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How Should a Person Be? [Hardcover]

Sheila Heti
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 1 2010
From the internationally acclaimed author of The Middle Stories and Ticknor comes a bold interrogation of the notion of a beautiful life. How Should a Person Be? is a novel of many identities: it is an autobiography of the mind, a postmodern self-help book, and a portrait of the artist as a young woman — of two such artists, in fact. Thrown into a quandary of self-doubt by an early divorce, “Sheila” finds herself questioning how a person should be in the world. Inspired by her friend — the painter Margaux Williamson — and her untortured ability to live and create, Sheila casts Margaux as material, embarking on a series of recordings in which nothing is too personal, too ugly, or too banal to be turned into fiction. When this investigation becomes too difficult, Sheila escapes into a delirious love affair with a male painter and encounters even more painful truths about herself and her desires. Searching, uncompromising, and yet mordantly funny, How Should a Person Be? is a fictional notebook from the psychic underground of Canada’s most fiercely original writer.

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Product Description

Quill & Quire

Relationships between identity, creativity, and friendship are explored in a humorous and intelligent – if somewhat monochromatic – manner in Toronto-based Sheila Heti’s new novel. Heti, who previously produced a novel (2005’s Ticknor) and short story collection (2002’s The Middle Stories), here fictionalizes actual events and conversations from a year in the lives of her friends to forge a journey of self-discovery for her protagonist – Sheila Heti.

In the book, Sheila divorces a husband and forms a fast, intense friendship with a painter named Margaux. Female companionship is a strange experiment for both women, who heretofore related predominantly to men, despite being frustrated by their paternalism. The women’s days are spent talking about art, while Sheila avoids working on a play commissioned by a feminist theatre company. Consumed with a desire to foment beauty despite her own stalled creative output, Sheila works in a hair salon and punishes herself by taking a sadistic lover named Israel. Her relationship with Margaux ruptures when Sheila tries to use their taped conversations as source material without her friend’s prior consent.

Cleverness abounds in How Should a Person Be? Deeply concerned with the intersection of art and celebrity, the book is reverent about painters while lampooning performance artists, the commercial art world, wealthy patrons, and even the profession of clowning. This is a book of ideas packed with overt symbolism and multiple dream sequences (one of which necessitates a late-night international Skype call to Sheila’s Jungian analyst). Amidst that heady mix, Heti’s discussions of Jewish identity and sexual masochism are particularly interesting.

Although breezy and readable, the prose suffers from a consistent tone of detachment, making it difficult to engage with the simple, linear plot, and hard to relate to the nakedly ambitious but painfully insecure Sheila or the accomplished and prolific Margaux. Despite their origins in the real world, the fictional people and predicaments that populate How Should a Person Be? feel like objects in service of an intellectual thesis, lacking sufficient richness and complexity of their own.

Review

...a self-conscious, darkly funny exploration of the strained complexities of female friendship, the makings of bad art, and the finer points of awkward sex...[Heti] celebrates the extraordinary imperfection in ordinary life. (Jackie Wong The Georgia Straight 2010-09-29)

...a portrait of the artist as a young woman, a postmodern self-help book and an autobiography of the mind. (Rebecca Wigod Vancouver Sun 2010-09-24)

...an unforgettable book: intellectually exacting, unsettling in its fragility, bodily as anything painted by Freud, experimental yet crafted as hell, and yes, very funny. (Claudia Dey National Post 2010-11-25)

...the good kind of genre muddle...How Should a Person Be? emerges as part of an entirely different genre: the realistic self-help book. You might not want to follow in Sheila's footsteps, but tagging along on her quixotic mission will be as useful as anything else you're likely to read this year. (Michael Hingston Vue 2010-12-01)

Heti flails out in all directions, employing a winsome flexibility and an underlying sadness that deflates any pretension and focuses on the big questions of life. The exuberance of youth is shot through with magic threads of wisdom. (Candace Fertile Edmonton Journal 2010-12-04)

This is a novel that abounds with [...] wisdom, arrived at in fresh and new ways. For all its inventiveness, there is an old-fashioned integrity, an attention to thought in the prose, resulting in unusual and sharp-eyed observations . . . we are treated to some truly profound ruminations on what it means to be an artist in our indifferent era. (Literary Review of Canada 2011-04-01)

From pithy quotables ('Night fell, but then, there are always holes to fall into,') to the oddly profound ('If now in some ways I drink too much, it's not that I lack a reverence for the world'), this is a novel that rewards reading, sitting with, and rereading. (Lauren Elkin Quarterly Conversation 2011-06-06)

Original, contemplative, and often tangential, this is an unorthodox compilation of colorful characters, friendship, and sex that provides an unusual answer to Heti’s question. (Publishers Weekly 2012-04-30)

Part confessional, part play, part novel, and more -- it's one wild ride. The upfront and unabashed sex makes for a voyeuristic, sometimes hilarious, read. Think HBO's Girls in book form. (Marie Claire 2012-06-01)

... what Heti’s brain and fingertips offer are expanded possibilities for what the novel can be and can become ... How Should a Person Be? makes curious and combative company. (Anakana Schofield Globe and Mail 2010-10-08)

... one of the bravest, strangest, most original novels I’ve read this year. (Christopher Boucher Boston Globe 2012-06-15)

[Sheila Heti is] a brilliant, original thinker and an engaging writer. (Chris Kraus Los Angeles Review of Books 2012-06-19)

... vital and funny ... (James Wood New Yorker 2012-06-25)

[I'm] in awe of this new Toronto writer who seems to be channeling Henry Miller one minute and Joan Didion the next. (Alan Cheuse NPR 2012-06-19)

... boldly original ... [Heti] writes cinematically, but with the cockeyed emotional realism of filmmakers like Miranda July and Lena Dunham. (Michael Schaub NPR 2012-06-20)

This is a novel that wonders if the ugly can be beautiful, if there is clarity to be found in the drifting. (Michelle Dean Slate 2012-06-29)

How Should a Person Be? reveals a talented young voice of a still inchoate generation. (Kay Hymowitz Wall Street Journal 2012-06-29)

... bound to be quoted over and over ... Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of. (David Haglund New York Times 2012-07-05)

... brilliant, forthright and sometimes very funny ... (Akiva Gottlieb The National 2012-07-14)

Sheila Heti's vaguely autobiographical new novel might make her the Joan Didion of the 'Girls' generation. (Salon 2012-07-22)

[Heti's] book has a freshness and verve that make you wonder where she will go next. (Irish Times 2012-12-01)

An engaging mashup of memoir, fiction and philosophy... It doesn't answer the question, how should a person be? But it does find an engaging new way of asking it. (Scarlett Thomas Guardian 2013-01-11)

Heti does have a wicked sense of humour and some of her one-liners are genuinely laugh out loud. (John Harding Daily Mail 2013-01-24)

... a Joycean experiment ... (Anthony Cummins Telegraph 2013-02-12)

Heti is ... capable of arresting sentences that feel utterly now... (Claire Allfree UK Metro 2013-01-17)

How Should a Person Be? is a question to be revisited by the author herself, or another writer, or many other writers - but it's also the question novels were invented to respond to. (Joanna Biggs London Review of Books 2013-01-24)

Ms. Heti's deadpan, naked voice is what makes Sheila's journey so engaging... throughout, the reader is beguiled by blunt, sly observations. It is easy to see why a book on the anxiety of celebrity has turned the author into one herself. (Economist 2013-01-19)

[Heti's] lack of self-censorship [gives] the prose an irrefutable force. (Holly Williams The Independent 2013-02-03)

... sharp, witty ... (Natasha Lehrer Jewish Chronicle Online 2013-03-22)

…there is something in her story that will resonate with every reader, as Heti's honest rendition of some of life's most humbling truths challenges the novel as we know it. (Hannah Sayle Memphis Flyer 2013-07-11)

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Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars
3.6 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We need more female clowns Feb. 6 2011
Format:Hardcover
I received How Should A Person Be from my nutty too-much-Pimm's-cups-drinking aunt as a Christmas gift this year. Having been only vaguely familiar with Sheila Heti's work (I read and very much liked an article she wrote for the New York Times Sunday magazine), and having not a ton of esteem for the aforementioned aunt, the book wasn't on my "must read immediately" list. However, all of that changed three days ago when I actually started reading the thing. Then it was -- pressingly, unrelentingly -- on my "must read immediately" list... I couldn't ingest it fast enough. I read a lot and have never, ever, LITERALLY, read a woman write so trenchantly and hilariously about female sexuality, the follies and complexities of female friendship, and the struggle of being the creator of something, anything. I think it's easy enough to toss off an opinion such as, "oh, what luxurious problems Sheila and her friends have..." but that would be an abasement of the story. The book is about a group of people grappling with some pretty serious and fundamental aspects of humanity that Ms. Heti herself sums up in the title. How SHOULD we be? How DO we figure out how to best communicate who we are, and do so honestly, with empathy and creativity? And like any good piece of art, she forces us to ask those questions too.

And the writing is just tops. Funny, weird, jarring, insightful.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible Sept. 10 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Easily the best book I have read this year. Personal, funny as hell and a gorgeous investigation of what it means to be both an artist and a human being. Have really liked Sheila Heti's other books but "How Should a Person Be?" is by far the most exciting and innovative.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More Bookish Thoughts... Oct. 29 2012
By Reader Writer Runner TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
In "How Should a Person Be?," author Sheila Heti and her real-life friends form a cast of irritating characters who meander through the novel in an attempt to erase the line between fact and fiction. Heti's writing certainly displays cleverness and the author admirably explores unconventional narrative structures. However, these assets do not make up for a rootless, frustrating plot.

A newly divorced playwright, Sheila struggles to complete a commissioned work while searching for a sense of self. She claims to desire a simple life of fame without having to change her life. In addition to writing, Sheila works in a beauty salon where her boss Uri preaches beauty in balance. She also spends time with her eccentric artist friends including Margaux, to whom she dedicates the book. The novel includes actual taped conversations between Sheila and Margaux as well as emails between the two. After a spell of tasteless partying and druggy debauchery, Margaux "unfriends" Heti for invading her privacy and for buying the same yellow dress at an art festival in Miami.

Meanwhile, Sheila meets a baker named Israel, who considers himself a painter. Heti describes their sadomasochistic antics and worries that she's becoming a narcissist, not without good reason. Finally, Heti leaves Toronto for New York, but ends up no happier there. After a gambling jaunt to Atlantic City, she returns to Toronto and presumably resumes her shiftless life. Definitely not a page-turner.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I see what all the fuss is about Dec 8 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Somehow I stumbled upon this book a couple of years after the hype -- so perhaps this book is now in the tail end of its lifecycle. I very much like the way way the author was able to create a narrative based on her real life problems. My main criterion was whether the book grabbed me. There was definitely an engaging quality, and I sympathised with the author's quest. I've tried to write memoirs and creative bits based on real life experience, but it is very tough to pull off. I get bogged down after about 20 pages, and I stop -- not without emailing the work in progress to a lengthy distribution list. Too much information I suppose, but Sheila figured out a structure and some interesting topics to keep the story moving along. It's kind of like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance without so many prerequisites and complications, without all of that longing for America and all the despair. I must say something about Sheila and felatio. It's not sex, is it? Yeah as Bill Clinton would say. It's just a form of conversation. How are you? Should I keep going or should I stop? Well, after reading the library copy twice and I bought a couple of copies of the paperback. I'm sold. It's very good. My faith and interest in literature has been restored.
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6 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A regrettable purchase Feb. 6 2011
Format:Hardcover
My review of this book can be summed up as follows: this book, in my opinion, consists of a lot of pseudo-intellectual, self-congratulating and hoity-toity "I'm an artiste dammit!" nonsense that I couldn't take seriously. The characters seem to be torturing themselves for the sake of having something interesting to say at parties and validate their own creative endeavours.

Shawn Syms of Quill & Quire put it well, "Despite their origins in the real world, the fictional people and predicaments that populate How Should a Person Be? feel like objects in service of an intellectual thesis, lacking sufficient richness and complexity of their own."

I've read several other reviews and they've all been extremely positive, so perhaps I've missed the point of this book. Maybe it is "intellectually exacting" and "deliriously insightful" as other people say and I'm too stupid to understand it - I'm willing to admit to that possibility - but I'm not sure I'm willing to wade back in and re-read it in the hope of finding deeper meaning when I've got so many other books at hand that I feel certain of enjoying more.
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