of Habit

By Charles Duhigg.

Part one of this book is great and I hope it changes my life. It outlines a theory of how habits work and how we can change them. The theory is that a habit it made up of three parts: cue, routine, and reward. The key towards changing your habits is identifying the cue and the reward, (you tend to know exactly what the routine is,) then replacing the routine with something you’d rather do that still triggers some kind of reward for you (and follows the original cue.) Apparently habits can’t be erased, only overridden. The final, and necessary, concept behind habit changing is that stressful life events or particularly enticing cues can cause you to fall back into the habit you tried to change; the way to get past this is to make a plan for getting through those times and to have a belief that you can follow it.

Although this is simple, it’s easy to see how far the theory can go in changing your life. Duhigg doesn’t dive into this much, but habits control huge portions of your day and therefore your life. Taking control of them is an incredibly powerful way to take control of your life.

Part two is interesting and focuses on habits in successful organizations. I thought the idea of keystone habits was strong–changing one habit can bleed into many others–as was the idea of willpower as a muscle and predictor of success. However, here he starts to delve into case studies and concepts I’m not convinced are highly related to habits. He talks a lot about data-driven marketing, which can be understood through a framework of habits of the consumer. I agree that we can frame marketing with consumer habits but I always get the feeling in these kinds of books that the author just thinks everything can now be understood with their theory. I don’t think habits are a particularly useful way to understand big data.

Part three goes off the deep end for me, talking about the civil rights movement and strong versus weak social ties… It just didn’t feel relevant and I was already gun-shy about trying to push everything into a habits-shaped hole. I skimmed this part, which also included a comparison of a man who killed his wife while sleep walking and a woman who gambled away her and her parents fortune. I think he took on something much larger than and, again, not relevant to habit.

Still, part one was awesome and totally worth it.


By Oliver Sacks.

This short book is a collection of four essays by Oliver Sacks. One celebrates his eightieth birthday but the other three are in reaction to his terminal illness. I was inspired to read it by the Brain Pickings article on the small little thing. The essays are all short and feel like glimpses through windows into Oliver Sacks’ great mind. I love his delight in old age:

My father, who lived to be ninety-four, often said that the eighties had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.

Ultimately they are of interest because Oliver Sacks is of interest, because Oliver Sacks is interesting. I think this must be the case for personal essays: the writer must engage you with their own self in order to take you along.

Nine Stories

By J. D. Salinger.

I enjoyed these stories a lot. I would like to re-read them, along with Franny and Zooey. I love Salinger’s straight-forward descriptions and way of setting a scene. The writing still feels modern, despite the dialogue clearly being dated.

I did feel that sometimes Salinger was going over my head when he didn’t need to, which I didn’t appreciate. For instance, in Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes, there is a twist to the story which was great but I didn’t glean from the text — I had to read about it online. I don’t see the point in being so obtuse. The story was an amazing character study and being clearer with the twist at the end would not have disrupted that. I wonder if more of the nine stories had some extra layer that I didn’t catch.

Many of these stories are occupied with children, particularly precocious children. This seems to be common in Salinger’s writing.