Sunday, March 7, 2010

Joanna Smith Rakoff

Joanna Smith Rakoff is the author of the novel A Fortunate Age, which was a New York Times Editors' Pick, a winner of the Elle Readers' Prize, a selection of Barnes and Noble's First Look Book Club, an IndieNext pick, and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. As a journalist and critic, she's written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, Vogue, Time Out New York, O: The Oprah Magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals.

About ten days ago, I asked her what she was reading. Her response:
Right now, I’m reading Meghan Daum’s deeply brilliant memoir, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, a sort of history of her life (and her mother’s life) through the prism of real estate, which is also a vivid take on the housing craze of the early Oughts. Daum is, undoubtedly, one of the most interesting thinkers—and cultural critics—of our generation, if not the most interesting, and certainly one of the most elegant, sharp writers of prose around. While reading Life Would Be Perfect—which I cannot put down—I’ve found myself thinking, “Wow, I’d read Meghan Daum’s thoughts on anything.” (A slight tangent: Recently, while getting my hair cut, I was handed a tattered copy of Allure and began reading a profile of Kristen Stewart, only to find myself thinking, “This is incredibly smart and funny. It’s as if Allure hired Meghan Daum to profile Kristen Stewart.” Then I flipped back to the byline and, indeed, Allure had hired Meghan Daum to profile Kristen Stewart.) In Life Would Be Perfect she traces her fixation on housing to her mother’s class strivings, which manifest themselves in her own psyche once she leaves home and becomes obsessed with, in turn, the ideal dorm room, Upper West Side apartment, Nebraska farmhouse, and Echo Park bungalow. (It’s not a spoiler to say that after many misfires, she acquires the latter, only to find that home ownership isn’t the nirvana she’d envisioned.) But the tale’s brilliance lies less in the subject matter—though, of course, it’s both tragic and hilarious to look back on the decorating fever that gripped the country for a few years—than in Daum’s singular, hilarious, piercing take on it, and, of course, her gripping, forceful prose (which is, ultimately, what makes the book impossible to set down).

I’m also re-reading David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan, a collection of that made a big splash when it came out in 2001, a year or so after one of the stories, “The Smoker,” appeared in The New Yorker’s now-defunct debut fiction issue. I read the collection a few years later—after the hype had died down—and loved it, in part because it struck me as very different from most of the contemporary fiction I was reading at the time. Schickler’s stories are stylized—there’s a vaguely Mamet-like quality to them, though Schickler’s sensibility is pure romanticism, the opposite of Mamet’s cynicism—and seriously weird, somehow walking an odd, transfixing line between realism and surrealism (or, perhaps, absurdism). The Manhattan in which they take place is at once comfortingly recognizable—there’s the Broadway-Lafayette stop! And Riverside Drive!—and utterly fantastical. The characters live in a fictional apartment building, the Preemption, on Riverside Drive, which may or may not have vaguely supernatural qualities, just as the city itself may be possessed of its own volition, in Schickler’s odd, charming worldview.

Too quickly: I’ve recently finished two lovely, and very different novels by friends, Jami Attenberg’s The Melting Season, a dark tale about a young Nebraskan who escapes a bad marriage, and Shanthi Sekaran’s The Prayer Room, a family saga that chronicles, with great humor and grace, the marriage of a working class English scholar and a rebellious South Indian woman he meets on his year abroad. I also just finished Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and loved, in particular, the story “Executors of Important Energies,” in which a young man is visited by his wealthy, senile father. Brutal. (Like much of the book.)

Sitting beside my bed is Margaret Drabble’s 2006 novel The Sea Lady, which I’ve been holding out to myself as a reward for finishing a difficult piece on which I’ve been working for way too long (I love Drabble and, thus, am doling out her novels, just as I do with Dawn Powell, allowing myself perhaps one every eight months, so as not to run out). Also in the queue: Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed (Then We Came to the End is one of my favorite novels of recent years), my Oberlin classmate Paul Jaskunas’ Hidden, a disturbing novel about a woman who’s survived a brutal attack by her husband (it’s so distressing that I can’t read it after dark and, thus, am not making much headway), Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Picking Bones from Ash, because I’m mildly obsessed with Japan, and Justin Taylor’s new collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, because it sounds fantastic.
Read an excerpt from A Fortunate Age, and learn more about the book and author at Joanna Smith Rakoff's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Fortunate Age.

--Marshal Zeringue