BOOK PERSON | Vol. 25
Megan Jenkins on her first self-help book, changing her mind on Rachel Cusk, and why she hates a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Last week I read Real Life by Brandon Taylor, a stunning novel about racism in academia that does an excellent job of capturing the insufferable nature of graduate students. I found it beautiful but almost unbearable. I also picked up The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker on impulse at my local organic grocer, which now has a shelf full of $2 books, and read it in a single afternoon. I ask people regularly what pandemic fiction they are reading through COVID-19 and I’m surprised that this one hasn’t been mentioned: a story about a flu-like virus that takes hold of a college town in California that gave me Severance vibes.
Other than reading, I’ve been working, writing, parenting, sleeping badly, and generally feeling stressed out. The source of that stress is both concrete (deadlines, toddler tantrums) and abstract, as the lifting of COVID restrictions is both exciting and terrifying. This is the inescapable mood of change, I suppose. I don’t have anything interesting or intelligent to say about that, I just wanted to observe it. If you too are feeling the static electricity of ambient anxiety sparking against your soul, you’re not alone.
This week’s BOOK PERSON is Megan Jenkins. Megan is a writer, a member of the SAD Mag family, and a fellow GoodReads agnostic who recently relocated to London, UK. While reading her answers to this questionnaire, I realized she has had my copy of The Guest Cat for the last two years. Thanks a lot Megan!! Read on for fun more surprises:
Describe your literary tastes.
I'm really still figuring this out. I finished grad school almost a year ago and spent all of university on mandatory/course-required readings, which really sapped my energy to pursue my own literary interests and reading for pleasure. If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have said "I JuSt LoVe ReADiNg DeLeUzE," and I would have meant it, but I was also playing myself.
So I'm still trying to find my identity as a reader. Right now, I am really enjoying formal experimentation. I’m also enjoying fiction written in other languages translated into English, because I think translation is itself a really wild, cool thing. It’s very interesting to see apparent formal differences in literature from different countries, like, Italian fiction seems to meander a lot, whereas Japanese fiction seems very reverent.
But I also love creative non-fiction and essays: Didion, Tolentino, Odell, they are my safe place.
What is your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?
The Paper Hound forever! Oddities, rarities, academic titles, old classics, new classics, classic classics, they got ‘em all. Love the books on feminist and art theory they tend to stock. Every time I visit my brain gets all sparkly.
How do you choose your books?
I use little strategy when choosing books. If a title comes with a strong recommendation, I’ll usually pick it up (unless it sounds too scary or upsetting, because life is scary and upsetting enough as it is!).
I’m also guilty of impulse purchasing a title that I recognize from somewhere. I often don’t remember where I know it from, the title pings something in my head and I hand over my moneys. This has led me to some really lovely books I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.
That said, I think this strategy is testament to me finding my sea legs again. I’m still in the wide-net-casting, information gathering portion of my life as a reader. Try everything, whittle my preferences down from there. Not thinking too hard about it has made my brain less explode-y.
Do you keep track of what you read?
I don't, not really. I should. I'm jealous of all you Book Persons with your Goodreads all locked in. I think I'm afraid to start tracking what I read because I'll feel the compulsion to back catalogue everything I've ever read, even during my schooling, and will then feel compelled to re-annotate everything. Anyone else feel that way? No? Just me? Maybe letting my reading stay chaotic is what keeps it fun.
What are the last five books you read?
I am currently retracing my reading steps, partly in a search for familiarity, as moving to England during a pandemic? Bit tough sometimes.
I picked up:
The Distance to the Moon by Italo Calvino,
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (which I stole from your house by accident, Michelle), and
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
But I also recently read two new books—those are:
Outline by Rachel Cusk and, get ready,
Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts: A CBT-Based Guide to Getting Over Frightening, Obsessive, Or Disturbing Thoughts by Martin Seif and Sally Winston
That last one is my first-ever self help book, which I am admitting to reading here because I really recommend it if you struggle with intrusive thoughts!
But because that's not a very literary fun book, I'll also add that I'm reading Flights by Olga Tokarczuk currently. I'm one chapter in and it's already obvious why this text won the Man Booker Prize.
What book is next to your bed right now?
As of late, Seif and Winston are the bedside dwellers, though just on our Kindle. Nothing like thinking about your own brain and its funny habits right before bed!
What's the best book you read last year?
I tend to break the things I’ve read into two camps: books for school and books for Megan. Occasionally, a book bridges the gap. Last year, a book I purchased for school, Peter Schwenger’s The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Objects, did that. Working with so much abstract theory, I loved Schwenger bringing everything back to the object. It developed for me an interest toward formalism and materiality that wasn’t really present in my other research, which was cool. It was a nice foil. Is the object self-determined, or does it exist only in our consciousness, like a mirror that is constantly falling away, fundamentally Other, destined to evade us? Or are objects closer to kin? This is an ontological difference I’m still reading about. Schwenger’s theory also links back up with Rachel Cusk’s Outline and ideas of personhood, others, objects, identities, mirrors.
Outline was a wild ride. I would call it one of the best books I read, I think, but I’ll caveat and say I hated the damn thing at first. Really did not get on with it. It felt blunt and ham-fisted. But by the end I was having a full on Cusk-induced existential crisis. It was austere, towering, and a bit terrifying, but at the same time very modest and restrained. It’s structured in “conversations,” which overlap and create a sense of the narrator and the world. But it’s like bumping around a dark room with only a flickering old flashlight. You can sense there’s more around you, but you can’t see it all, can’t know for sure. It’s expansive and melancholic.
Anyways, I also loved Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Odell discusses the power we retain when we refuse to engage with the machine mining our “views” for capital. Pulling away from that apparatus, we may access even more valuable, even rarer moments of quiet and kinship with ourselves, our people, and the environment. It’s an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. She also uses Deleuze. Sorry. I love Deleuze. We’re both Capricorns.
And lastly Lincoln in the Bardo by Saunders. Really cool. Love that iconoclastic fiction vibe. (I tried to read Saunders’ Tenth of December and viscerally hated it. He’s a powerful writer.) Want my single favourite book? Here, have four!
Have you ever felt betrayed by a book? Are you still mad about it?
Great question. Yes. And I want to complain about it.
I felt betrayed by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Spoilers here so skip this if you’re planning on reading it. But honestly, I wouldn’t, if I were you! Also, CW for death and sexual assault.
I really wasn’t satisfied with how Doerr treated the siblings, Werner and Jutta, in the end. It felt like bad, cheap writing, like disappointing shortcuts, to just quickly kill Werner and have Jutta and the other girls sexually assaulted by soldiers.
Defenders of this book truly say "but women *were* sexually assaulted by soldiers! You just want a fake happy ending!" And to them I respond: I don’t care if those things were in fact likely to have happened in that time and place. The story was so unreal and magical in so many ways. That kind of “reality check” didn’t need to be there. These events ultimately had almost no impact on the narrative, especially Jutta’s assault. Jutta doesn’t even get her own real chapter until after the assault, at the very end of the book!!
(My secret suspicion is that there is almost no occasion where sexual assault is actually required by a narrative. It is so often a shortcut to make clear just how bad the bad guy is, or to explain why a character is “damaged”.)
So both of those story beats felt like a copout, or felt rushed, or like Doerr was making use of two equally unchallenging crutches, namely, violence that befalls both siblings in archetypal gendered ways that did not, in my opinion, serve a real narrative purpose. The book, and the reader, and the characters, deserved more in my opinion.
Boo, Anthony! Boo!
What's your comfort read?
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide! I've read it probably five times. It's so slow and meditative; it is a rich telling of a life that still feels contained, manageable. I still don't fully understand the orientation of Lightning Alley and the narrator's house. But I love thinking about little Chibi with her paws on the window. I cry every time I read it. It is a lovely, peaceful book, and Eric Selland's translation is very nice.
Which book do you give most often as a gift?
I love to give collections of essays as gifts! They're low pressure, easy to buy into, and usually even if one essay doesn't hit right with the recipient, another in the collection will.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino is so great. She's so funny. Everyone should read the essays on her website, too. "Please, My Wife, She's Very Online", and the essay about Magic!'s horrible song "Rude" are two of my favourites.
You can always count on Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, too. I've also given The Year of Magical Thinking to loved ones in grief. Didion writes about grief with such incisive clarity that there's almost a physical relief to read pain laid bare like that, so plain, so frank. It's like depressurizing. A pinprick in a balloon.
There's also a collection called At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies' Pond, which is a very lovely collection written by women writers that have spent time at Hampstead, some over the course of decades, and it's all about wild swimming. Especially in a place with such history, it's a fascinating lens. The book is organized by season and is just an absolute delight.
What book are you most excited to read next?
I am really excited to read Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Jonny Sun's Goodbye, Again, and Francisco Garcia's If You Were There. I may also try Megan Nolan's Acts of Desperation but I'm worried it will tire me out. I really like her writing but she's almost too good. My tiny heart is easy to manipulate.
Have you ever had an argument with someone else over a book?
I argued with my husband over Normal People, the book and the TV adaptation. It's romantic and... sexy? Maybe? But also, are they both actually just insufferable? Marianne is smart, yes, but kind of feeble and damaged otherwise. Did people just like that book because there's a part of every person that loves being sad, feeling deprived, but also being cute and Irish? I don't know!
What book best represents a unique experience you've had?
I wrote about this funny experience for SAD Mag's next issue, but: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders will forever be entangled with our move to London for me.
I borrowed it from some friends on a total whim—I'd never heard of it before—and read it in the months before we moved, which was a very difficult time for me. Trying to understand what Saunders was doing with the structure of the book was challenging, but it was something to work at and focus on—and the payoff was just tremendous. I was packing our stuff one day and I found this tiny crumpled up scrap of paper that just said "Lincoln in the Bardo" on it—written in my own handwriting.
I guess I had heard about this book, probably when it came out in 2017, and noted that I wanted to read it, but then I just forgot about it. I just happened to find that scrap while already reading the book almost four years later, during a period that I really, really needed it. It was like a little nod from the universe, not that everything was gonna work out, or anything big like that, but that I was still myself even if I didn't really feel that way. That'll always be a soft spot for me.
What's the most romantic book to give as a gift?
A few years ago, my husband gave me a beat up copy of a French novel called Moi D'Abord by Katherine Pancol. It's just a funny little story about a teenager, falling in love, masturbating, being French. I don't really think the story itself was that good. But I was studying for a French exam at the time, so we'd have a glass of wine and translate the book together. He has pretty good French, so I would read the book out loud in English, and he'd help me with words or conjugations I couldn't figure out. So not the book itself necessarily, but a very romantic book-centric activity. Highly recommend.
What’s the best book to read over a long weekend with no plans?
If on a winter's night a traveller... by Italo Calvino! A classic. What better for a long, languid, relaxing afternoon? A chapter in the morning over coffee, then another with wine after dinner, then in the bath before bed... Excellent vibes. Also the formalism. I'm a big fan.
What is a book that makes you hopeful for the future?
Okay, oddly, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Reading that book—long before the pandemic—I got through the first few pages and got so freaked out I had to stop. But I really loved the rest of the book. What the Captain says about dying in the comic book. Miranda on the beach, looking at the ships. I can't be more specific because you need to encounter those things in the context of the rest of the book for them to land properly. It's really lovely and gentle.
It's funny that a book explicitly about death and pandemics makes me hopeful for the future. But it's comforting to remember that life and existence stretches far beyond us.
No reader’s choice question today, only the hope that you find something fun to read from this newsletter! Thank you for being a BOOK PERSON.