on my bookshelf: when books are/fail to be a salve

books

For the past few months, I’ve been swimming upstream in a sewer. Books have always been my salve, my reprieve from waking life. It was easy to step into someone else’s life when my own became too much to bear. When Mike B. and his crew made me their object of scorn and ridicule in high school, I packed my bookbag with Cheever, Salinger, Hemingway, and Ann Beattie. When I was laid off from a dot.com that blew through $10MM in VC-funding within its first year, I cocooned in my bedroom with Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, and Judy Budnitz. When I learned a great love was sleeping with half of the women in the tri-state area, I pored over biographies penned by Stacy Schiff, Harold Bloom, and Janet Malcolm. I read every biography on Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and T.S. Eliot I could find.

I write to make sense of the world. I write to create clarity when none exists. I write to get passed, to get through. However, there are times when I can’t find the logic and my life is so dark I can’t see what’s in front of me. Times when grief and sorry become entirely too much to bear. In that disquiet, I turn to my bookshelf and browse. I might re-read a story collection I haven’t read in a decade because I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to remember the plots of the books I read in my 20s–I only recall the generalities of a book, not its innards. I might read poetry because it’s hard (economy of language, the constant reference to other works that make you feel as if you’re falling through a bottomless nesting doll) and a single line could seize me for days.

[As I grow older it occurs to me that I only have vague recollections of all the years that came before, only my romanticized memory of them.]

However, over the past few months, reading has been a challenge. I’ve started nearly a dozen books to only file them back on the shelf. I’ve fallen asleep in the middle of a chapter. And sometimes I’d stand in front of my book thinking that the act of reading is an exercise in futility. A book wasn’t going to change my reality; I didn’t have the time to hide because I had resumes and cover letters to submit, humiliating emails to write.

Perhaps it’s my intensive therapy. Perhaps it’s the meds. Or maybe it’s my desire to climb back from this dark time and fight, but after the hours spent looking for projects and work, reading is a reprieve. Yet, it’s better than staring at a television screen playing out my anxieties to the point where they feel like an inevitable reality. And slowly, I’ve become engaged again–not at the voracious book-a-week clip, but just long enough to read a few chapters and check my email again.

I haven’t read much, but what I’ve read has been exceptional. Let’s hope the oncoming months usher in light and more books worth reading. For now, here are a few book recommendations:

Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot: I’ve been waiting for Samantha Hunt to come out with a new book since I first read The Invention of Everything Else in 2009, and her new novel does not disappoint. The dual-narrative story follows the lives of abandoned orphans Nat and Ruth with Ruth’s pregnant niece, Cora, as they desperately try to piece together some semblance of a family. A modern gothic that plays out varying ways in which one can form a family–cults, religion (replete with faux evangelical Christians), orphanages–when a traditional one fails to materialize. The plot twist at the end is imaginative and unexpected. By far, this is the best book I’ve read this year.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words: I admire Jhumpa Lahiri, an author who takes calculated risks in her work. I’ve read a lot of the criticism of her latest book, which is an odyssey of an infatuation with a language–in Lahiri’s case it’s Italian. Some called it frivolous, an act of privilege played out on the page. Others remarked that In Other Words didn’t have the narrative prowess Lahiri exudes in her prior books, where English was her dominate language. However, I loved it because it was risky not in spite of it. As a writer you can choose to play it safe, to create in your own narrow dominion, or you can fail better. Lahiri’s latest reinforced that sometimes it’s okay to pursue a passion that may not necessarily be pragmatic.

Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast: I loved this book SO HARD. I have a predilection for books detailing the exploits of the rich and morose, and this story set in 1950s New York and Los Angeles, about the pains of privilege, was downright delicious. The story centers on ambivalent and bored Courtney Farrel, a fifteen-year-old-going-on-thirty-five, who comes of age in the midst of financial ruin (her mother’s an actress whose star is no longer a firmament in the sky), teenage debauchery (think Gossip Girl before cell phones and Instagram). I felt like I was reading Fitzgerald because everyone’s wasted and no one is happy–lost generation, etc. I read this book nearly in one sitting and I’m glad it’s back in print.

Monica Drake’s The Folly of Loving Life: I happened on this story collection by accident. Scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post from Drake’s publisher promoting the book, and I instantly bought it. I’m half-way through the book and already it’s one of my favorites. The linked stories set in a non-hipster Portland show characters at their most vulnerable. Broken people determined to find ways to make themselves whole. You follow the journey of a family where the mother is plagued by a vague illness (schizophrenia?) and the father who tends to her at the expense of their two daughters who try to find their place in the world when familial love and stability are missing. From Mexico to empty art museums and college dorm rooms, the despair expressed by the characters is palpable, but there’s a feeling of hope, which has been pulling me through.

Lauren Holmes’s Barbara The Slut & Other Stories: I wanted to love this story collection more than I did. The stories navigate the spectrum of intimacy. From the slut-shamed Princeton-bound woman who cares for her autistic brother amidst the cruelty of her peers to a daughter hauling Victoria’s Secret lingerie to Mexico in hopes of reconnecting with her mother–the stories are sharp and poignant, yet I felt as if there was something missing. I know that sounds vague but I finished the collection content, but not wholly satisfied or as connected to the characters as I wanted to be.

 

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feeling bookish: when books are your greatest salve

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“What happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody.’’ —James Baldwin

 

The thing about depression you’re always losing things even when the losses mount and you feel as if there couldn’t possibly be anything else left to lose. It’s a cruel thief that pilfers through your things in the night and leaves as swiftly as it came with everything that you hold dear. This week, a friend phones me from work and I can feel her sorrow over the line when she tells me that what I’ve been writing lately disturbs her–one post in particular that I’ve since deleted as it caused her, and a good deal of other people in my life, considerable anguish. She pleads with me to return to therapy and that if I were still in New York she would come from me. And I think of her arms as duvets swaddling me, and the first thing I thought was: I’m glad I’m here. It occurred to me then perhaps I purposely moved here to unravel out of the reach of those who love me. It’s a dark thought, but one that haunts me. I feel grateful for the unbelievable support my friends have given me in the past few weeks through calls, texts, emails and loans for therapy that I’m not able to afford on my own. This year has been a harrowing one, to say the least, but it’s taught me a great deal about friendship, kindness, patience and empathy. I haven’t been my best self and now I deeply understand what it feels like to lose your way but want so desperately to climb back. So I’m excited for the comeback tour and even if the road back will prove to be a difficult one.

Books have always been a comfort, a salve for anything that ailed me. When I was small, I read on my fire escape, imagining myself sprawled across the pages I was reading. For a time my surroundings gave way to the scenes and stories playing on in the stack of books I was making my way through and this kind of wandering, this loss, was a welcome one. Lately, reading has posed a challenge. I’ve started half a dozen books to only discard them. I tried to finish A Little Life and fell asleep–not any fault on the author, but rather my ability to shed my existing surroundings for a new one. Instead, I read articles–dozens of them, ever day–in fear of atrophying. Even though I am where I am now, I still want to learn. I continue to be a student.

Last week I came across a fascinating article about Pamela Moore, a writer I’d never heard of, but the tragedy of her and the power of her work has likened her to Sylvia Plath. Moore took her own life at the age of 26 but enjoyed a successful, albeit brief, career when her debut novel, written at 18, caused a sensation. Chocolates for Breakfast reminds me of The Bell Jar, but better. It’s a story of a privileged teenager’s sexual awakening–a precursor to Gossip Girl with the wealth and private parties and oceans of booze. Reading the story doesn’t feel dated even if it was written in the 50s because the rules of wealth, privilege, abandonment and being a teenager rarely change. It’s the first book I’ve been able to read in a long time–one that has managed to sustain my interest, and I’m grateful for these minor victories. Especially on days when I feel like I’m constantly failing.

What’s also made me smile is Heather Havrilesky, Ask Polly columnist, who is acerbic, funny, and unafraid to say fuck one too many times. I recently discovered her via Austin Kleon’s email list and streamed her recent Long Form Podcast interview while reading her hilarious essay on writing rituals and routines.

On a more sobering note, these two essays hit close to home. One ponders whether a girlfriend who encouraged her boyfriend’s suicide should be considered his murderer, and a brave series penned by a woman who was formerly homeless and still penalized even though she’s doing everything to get her life back on track. And finally, an astute read on poverty and privilege amidst the smart set–an apt response to Claire Vaye Watkin’s excellent “On Pandering”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and class assumptions. Over the past few months, many people have said the words, “You would never be homeless. It’s just not possible.” Part of me wonders if it’s because I have the privilege of having a few friends who would take me in, lend me their homes, or is it because the assumption that a well-educated, moderately successful white woman (by all appearances, I’m white but I’m part African, Italian, Greek and Finish) couldn’t face peril. I read statistics that tell us the economy is doing better! Unemployment is at an all-time low. But then why am I reading hundreds of status updates and posts about people across race and class who are really struggling. People who made the same money now as when they graduated college, 20-30 years ago. Even my therapist asked about my project lull. I’d been consistently busy for nearly three years but I haven’t worked on a big project since October.

To which I respond, I have no idea.

 

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