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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on my bookshelf + some thoughts on writing

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For four years I woke and came home to a blank page. Writing was a failed series of stops and starts, an epileptic fit of random ideas gone nowhere. We write what consumes us, whether we like or it not, and our work is a reflection of what we’re tethered to. Arguably, I could say that I spent four years bound to an idea of a life that I thought I wanted. I had my publishing time. I had my freelance time. Now, it was time to get serious, as they would say. It was time to climb the ranks, have a title for which one could live up to, or any such euphemism for binding yourself to a computer for ten plus hours a day. Living as a barnacle under the undersides of planes and behind the desk, where lunch was what was ordered online. Conversation was the exchange of pleasantries and minor personal effects, but never too personal, mind you, between you and strangers, people whom you’d spent more time than those you loved.

You also write, as I’ve learned, when you have perspective, room to breathe. And in those four years I had neither — I chased what was in front of me, rather than conceiving of what could be beyond me. Beyond the next pitch, deck, meeting, endless and exhausting conference calls.

Honestly, I was worried. This ability I had to put words together in unusual ways felt like it had atrophied. It was a muscle gone slack and weak, and every time I came to the page, I kept saying the same old thing. Kept relying on my certain stock of images. I wrote a younger version of myself in an aged, experienced body, and I couldn’t quite get the two to reconcile. So instead I wrote about food. I wrote short blog posts, told some stories, and called it a day. But I’d soon learn it wasn’t enough. I wanted the shape of people. I wanted their voices in my head, constant, constant, like some sort of metronome. I craved a world that was unlike my own, but familiar in some way so I had my in. I had my compass, I would navigate.

And then there was the issue of the reading, or the lack of it. I used to have a blog where I’d document, over the course of six years, all the books I’d read. I stopped doing this because I went from a woman who voraciously devoured 60 books a year to one or two. My diction wasn’t what it was, I didn’t get inspired, I didn’t have space and time in which to read and learn. I grew irritable and impatient with longer books, because I was taught by society that we like our content succinct, manageable, efficient — like a machine of sorts.

So when I flew to Europe in April, I packed nearly a dozen books and read all of them. I read them on the flight, on the TGV, in the hotel room, on the metro, in the parks, on the beaches, in the many, many restaurants where I took meals. I read, folded down pages, took down words I liked. In the case of Nabokov, I took down words to look up in the dictionary.

And then it came. Like a torrent. I sat in a hotel room in Biarritz, the last leg of my journey, and wrote what would become the thing that consumes me, my new novel, Mammoth. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going, but I let the hand play out and kept typing. Hopeful that the larger narrative would get pried out of my subconscious, and months later, after death, loss, more books, and an awakening, I’ve got a clear direction.

The two halves are now one, and I’m reading and writing more than ever. There are stacks of printed drafts in my living room. Books on the floor, on tables and in my closets. I’m reading everything I can get my hands on, and this week I’ve got these four books in play.

Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris | Doctor Sleep: A Novel | The Lowland | The Paris Review Book: of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, … and Everything Else in the World Since 1953

love.life.eat of the week

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I plan to make a lot of yummy treats this weekend, and I’m thinking that this goat’s cheese cake with figs + honey will top the list | As I continue to pare down my possessions to only that which is loved and necessary, the simplicity of this lovely abode intrigues me | Somewhat of a voyeur, I always love peeking into a writer’s room, especially Jhumpa Lahiri’s place in Rome. You know I’ve already pre-ordered her book, The Lowland, and it’s as much anticipated as season three of Homeland. True story. | I purchased two of Everlane’s Seed Stitch sweaters, and they are perfection. Lightweight, cozy and forgiving for those of us who don’t possess taut abs. | Lauren Grodstein’s magnificient The Explanation for Everything: A Novel is on my lap and I’m subsumed. I’ve read all of Lauren’s books (a fellow Columbia alumn and friend), and her writing is superb.

Brief note of disclosure: I’ve just joined Amazon Affiliates, as I tend to recommend a lot of books on this space. I’m using this service to pay for annual maintenance of this site, and I’m only using the links for products I have purchased. I’m just tinkering. If you don’t dig and I don’t dig, I’ll change the situation.

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