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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

Questions and Questions

How Should a Person Be? - Sheila Heti

How does one begin talking about this book? I had remembered on its release something of a battle along gender lines; there were men who thought it unbecoming and women who found it brilliant. It seemed appropriate to read something dangerous in the year of #ReadWomen2014, and Sheila Heti delivers something of a knuckleball. How Should a Person Be? is a confounding thing, bouncing and jarring but devastatingly effective, even if I make contact in this piece I am sure it will only be a glancing blow, but if a few more people read it and care to understand it then that much better for the literary scene.


Much of the story is told through dialogue—formatted not unlike a play—taken from Sheila (the character)'s tape recordings. There is a whole lot of ruminating; about the history of the Jewish people, about art and friendship. Much of it is between Sheila and her friend Margaux. Their friendship will provide the focal point to the novel and, even as an ugly art competition comes in to flesh out the lessons they take away, carries what How Should a Person Be? has to offer in the way of plot. The rest of the talks are split between talks with Sholem—Margaux's competitor in the ugly art contest—and a cast of cameos provoking discussions of religion, history, thought, etc.


There are trademarks of the coming-of-age story here, which I am sure will fuel more talks of arrested development even though the very label is flawed. We are all be people in the process of discovery, which is why these stories ring so true. People stop asking the broad, life encompassing questions with the same self-seriousness, or so they tell themselves. I think we never get past it so much as we grow more clever in our posing of the questions. A transformation that quietly happens here, with what-does-it-all-mean chats falling away as we approach resolution, and are replaced with illustrative stories.


Margaux and Sheila hardly ever approach touchy subjects in person. In fact, the stuff of real, personal weight in the story is always through writing. Sheila's high school boyfriend, in a jealous fit, writes a scathing play depicting her future of sexual degradation at the hands of Nazis. Her torrid affair with Israel is played out as much through sexual demands sent over email as it is in loving passages about his penis. The most important one, however, are from Margaux. They are the ones that push their relationship along, they challenge Sheila's ways of thinking about herself.


I highly recommend reading this book. After four completely new drafts and countless edits of this 500 word essay I am still reeling. I nearly fell into the trap of thinking the book was written for me—i.e. a cisgender, young, white male—but I believe it does raise questions about how we are, how we should think, and how we should be. For a book I believe to be important, it is also fun and quick. It's out now in paperback.