Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Be Your Own Book Club June 2015: The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Do you wanna leave soon?
No, I want enough time to be in love with everything...
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short 
-Marina Keegan from the poem "Bygones"

This book wasn't what I expected. I like essays.  I like to hear people talk about themselves. I'm quick to join in with the internet chorus that agrees, en mass, to like something, to call it good.  I was surprised by my reactions to The Opposite of Loneliness, until I thought about it for awhile, and then I wasn't anymore.

This volume is made of up short stories and essays.  The introduction, written by one of Keegan's writing professors, is as long as many of the works. I learned two technical writing terms in the intro itself, so I was considering this book a win before I'd gotten very far.  It was later, when I was uncomfortable with my lack of interest in the stories, that I appreciated that everything was in such short bites.

Throughout the short stories in particular, there were glimpses of interaction and character development that I really liked, but I was haunted by this nagging feeling that I was missing something.  Across the board, the stories finished weak, and many of them weren't very good. I would get to end, wanting badly to get that "woah" feeling that endings often give me, and I'd feel lost. I was searching for something to connect with, and I was often disappointed. The fact that I felt this way when I wanted so badly to enjoy this book spoke volumes to me.

Where I think Keegan's work does shine is when she is writing from the point of view of a 20-something college student, which she is, forever.  I liked her story about the college girl dealing with the death of her casual boyfriend (although I found the subject matter, and the post-mortem journal-reading, in particular, an eerie prophecy) and how sick she felt, reading his private thoughts about her not comparing to his ex-girlfriend. I found flashes of powerful recognition in the short story about the girl who visits her boyfriend doing summer stock and suspects he's cheating.  The descriptions of being sure you're right and then sure you're imagining it were visceral.  She nailed it.  

I loved this beginning:

The biggest fight in my relationship with Danny regards the absurd claim that he invented the popular middle school phenomenon of saying "cha-cha-cha" after each phrase of the Happy Birthday song- an idea his ingenious sixth-grade brain allegedly spawned in a New Jersey Chuck E. Cheese and watched spread across 1993 America with an unprecedented rapidity.

This is such an perfect way to set up the ultimate annoying one-upper.  What a ridiculous claim- who IS this guy? What IS this relationship? Except...there was no follow through.  He never really got called on his shit.  And now I'm wondering where this phenomenon (still going strong in my first-grade classroom to this day) really came from.

There's also this from the last essay Keegan wrote for the Yale Daily News (the essay that went viral after her untimely death in 2012):

It's not quite love and its not quite community; it's just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it's 4 am and no one goes to bed...We're so young. We're so young. We're twenty-two years old. We have so much time.

It's not only gorgeous because of the painful irony that Marina Keegan did not have "so much time"...she died only a month or so later.  It's also a really perfect sentiment for the end of college.  The whole essay discusses the fear of leaving the safety of the college support system, and speaks with the gravity and wisdom of a young person who has no idea how young they are, no matter how many times they say it.  That is the biggest praise and criticism I've seen about Keegan's work- it all sounds like she's in her twenties.  

I wonder, a little uneasily, if Keegan would be comfortable with us reading these pieces. They were unfinished, unpublished (aside from the essay from her college newspaper), and her parents and professors just did their best to evaluate what she would have wanted in her published work.  Maybe she was still working out the finer points of some of these endings.  Maybe if she had had more time to develop her style, it would be a different book.

What did you think about The Opposite of Loneliness? Any favorite passages or essays? Am I being too harsh on the quality of the writing?  In the end, I didn't enjoy this book the way I wanted to, but I have spent an entire afternoon and evening writing this review due to how often I keep getting lost in rereading different sections.  I'd love to know what you think!

Now to introduce the July pick: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.  I've heard good things about this book, and see it on lots of reading challenge lists.  Hopefully it will be a little lighter and a little more plot driven, as has been requested by some of my lovely readers.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading along this year! In the first half of 2015, we've read four books, and I'm hoping to keep going strong.  Happy reading, fabulous ladies!



At July 8, 2015 at 3:06 PM , Anonymous Maggie B the SLP said...

Hey friends,
First, I've never posted to a blog or been in a book club before, so if I'm way off base, I'm sorry and I hope you immediately find a fun video like the one of puppies meeting kittens to forget my attempt ;) Also I didn't know there were character limits sooo sorry for breaking up my comments. Ooops!

I am so torn about this book and agree on so many levels with your observations that perhaps we should give Ms. Keegan the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this compilation. While I am not a writer, I do create, tweak, write and edit different documents including emails, IEPs, reports and eval write ups, on a daily basis. When going back to documents I have written in the past, I often think “oh, I would not word it that way now”, or “that is an awful sentence and does not express what I meant at all”, or “the intended tone of voice for this is probably not what my reader heard, oops!”. Even this silly post, I wrote in Word so I could read, edit and delete whatever needed fixing (though I’m sure I’ve missed something) before hitting the submit button. Marina’s work is far more creative than anything I have ever put down on paper, however it is also raw and I think that’s why I felt raw reading it. The one exception which I read (let’s face it: after the creepy naked lady story aka “Reading Aloud”, I have yet to finish this book, though I intend to keep slogging through it, until I do finish), is the one work which was polished and published, which I found to be fabulous and uplifting. The other stories left me feeling raw and edgy, and unable to continue on to the next without an extensive break. It was as if one too many dark emotions and examples of how grey life can be were presented all at once.

At July 8, 2015 at 3:08 PM , Anonymous Maggie B the SLP said...

However, the discomfort inevitably fades, and then I could reflect back on her stories with interest, think about some of the quotes which spoke to me and rehash some of the themes which initially are just too poignant and distressing to contemplate. One of the stories I found interesting was “Winter Break” which seemed to me to focus on those moments when one first truly realizes: A. Things change while I am away B. My parents are getting OLD C. I have become an adult. Each of these realizations come after we have noticed several examples or situations which embody them and finally compile the data into hard truths. I think Marina was adept with weaving these “college age” insights into this work and that since she was probably starting to come to these realizations herself/going through this process, this work was not as raw as some of the others.
While I found the “Cold Pastoral” extremely disturbing, especially after just reading and liking her first essay, there was a quote in it which I think shows her depth of understanding of life and how we function. “Brian had begun to be that for me- the thing at the end of the day I could think about when everything else was boring”, reflects so much of the attitude that we sometimes get caught up in as the days clump together and the work week seems never ending. It is an adolescent’s way of looking at what may eventually sustain us through these times: why we stay in relationships with the people we love even when things get tough. Being excited at the end of the day to see one’s partner or family is something we might not notice everyday of our lives, because we all get too busy and too perfection seeking in our work and social lives. But there should always be at least a tingle of excitement and anticipation when thinking about that special person at the end of a draining, boring day. As adolescents, our love lives and relationships can be overwhelmingly dramatic and thrilling. We feel electrified by the new relationship and obsessed with spending as much time with the person as possible. I think Marina wrote this quote to demonstrate how the young, college-aged girl was really not as interested in the boy as she should have been. However, I also see wisdom in the quote in that if the person you are with can’t be the “something to think about” or get excited about at the end of the day, then some serious reflection regarding the relationship is probably in order.
My last thoughts have to do with the final story I read in the book. The story of the old-lady, Anna, who reads to a blind man while stripping is creepy and disturbing but also heartbreakingly poignant. There is something so true and natural about how Marina expresses what it must be like to be on the other side of life, when everything seems to be harshly changing and we are not what we once were. I feel like I have heard parts of Anna’s story so many times while listening to elderly relatives and friends. And while I like to joke about the story being creepy, I can get why Anna would feel more like the person she was as a dancer, wife and young woman, in the presence of a young blind man. I might not strip down without at least some “syrup” in my tea (or just straight whiskey instead of tea), but I can empathize with wanting to feel young and beautiful and like you haven’t lost all that you were. In this way I think Ms. Keegan’s creative work speaks volumes to how we are different and yet the same no matter what stage of life we are currently living.

At July 8, 2015 at 9:15 PM , Blogger Molly said...

I didn't get a chance to read this in June, but I'm reading it right now. While I'm not overly impressed, I am enjoying it. (The last book I read was TERRIBLE, so bad I didn't even Instagram it, so this feels like a breath of fresh air, no matter how mediocre.) I think her writing shows a lot of promise, despite its flaws, and it's unfortunate that we'll never get to read what could have been.
I'm so excited to discuss "Me Before You." Coincidentally, I read this in June, so I'm just swapping books this month. :) I fell in love with the characters in "Me Before You" in a way that I haven't since the Thursday Next series. You're in for such a treat.

At July 14, 2015 at 1:58 PM , Blogger ashlie said...

You are awesome. I love the description of feeling raw reading the stories, that totally nails it. She definitely focuses on the rockier aspects of emotion, and sometimes I didn't even GET what feeling she was trying to convey. I still don't understand what happened at the end of the story about the boyfriend who cheated at Yatzee. AT ALL.

PS- Never finish a book you don't like! <3

At July 14, 2015 at 1:59 PM , Blogger ashlie said...

Cold Pastoral was SO creepily prophetic, and one of my favorite stories of the book. Exploring the feelings of reading someone else's diary entries about you. Insane.

At July 14, 2015 at 2:03 PM , Blogger ashlie said...

I love that we book swapped! I think the saddest thing of all if not knowing how she would feel about these things being published (like you said, never reading what could have been). This same feeling makes me curious/nervous about GO SET A WATCHMAN. Can't wait to chat ME BEFORE YOU!

At August 6, 2015 at 11:41 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

My First Disclaimer is that I must confess I did not finish this book. My second is that I wrote a thoughtful and lengthy comment a couple of weeks ago that my browser somehow reset and lost as I was clicking submit and it's taken me this long to get over my grudge.

That being said I still wanted to contribute my abridged thoughts, even if somewhat tardy. I didn't finish this book for a couple of reasons but the primary reason has nothing to do with this book at all. I was moving at the time and in all the commotion I knew I wouldn't be able to finish in my allotted library time so I returned it early. I decided to do this because after reading a few chapters I didn't feel "drawn in" to the stories as much as I had hoped, and as much as I rely on to get myself to finish books. At first I thought I was simply to separated from my college self to connect well with her subject matter, but it's comforting to know that others had similar feelings when it came to engaging with the stories. I felt like pieces and paragraphs were really striking but the overall tones left me feeling like the stories and essays weren't completed. Which, given the circumstances, many are likely are not complete to the author's liking. I think the back story of this book gave it even more weight, made me desperately want to like it more, and ultimately complicated my feelings about it. I also don't feel right giving a definitive critique since I didn't finish the book, and probably missed out on some of the best essays in the novel.

I haven't started Me Before You, but I may still to read it before the next pick. I'm excited to see what's next!


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