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Lost in the Stacks

I read widely and compulsively and my fancies are ever changing. My love of reading, however, is no mere fancy. 

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The Stress of Her Regard
Tim Powers
Progress: 480/960 minutes
It Chooses You - Miranda July, Brigitte Sire

It is with a heavy heart and a guilty conscience that I give this work of memoir and sociological study of the late aughts and the Great Recession, a [b:Let Us Now Praise Famous-for-Being-Famous Men|243360|Let Us Now Praise Famous Men|James Agee|http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41wAvdk9DdL._SL75_.jpg|1204501], a four-star and not a one-star rating. Miranda July's project is born out of, in her words, a severe case of procrastination, and in my words, July's need to refill her writer's tank with the real-world human experiences that it burns for fuel which she can't get locked away in her second apartment/office, 'researching' real world experience on the internet. To flesh out the screenplay for a movie called The Future, July reads the PennySaver every Tuesday, in which people place written classified adds selling leather jackets, toys, and odd house-hold appliances. There are so many things wrong with It Chooses You:

July becomes curious: who is this soul selling a large leather jacket for $10? So she, her assistant and her wedding photographer, set out to find out. They meet Michael. They pay him $50 so they can interview him about who he is, what are his hopes and dreams. They photograph his apartment. They don't buy the leather jacket like they said they would. Let me state this boldly (see below), if you go to someone's house, under the pretext that you are going to purchase their worldly goods and pay them for their life story, but then pay them for their life story and then don't purchase their worldly goods makes the whole enterprise, regardless of the upfront 'I'll pay you $50 for your life story', exploitative. It turns the PennySaver advertiser into an exhibit because it robs them of the one act that they performed (ad in flier) of their own agency that led to this mutually advantageous meeting. July does purchase some items: clothes from India, photo albums full of vacation pictures that belong to people unknown to the seller, and some are simply too impractical to buy: i.e., live animals. But still, see Problem 2, most of the advertisers are from disenfranchised communities and lack empowerment; there is a small act of self-reliance and empowerment in listing one's goods in this flier and no matter how small that act was it should be honored. Buy the leather jacket, Miranda. Stick the Xtra Xtra Xtra large condoms you're trying to get rid of but can't bear to throw away into it. Hand it in to your nearest coat drive.

A woman named Beverly makes July, her photographer, and her assistant a HUGE bowl of fruit salad to eat during their interview . . . and then they don't eat it. Here's rule #1 of basic human decency when in a strangers house: if you are a guest in the home of a person you do not know well, you have no reason to believe that they will do you any harm, and ESPECIALLY if you are asking them to bare their soul (and July admits to going too far with this interview), AND they offer you food, unless you have an allergy that will send you into IMMEDIATE anaphylactic shock and/or cardiac arrest if you consume it, and no matter how full you are or how much you hate this kind of food, YOU EAT THE FOOD. You don't need to eat all of it. Just a serving. And afterwards, you say thank you and tell them it was delicious, unless, of course, the food was store bought, in which case the delicious is overboard and condescending. (Unless it really is delicious.) You do NOT take it to go. Preparing food for another human being, no matter who they are, is an intimate and loving act. If you reject their food (see caveat, above) you reject their kindness, you reject their outreach and affection. It was this incident more than any in the book that rankled me. Beverly seemed nothing but a kind woman who'd had a rough go of it but was making it work. It was Beverly's house that July seems most anxious to be in and most anxious to leave; it was so out of her comfort zone she begins to have a panic attack. It is in this instance that I think that we see exactly how in over her head July is, how, for all her prison pen-pals and interviews with people about their porn collections, she is just an exceptionally unworldly young woman from a privileged background frightened and ignorant of the world beyond.

Lee Siegel wrote in The New Republic Online in April, 2007:

If there is a McSweeney's sensibility, it is summed up in the epigraph to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: "First of all: I am tired. I am true of heart! And also: You are tired. You are true of heart!" Art being, among other things, the inner account of what happens when deliberately or unwittingly untrue hearts collide, the McSweeney's style, and Eggers's style, can read like Peanuts for adults who are reluctant to grow up. In fact, Eggers prides himself on dividing his fictional and semi-fictional worlds between overgrown children -- the true of heart -- and adults, the latter almost always helpless victims or boorish types. Mostly, though, grown-ups do not exist in Eggers's writing. His world is populated by young, childlike people mostly in their twenties, for whom the more mature world -- as in Peanuts -- resembles the shadows flickering on the wall of Plato's infamous cave.

July, published here by McSweeney's, essentially eludes to this very phenomenon of the shadows of the real world in the chapter "Matilda and Domingo", when she finds among that days photos the pictures of Domingo's wall calendar:

". . .I doggedly asked each PennySaver seller if they used a computer. they mostly didn't, and though they had a lot to say about other things, they didn't have much to say about this, this absence. I began to feel that I was asking the question just to remind myself that I was in a place where computers didn't really matter, just to prompt my appreciation for this. As if I feared the scope of what I could feel and imagine was being quietly limited be the world within a world, the internet. the things outside of the web were becoming further from me, and everything inside it seemed piercingly relevant. The blogs of strangers had to be read daily. . .the web seemed so inherently endless that it didn't occur to me what wasn't there. . . Domingo's blog was one of the best I've ever read, but I had to drive to him to get it, he had to tell it to me with his whole self, and there was no easy way to search for him. He could only be found accidentally.

The shadows of the mature world are also evident in July's slow realization about WHY, specifically, the sellers are advertising in the Penny Saver and not on Craigslist. They don't have computers. She is aware that many are down on their luck, but she seems shocked, when driving up to Primila's house in chapter 2, that Primila lives in a large home in a nice neighborhood. She is again, shocked, when visiting Matilda and Domingo, the sort of life their poverty has granted them. When the class-consciousness begins to get the best of her, she retreats into discussions of her art. The difference makes her feel 'creepy', she writes, and then retreats again. [Lee Siegel, early in the piece linked to above, refers to this insistance of addressing adult themes like class but refusing to look them in the face, as Dave Eggers' "post-post modern half-irony - or sincerony", and I think that decription fits here.]

For all that, this book was saved by three things:

1. Brigitte Sire's photographs are incredible. They display an incredible empathy for their subjects; they are tender and telling. Studying them while I read, I was filled with a tremendous amount of love for mankind. I broke down instantaneously into tears at one particularly moving tryptic.

2.Miranda July writes well and chose and important project, albeit off-handedly. This book did more to illuminate and uplift the mundane of the everyday than most of the literary fiction of the last decade, whose job this should be.

3. Joe. His chapter was worth the whole book. God Bless You, Sir.