Aug 17, 2010 10

Book review: My Misspent Youth

author Meghan Daum & her book, My Misspent Youth

I came to Meghan Daum’s writing backwards, or sideways, or at least, highly out of order, my fault, entirely.

While she was living in Manhattan, getting published in The New Yorker, I was going off the deep end in Los Angeles, and had let my subscription lapse. By the time she’d moved to Los Angeles and landed her gig as a columnist for the L.A. Times, I was obsessed with moving to hicksville, and (again), had let my subscription lapse. (Well, the weekday one, anyway.)

Finally, this spring, I spied an interview with Daum and another writer in a publication I still subscribe to, the excellent and ever-lively New York magazine. Said piece was clearly part of a P.R. push to accompany the birthing of her latest book; in a stroke of something-or-other, someone had gotten the idea to have Daum and another lady author interviewed together by a third lady author. Oh, the lady authors!

I am leery of stunts in general, as they bring up the phantom stench of all the sleazy things I’ve done in the name of advertising, and this particular stunt was, well, stunty. But the oddest thing happened. Quietly, gracefully, in the midst of this flack-driven circus act, Daum somehow managed to rise above it all and assert her brilliance, using nothing more than her extraordinary gift with words and her non-crazy perspective.

This piqued my interest, onto the to-read list she went.

Her second book, a novel, turned up first. It is smart and funny, with some sharp characterizations and surprising plot twists. Then her most recent book popped into view, literally, on the same shelf my now-friend Brooks’ did. It’s a quite-nice memoir on the longing for roots and the inevitable discovery that there’s no goddamn “there” there, something I not only relate to, but could write a book on myself.

Finally, on a recent Bart’s run, My Misspent Youth appeared before me. It is Daum’s first book, a collection of essays from her salad days as a young writer and editor living in New York, and it blew my doors off. All of a sudden, or rather, bit by bit, with strings of long-dormant nerve cells lighting up like Christmas lights, the references to Joan Didion made sense. The superficial similarity, yes, the stories are New York-centric, involving dreams of living the life of a Manhattanite as much as her subsequent (and slightly more grim) reality.

The real Didion-like comparison goes much, much deeper, though. Because, like Didion’s for a certain kind of (crazy) person, Daum’s is the kind of writing you find by accident that makes you believe in Divine intervention. There you are, living your stupid life, a little despondent and starting to lose it because really, really there is no one out there but you thinking these crazy thoughts, who is disturbed by things other people seem to find completely normal, when suddenly, there is this gift from an angel, these batches of words that whisper, “No, no, you’re fine, and see? Here’s the curtain, and there’s the funny little man madly pulling levers behind it.” This is writing that’s startling and clear and still deeply, deeply human. There is horror nestled in there, but it’s always flanked by humor, as it’s supposed to be. There is no coyness, no winking, no pandering; there is no muddiness, no equivocating, no pedantry. There is just sharp, clear insight and humanity channeled onto every page. AND HUMOR. Did I mention humor?

It’s extraordinary. And for those of us who feel a little crazy most of the time, it might be very comforting, as well.

If you are not a little crazy, you might not get the big deal. You might be shocked, even offended, by a few of the pieces. Trust me, if you want to be a writer, those are the ones you should read twice. (Ira Glass very rightly kept a copy of Daum’s essay “Variations on Grief” handy for years, to hand out to people inquiring as to who the strong, new voices were these days.) The truth is not comfortable, but it is the truth, and if you can open your heart to it, amazing things start to happen.

So, yes, enjoy the memoir. Read the novel on the beach during what’s left of this summer. But me, I’d start with My Misspent Youth, and carve out the time to read it properly, slowly. It is a wonder of a book.


Photo of Meghan Daum by Laura Kleinhenz.

Disclosure! Links to the book(s) in the above post are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: while small, it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Posted in: The Useful Ones

Delia LLoyd August 17, 2010 at 12:48 am

Well, you’ve got me hooked. I’m in! Sounds right up my alley. Thx for this review which explains the appeal in a way that makes one want to rush out and get this thing

Delia Lloyd

@TheGirlPie August 17, 2010 at 8:01 pm

What she said.
(Plus, what a great pic of the chick, she said, aspirationally.)
Plus-plus: used your aff-link to do so.
Plus-plus-plus: Thanks~

the communicatrix August 17, 2010 at 8:53 pm

I was especially please with how this diptych turned out. Good shot, good cover, good diptych!

Clara August 17, 2010 at 5:45 am

I’m hooked as well. Thanks for a review that has me itching to read the book.

JES August 17, 2010 at 7:49 am

Colleen, I’ve been meaning to bring this to your attention: a NY Times feature, “But Will It Make You Happy?” — all about the jettisoning of personal possessions.

It mentions “a Web site that challenges consumers to live with just 100 personal items,” but doesn’t provide a URL. I’ve been wondering about my 100 items, and inevitably keep trying to game the system. E.g., “If I own an e-reader, does that count as one item no matter how many books I’ve got on it?” (Ditto an iPod for music, and so on.)

I immediately thought of your simplify, simplify! project when I began reading.

the communicatrix August 17, 2010 at 9:47 am

@Delia, @Clara – You’re welcome. I know I’m always glad when I get a ringing endorsement for something that sounds interesting. Hope you love it as much as I do.

@JES – Thanks, John. I did read that when it got passed around, and in fact had a 100-items discussion late last week. One person swore that socks and underwear counted as ONE thing each. So, 10 pair socks = 1 item, 14 pair undies = 1 item. T-shirts, however, were to be counted individually.

There’s a group on 43things for this, of course. One of the members also described a many-similar-equals-one rule:

I think you’re right, though—if you’re starting to think you’re gaming, you’re gaming. The idea of getting down to 100 works better as general goal, anyway. If you end up obsessing over a sock or a back issue of Maxim, you’re missing the point.

Ann August 17, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Just bought it, thanks! I was just wondering today, if there is enough time in one lifetime to read all of the books I want to? And now, I have added another! I have a Kindle and I have to vote for that counting as one item, because when I look at the actual books on my actual bookshelf and think about putting 100 things in a box, the Kindle will give me room for my toothbrush, too.

brooklynchick August 21, 2010 at 4:40 am

Read it a few years ago, I second that! Loved. It.

anne hubben September 16, 2010 at 4:51 am

Thank you for this great recommendation. I got the book, read it and am going to read it again and tell everyone about it. She is so funny and describes things perfectly. Having experienced my own sheepish “on the fringes of the physical world” i loved that one. And I read “Publishing and other Near Death Experiences” out loud to my Mom just to make sure she read it.
Can’t wait to read her other books.

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