Squad Books

squad books

Look, I’m not trying to be Internetty. But at the end of a year I’ve spent thinking a lot about friendship, I don’t want my last post to be another family tree. Instead, I want to write about books that are my friends. I want to write about the books that I’ve made into parts of me, the ones that showed me something new about myself and the ones that helped me understand, or at least be kind to, a part of myself that I already knew.

I suspect that most of us have bits of culture that we think of as armor. Not all of mine are coherent. A major non-literary one is what a former friend of mine used to call thunderous rap. The spectrum is pretty much DMX to Meek Mill, though these days my preference is either Nicki Minaj or just about any rapper who recorded club hits in the early 2000s. If I need to be brave—for a party, a meeting, a date, a walk home—then chances are I’m listening to Chingy.

I tell you this for context. There are times when I like loud and simple. There are times, though I’m not proud to admit it, when I’m willing to overlook glaring misogyny. There are times when I want what’s familiar. Bear all of this in mind as you’re reading my list of best friends.


  1. Goodbye, Columbus

Everyone’s got a problem with Philip Roth, and I’m not here to disagree. He’s sexist, he’s ranty, and he’s inconsistent. He’s also a genius. And before he was so sexist and ranty, before some of those books that just aren’t good, he wrote a collection of short stories that, half a century later, perfectly illustrate how confusing it is for me to be an American Jew. There’s no image that resonates more with me than Eli, the title character in “Eli, The Fanatic,” walking around his suburban town dressed in a Hasidic Holocaust survivor’s cast-off clothes. No matter what I believe or don’t believe, no matter how I behave, there are times when I feel that obligated to my history, and that conspicuous. I hope this isn’t true for most other Jews. But it was true for Philip Roth in 1958, and it’s true for me.Continue Reading

“Subjects We Never Completely Learn”: An Interview with Daniel Nester

Hamilton_Square,_NJ_BW_PsharesDaniel Nester’s prose zings back and forth between the heart and the funny bone. His latest book, Shader, is a kaleidoscopic coming-of-age story told in brief chapters called “notes.” It’s like one of those family slideshows that make us laugh, groan, squirm in our chairs, and sometimes cry. His previous books include How to Be Inappropriate, God Save My Queen I and II, and The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. Daniel teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. We caught up recently via email to talk about Shader, the dangers of memoir writing, and the joys of writing notes.

Matthew Thorburn: Shader is subtitled “99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects.” I’m curious how you came up with the “note” form, and what makes the subjects of these notes “unlearnable.”

Daniel Nester: Part of what “unlearnable” accomplishes, for me, is to challenge an often Pollyanna-ish approach memoirists bring to risk-taking, the “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing” business. We’re supposed to learn from experience, yes, but the truth is that there are subjects we never completely learn.

The form came out of my practice of note-taking, which goes back to my first books on Queen, where I wrote a note for every song the band recorded. I like to joke that, when I write, I feel as smart as Susan Sontag, whose “Notes on ‘Camp’” is a big inspiration. Then I look at what’s on the page and realize that’s not the case.

MT: Shader is poignant, often hilarious, and throughout feels very candid. Was it difficult to revisit some of these experiences from your past—and write them down for people to read? Did you ever feel the temptation to revise your memories?

DN: I like your slideshow comparison. People who study memory will tell you we’re constantly revising memories from the place and time of our remembering. I started writing Shader before our first daughter was born—I knew my perspective would change. Once I got a memory down, I respected the memory: if I discovered I got a minor detail wrong, I considered keeping it, since that’s how I remembered and re-lived it.

Parts of this book were very difficult to write. The parts about my father were painful, and I wanted to portray Maple Shade as honestly as I could. In personal narrative, there’s the idea that you’re the protagonist of your own story, what Vivian Gornick calls the “unsurrogated” narrator, and so you’re tempted to make yourself look cooler or better. But when you’re rocking a mullet and you’ve got Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” on your tape deck, where do you start? Even Saint Augustine knew that humility runs the risk of being an “exploit.” Give me raw and candid, even prideful, honesty over twee faux-naïf mumblebrag all day long.Continue Reading

Review: WHAT COMES NEXT AND HOW TO LIKE IT by Abigail Thomas

what-comes-next-and-how-to-like-it-9781476785059_hrWhat Comes Next and How to Like It
Abigail Thomas
Scribner, March 2015
240 pages

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I was first introduced to Abigail Thomas’s work in grad school when I read Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life. Initially, I was startled by its economy of words, wondering how all those little pieces were going to fit together to form something larger. To my surprise (which says a lot about me, I’m sure), they did fit, perfectly, and after I closed the book I found myself thinking about it for days.

Such is the subtle way Abigail Thomas enters the lives of her readers. Now in her 70s, she recently published her seventh book, What Comes Next and How to Like It. Like Safekeeping, it’s filled with white space, some chapters holding no more than a single paragraph, others filling a few pages; all of them seeking to answer the question of what comes next—in her life, and perhaps in ours.Continue Reading

Review: CHAMIQUE by Chamique Holdsclaw


Chamique: On Family, Focus, and Basketball
Chamique Holdsclaw with Jennifer Frey
Scribner, 2000
189 pages

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Much like Brittney Griner’s In My Skin, Chamique is a slapped-together memoir by a college basketball wunderkind, Chamique Holdsclaw, following the player’s uneven rookie year in the pros. Where In My Skin charmed with Griner’s honesty and desire for self-improvement, Chamique broke hearts with a tale that has since been proven to be an elaborate façade—although it’s not easy to tell if Holdsclaw herself understood the book’s content was a façade at the time.

This is pretty astounding, considering the many beans that Holdsclaw is willing to spill in Chamique. Pre-teen Holdsclaw is effectively forced to steal money from her parents, themselves nonfunctional alcoholics, to get food for herself and her younger brother, Davon. As she grows older, Holdsclaw dishes dirt about plenty of her professional relationships, including her displeasure with her WNBA team, the Washington (D.C.) Mystics, for allowing her closest friend on the team, backup Rita Williams, to be signed elsewhere.Continue Reading

Review: IN MY SKIN by Brittney Griner

brittney griner_IN MY SKINIn My Skin
Brittney Griner with Sue Hovey
itbooks, 2014
216 pages

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No matter how un-invested an athlete is in the production of their own book—no matter how transparently the ghostwriter has sat down with their subject for as few hours as possible, then hurriedly stretched the transcribed interviews into something like a narrative in as few weeks as possible—a book is always long enough that something meaningful-feeling about the athlete’s true self feels shared, even if—especially if—done so unwittingly. The resulting portrait can be wickedly unflattering. Sacrifices endured and relationships suspended in pursuit of victories can fade, chapter by chapter, from the dedicated to the maniacal. The athlete’s account of perceived slights and hardships can betray a tectonic-sized ego, a self-started requirement to be eternally pampered.

Fortunately, there’s a healthy proportion of athletes—in this way sports is just like any other business, or any other slice of the world—who can’t not be cool people, who induce your sympathies just by presenting themselves. Brittney Griner, 6’8” wunderkind of women’s basketball, shows herself to be one of the latter types of athletes in her 2014 memoir, In My Skin—even though her career has endured enough scandalous downs you’d think, just to follow the headlines, that she’d be one of the former.Continue Reading

REVIEW: Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela

belief is its own kind_lori jakielaBelief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe Lori Jakiela August 4, 2015 Atticus Books 290 pages Preorder Halfway through her new memoir, Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, Lori Jakiela comes across a mall kiosk selling Russian nesting dolls.

“The doll in the woman’s hand looks a little like my daughter—blonde, rosy-cheeked, green eyed,” Jakiela writes, “—which means she looks like me, too, and probably like my sister and probably my birth mother and so on.”

The doll strikes her as a metaphor, “a tiny sarcophagus, a little hollowed out self” that “fits into another tiny sarcophagus, a series of tiny sarcophagi tucked into other sarcophagi, selves into selves, until they end up with a larger self that looks whole but isn’t.” Through such metaphors and a fragmented, lyrical style that reflects the writer’s background as a poet, Jakiela communicates the sense of a fragmented self experienced by many adoptees with little information about their origins.Continue Reading

Harold Bloom’s Song of Self

Harkness_Hall_at_YaleHere’s the story of my first and only encounter with Harold Bloom. It was the first week of a new semester, my last semester of graduate school, and I was waiting in a stuffy seminar room packed with sharply dressed undergraduates. The luckiest students had secured seats around the grand conference table while the rest of us stood in rows along the walls. Bloom arrived—looking exhausted, moving slowly—and took the vacant seat at the head of the table. He lectured for about fifteen minutes on Shakespeare. I don’t remember a word of what he said. What really stuck is what followed.

Enrollment, he explained, would be limited. There was no room for graduate students. (Disappointing, but expected.) Those undergraduates who were serious about taking the course should now take out a sheet of paper and write a paragraph or two making their case for receiving one of the coveted spots. In the meantime, he was going to wander Harkness Hall and find an empty classroom to sit in. Students could bring their applications to him there. Where? He couldn’t say. They would need to look for him. He would wait.

And with that, he left.Continue Reading

Impossible to Pin Down: Truth & Memory in Nonfiction

memory 1

Nonfiction as a genre confronts the discordance between memory—a slippery, subjective entity that can be the antithesis of truth—and actuality. Roy Peter Clark writes of the “essential fictive nature of all memory.” Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, editors of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, write “of the elusive nature of recollection.” Roy Peter Clark‘s essay, “The Line Between Fact and Fiction,” in the Nieman Foundation’s guide, explores this further:

The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a form in which reality and imagination blur into a ‘fourth genre.’ The problems of memory also infect journalism when reporters, in describing the memories of sources and witnesses, wind up lending authority to a kind of fiction. […] The postmodernist might think all this irrelevant, arguing that there are no facts, only points of view, only takes on reality influenced by our personal histories, our cultures, our race and gender, our social class. The best journalists can do in such a world is offer multiple frames through which events and issues can be seen. Report the truth? They ask. Whose truth?

It’s one thing to be subject to memory’s slippery subjectivity, and another to consciously pick and choose where to place scenes. The latter is evidence of an experienced writer, who chooses responsibility to the narrative over the facts. Vivian Gornick might agree with this approach in The Situation and the Story:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. […] Truth in memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.

Continue Reading

The Summer of Salinger, A Review

Thomas_Beller_JD_SALINGER JoannaSmithRakoff.jacket

My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff
272 pages

buy: here

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
Thomas Beller
192 Pages
Icons Series, New Harvest

buy: here


As a boy in Manhattan, Thomas Beller frequented the Museum of Natural History, struggled with his Jewish identity and didn’t apply himself in school. Now he’s our, “ideal guide to J.D. Salinger’s world.” As a young woman from Brooklyn, poet Johanna Rakoff stumbles into this world, testifying, “We all have to start somewhere.”  Last summer both authors released books with Salinger’s name in the title, but that’s about all they have in common.

With J.D. Salinger:The Escape Artist (New Harvest, June 2014), Beller embarks on a “quest biography…as much about the biographer as the subject.” It’s a questionable premise. Does Beller think he’s that interesting? There’s no denying Salinger—from Manhattan, to Normandy, and New Hampshire—lived an intensely singular life. How can Beller expect to measure up?

We never get answers to those questions (or any others), because The Escape Artist is more literary walkabout than author analysis. Our guide wanders off near Riverside Drive.

Beller acknowledges an, “aura of trespass,” yet he slogs on, describing Salinger as he’s been described to oblivion: “consummate outsider,” “genius recluse,” and—of particular significance to Beller—“half-Jewish.”Continue Reading

(Writing) Exercise: Self-compassion

Mask image

I’m talking here of memory’s difficulty. Difficult not in the way I have to wrack my weak brain to remember what happened, but in the way I’m forced to face that time I let my brother, bleeding from the mouth, run the mile home alone. Difficult in the way that looking back prompts me to see myself, as James Agee puts it, “disguised as a child.”

And what an ugly costume it could be. Holding my youth at arm’s length makes clear how royally fallible I really was. I see my foibles for the first time. My limitedness had hid them from me—a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect. And this is difficult.

As in looking back on the stack of birthday cards from my grandmother I tossed out, thinking my desk had no room. Into the wastebasket that lets every memory in and none out. I didn’t know what should be kept and what chucked. I didn’t know I was in the room with my grandmother herself, who had touched the card at its edges, wheezing over the short note with her reading glasses on. And I didn’t know that the thrown-away card would become sad and inimitable when she dies.

My grandmother tried to warn me. She dated the card at the top right corner so that I too would know posterity as always looming. Of course I see this looking back. She dated it to please the grandfather she knew I’d become, on whose lap she sat with a little girl’s wide eyes, nearing the end, nearing the beginning.Continue Reading