I read WhereI'm Calling From by Raymond Carver, and it's a good book. The stories are packed full of little diamonds of crushingly-great prose, and the characters are compelling and sad. But the overall style/approach (drunk and hopeful and sad middle America) is so common now that it's hard for me to appreciate what was once unique about the stories.
In any case, I want to use the book as an excuse to talk about something else I've been noodling over: books and dudes!
Where I'm Calling From is sort of a "Greatest Hits" book of Carver's stories, but his most famous is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It contains the famous title story, put Carver on the literary map in the 80s, and inspired a generation of short stories about drunk husbands sitting around their houses.
It's also the first book in this Esquire article called 75 Books Every Man Should Read.
I really like this list. It's a serious list. There are good books on it. I don't remember where I first saw it--Facebook or something--but, I remember that either the person linking to the list or the folks in the comments afterward or both were at least a little bit upset over the idea. They didn't like that the list singled out men. "I'm a woman, and I can read Cormac McCarthy!" said one person, maybe. Those kinds of comments made me very :-( at the time!*
There are a couple of ways to understand recommending a list of books to "Men" rather than "Everyone." You could think of it as exclusive--"No chicks allowed, bro!"
Or you could think of it in another way.
I worry sometimes about the state of young men in America. We've rejected (rightly!) a long history of What-it-means-to-be-a-man because it's been oppressive and sexist and gross. Men got it wrong for a long time. Don Draper is not a cool dude.
But we've replaced it with... nothing, for the most part! There is no coherent narrative for the modern American Male.
I'll say that again, because I've said this to people a couple of times before and they usually get kind of quiet and awkward, which makes me worried that it's either nonsense or somehow offensive. But here we go: There is no coherent narrative for the modern American Male.
We are video game players and beer drinkers, Family-Guy-watchers and Taco-Bell-eaters. To be ambitious in your career is to be a kids-movie villain. To be a family man is to be un-cool and impotent. We're left with the slacker-hero as role model.
Defining a list of books like that (a list of serious, difficult books full of important intellectual and emotional truths) for men is--in a small way--an attempt to carve out a little something more for us. It's to say that being a man can mean being artistic and serious, can require intellectual perseverance and ambition.
The truth is that one of the reasons that I'm attracted to books and reading and writing and all this stuff is that it informs my sense of masculinity. I know, I know!--the gender stereotypes equate math and sciences with dudes, and humanities with ladies. But when I look back on American fiction, I see mostly men.** I see industrious, strong, perceptive, sensitive, ambitious men.
And the Esquire list draws on those qualities. Someone clearly (to me) put a lot of thought into the selection of the books.
To say that there are no such things as books "for Men," is to say what our culture sometimes says now: There is no such thing as a male experience.
That's what makes me so :-(. I think there is a male experience. Or, to be more specific, I think we can talk about a male experience without it just being sexist or gross or anything like Tucker Max. In the same way that I can enjoy The Awakening or A Room of One's Own, while understanding that it probably contains things that appeal particularly to many women, there may just be such a thing as art and literature that deals with what it's like to be a dude.
And that may be OK.
To summarize: Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From. Pretty good????
*Or, if not :-(, at least pretty :-/.
**Note: This is extremely unfair. It reflects gender bias and NOT talent at writing. Even today, when the majority of book-buyers are female, the most "big ticket" authors in America are men. And that's embarrassing. But it's a little beside my overall point, which is just that American Lit has been a sort of role-model factory for me as a dude.
I also read...
Foundation by Issac Asimov: Loved it!
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Disappointed! Wasn't very good!