I’m 59. Fifty-nine years old.

No matter how old I get — or maybe it’s just true the older I get — I don’t think I’ll ever understand why people are unwilling to say their real age. (Or why they dye their hair to hide grays, for that matter, though dyeing your hair for a cool color really is loads of fun.) FOR ME, every day that I get to keep living is a wonder.

I’m 59 today: thirteen years older than my dad ever got to be; decades older than I ever imagined I’d see, since I never thought I would make it out of my teens alive; decades of life I got to live despite a couple of suicide attempts (thank God for guns that misfire and for other saviors); and today celebrating in a place I never could have imagined even if I’d tried.

Last year on my birthday, I thought we’d have our first female president a couple of days later so I was filled with excitement and hope for that. And then two days later — while I was still celebrating my birthday fortnight — the world crashed and burned around me and this past year has been its own kind of hell, that all of us around the world know, and we in this country are suffering through. It ruined my birthday joy last year, although that was certainly the least significant aspect of it that one could possibly imagine. It has been a brutal year. I’ve gained 22 pounds from stress eating, even though I’ve been essentially hiding in the mountains for the last few months and I have not watched anything on television since the election because there doesn’t seem to be any program that doesn’t include clips of him speaking.

SO, to happier perspectives. I’m 59 today. I have three glorious, glorious grandchildren, and my daughters are the light of my life. My son is still hiding from us all, and it hurts as much today as it did from the beginning, but he is alive and so there remains hope. My husband and I are enjoying our lives together, in this way we’ve fashioned that works so well for us both. I live in this glorious place — never would’ve imagined such a thing! — with my beloved creeks and bench, and mountains and forests all around, and beautiful solitude. I can also live in Manhattan whenever I wish or need, with my beloved Riverside Park just right over there, and people and buildings all around, and beautiful noise.

My mind still works, and as long as this sleep remedy works, my mind is working a little better every day, I feel the sharpness starting to be visible in the distance, at least. My body still works, and if I can just re-establish my yoga practice it will return to its strength and flexibility that it had before the election. My health is fantastic, not just in terms of the absence of illness, but in the robustness of life. I’m extremely lucky, and I thank whatever combination of genes and good fortune for it, and promise to try to help keep that going. I want to be around a very long time, until I’m just a dusty little bag of bones that hardly makes an indentation in the bed, where I hope to die peacefully in my sleep….decades from now. (I’m now only 5’8″!!!! I was 5’11” so this is startling, but I guess I’m on the path to the dusty little bag of bones. 😉 )

The state of my inner life is perhaps the best it has ever been. Getting older really does do wonders for you — at least, it has for me. It’s kind of hard to parse this, since the trauma of this Republican nightmare is an ongoing source of stress and awfulness for me, but if I pause and let that sit off to the side (as if you can do such a thing), I am more at peace with myself than I’ve been yet in my life. I’m at peace with my dad, I got to ‘thank’ my darling Big Daddy for what he gave me, I’m comfortable with my physical self, I can accept the good things I recognize about myself, and the bad things about me feel less stabby and hateful. Maybe this is an aging kind of laziness; when I become aware of my weaknesses and my flaws, I just kind of shrug — ah, well, maybe next time. And it’s hard to figure out why I’ve spent my life trying to act like I’m not an intelligent and serious person, but I have and I don’t feel the need to do that any more.

In my last year of life, we traveled to Indonesia, and we bought this house. We drove the 16′ truck from Austin to Heaventree, and I started an entirely new way of living. I visited my wonderful Marnie-family in Chicago three times (once in March, once in July en route to Heaventree with my car, and once in October), and I went back to Austin to see my marvelous Katie-family once in October. I had countless drinks and dinners with friends who keep my life filled with laughter and connection and our shared hearts. Lynn came to Heaventree, our very first visitor. I read a bunch of great books (the best being Her Body and Other Parts, by Carmen Maria Machado; Antigonick, by Anne Carson, Human Acts, by Han Kang; and House of Names, by Colm Toibin). For the very first time in our lives together, Marc and I didn’t take a fall vacation and I grieve that a little bit, but we bought the house and sank a lot of money into it so that’s the balance.

Here is my year in people-pictures, and seeing each one makes my heart swell to nine times its size. I’m not even going to try to put them in chronological order, and they don’t represent everyone I was lucky enough to see, but scanning through them shows me how very lucky I’ve been. (hover over a photo to see its caption, or you can click to see them as a slideshow if you’re interested.)

I also started doing my little daily “creekside chats” on Facebook and that has been an unexpected joy and growth experience for me. I’ve become so much easier with myself, as a result. I feel differently about my mouth, as a result, and those decades of shame seem to have crumbled and fallen away into dust. I have the deep feeling of having started my day with people I love, seeing your faces and saying good morning, and sharing my view of the world around me.

Thank you for your friendship, your comments, your presence here and in my larger life. Thank you for your well wishes, and for your care. Thank you for the various kinds of help you’ve given me over the last year, and most especially for the way you share your lives with me, however that may be. You definitely help make my life the full joy that it is.

So here’s to 59! May I gather myself together and lose the dreaded T-weight that signifies my trauma. May I continue to have good health, and may my children and grandchildren do the same. May you stay healthy and happy, and in my life. May I read good books. May I relish my solitude at Heaventree, and my noisy happiness in Manhattan. Happy birthday to me.

(And looking ahead to my next birthday, I put in my gift wish list now, so you can prepare. I turn 60 ON ELECTION DAY, the mid-term elections. I just want one thing, and for once I’ll ask everyone for a gift. Just vote blue. Just vote blue and that’s all the gift I need.) (Think about it, I’ll ask again a couple of days before the date.) <3

the Just World Hypothesis

I’m here to offer yet another plug for aging. Getting older can be so marvelous, because you start to see with clarity. (Not everyone; I’ve known some bitter, small, mean old people who became concentrated nuggets of ignorance.) But if you’re lucky — or whatever, however this works — you understand more and more. And the funniest thing is that your understanding gets simpler and simpler:

 

  • It’s all one thing.
  • You are who you are.
  • Life happens to everyone, and we all die.

I think it all boils down to that. Just because it’s so simple, however, doesn’t mean it’s simple to talk about. And just because it’s so simple, that doesn’t mean you can just tell other people, younger people, what you have learned and suddenly they have the same complexity of understanding. For me, anyway, it has taken living my years to be able finally to see this.

Simple complexity, impossible to say clearly, but I’ll try, and I’ll start with a social psych principle called the Just World Hypothesis. It’s a more elaborated idea than this thumbnail, but basically it’s a deep belief that we get what we deserve. That if we’re good, good things will come to us. Bad people get what they deserve. Etc. It unfolds into a whole ethical landscape of implications, but at the center that’s what it is. Like me, I’m sure you’ve frequently heard people wail, “Why me???” And then they provide the list of explanations for why X shouldn’t have happened to them. If it’s a health thing, the list includes their health-related behaviors. If it’s an accident, the list includes the ways they are always so careful. If it’s about their child, the list includes the ways their child was innocent and they were watchful parents.

Undoubtedly because of my childhood, the fact that I was born to a couple who wanted to destroy everyone and everything, I was disabused of the belief in the just world. And one freezing night, in an alley on the wrong side of town in Wichita Falls, I thought through it very carefully and solidified my understanding: shit just happens. Life happens to everyone. In a larger way, it’s all random.

And it’s all one thing: Life happens to everyone. Why would we ever think, even for a second, that only “good” things will happen to us? (And yet we do: Shelley Taylor’s work showed that people don’t believe things like house fires, bad car wrecks, serious illness, etc., will happen to them in their futures; that we all believe we’re above average (leading another psychologist to dub this ‘the Lake Wobegone effect,’ when the law of averages alone proves that we cannot ALL be above average.)) We must believe that because of some deep, unexamined reliance on this just world hypothesis.

And so once again I have to leave space for the possibility that I was luckier than most people to have the childhood I had. That’s not Monday morning quarterbacking, or brave, chin-quivering denial, it’s an understanding of the way it’s all one thing. My life is a whole, the experiences I’ve had all along the way are so woven into the cloth of who I am that it’s impossible to pull out a warp thread, a weft thread. It’s impossible to sit here, in my chair at Heaventree, and even begin to entertain some fantasy of what it would’ve been like to have had a loving mother, a father who didn’t try to kill me. A safe home. Security. It’s impossible to do that, the entire cloth of me disintegrates and there could be no “me” sitting here to ponder that question.

Whenever I hear someone ask, “Why me?” my only thought is, “Why not you?” Of course I never ever say that, because at that moment the person asking the question needs compassion and help, and this fact of “why not you” is completely irrelevant. There may come a time in their process when it makes sense to gently talk about it, if it helps them realize that they aren’t being punished, or whatever they are thinking, but never at that first wailing.

But really. Why not you? Why not me? Life is just happening, and often we are just in the wrong place. A knot forms in an umbilical cord. A car veers into the oncoming lane. Cells take a left turn and start dividing wildly. Myelin disappears, plaques form, bones honeycomb. Unexamined parts of ourselves commit an act of sabotage or treason and we won’t recognize it for years. And as impossible as it is to grasp in the thick of it, it’s all of a piece and the landscape of your life, and yourself, are bigger and more vast and complex, and this is one warp or weft thread in your tapestry. When I was a child, of course I had no perspective to understand this, and I mean that literally: those experiences did not have the context of life that followed them, they were my endpoints at that time, and they represented the bulk of my life. Assuming we survive the terrible thing that happens, and have the good luck of living to put it in perspective, there are good things to be drawn from it; we are changed by it, and to some degree it’s up to us how we are changed by it (emotionally and psychologically, at least) (and I mean to some degree it’s up to us).

When my life fell apart at the end of 2012, I was coincidentally reading a book about trauma survivors (one of my favorite topics) called When You’re Falling, DiveI really recommend the book to everyone, because if you are a magical unicorn and nothing bad ever happens to you, then at least you are going to know all the rest of us to whom bad things will happen because we are not magical unicorns — so you can learn a few things to be present with us. I highlighted dozens of passages in the book, but I share these two with this post, and encourage you to click that link and get the book:

“Survival doesn’t really mean anything without acceptance,” John explains. “That’s the paradoxical part. You have to take the thing that’s wrong and own it. Make it into something that has meaning for you. If you try to hide or negate it, it will just eat you up,” he says. “If you’re hoping for things to be other than they are—constantly wondering how or why something happened, or how to fix it—you’re lost. You’ll completely miss out on the graceful time you have.

“When people are in need, you must be present. When people suffer, you must let them know you’re suffering with them.” “The good side of bad acts?” I say. “I would not say that from horror comes goodness. That would be giving horror too much credit. But goodness prevails in spite of horror.

I’m not in the midst of trials in my own life, at the moment, so I acknowledge that it can feel like “easy for her to say.” But if you’ve known me long, you know that I say this even when trials do come my way, and this is part of the clarity of understanding I’ve gained as I’ve gotten older. It’s all one thing — the “good” and the “bad,” who we are, how we live, and that we are who we are with that entire context in place. We came into the world exactly who we are and we live the life we live and it’s all one thing.

It’s fascinating to me how utterly complex simplicity is, but that it can still be simple. Something to ponder on a beautiful Friday, the first day of autumn. xoxoxoxo

slumpy

When we were in Indonesia I read ten books, and ever since then I haven’t been able to read. Oh, sure, I re-read Jesus’ Son in the wake of Denis Johnson’s death and was just as gut-punched by it as I was the first time I read it two years ago. If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend it. It’s a collection of short stories all about a main character called Fuckhead. He’s an addict, and by the end of the collection he is trying to be clean. You get so involved, you want to shout at him, No! Don’t do that, why would you do that! or What are you thinking! Don’t go there! or you feel disgust, or sorrow, or pity, but throughout you are treated to this bighearted compassionate writer with all his humanity woven into every sentence.

I keep TRYING.

But other than that, I haven’t found anything that makes me desperate to keep reading. I’ve been trying to read Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for a couple of weeks now, and I was thrilled to begin it. How I loved her first book, The God of Small Thingswhich deserved the Booker it won in 1997. After that she got busy with activism and didn’t write fiction until this new book, so I was eager to read it, expecting and hoping for another dreamy read. And it is . . . meh. I just keep trying. It doesn’t stop me, but it also doesn’t pull me in. Maybe it’s me. Have you read it yet? So many people adored The God of Small Things, so I wonder if other people are loving this one and it’s just not the right time for me. If you have any reading recommendations, this is what I’m looking for: a book with big themes, with literary layers, that makes me feel a whole lot of big things. I don’t even care what — maybe it hurts my heart, maybe it devastates me, maybe it leaves me wistful and hopeful, maybe it reminds me how glorious life and/or people can be. My nightstand stack of books is still packed, and there are a couple in that stack that I’m looking forward to, but alas, still packed.

***

I love every single thing about her look. All of it.

Thanks to Facebook’s ‘on this day’ feature, I was reminded of LP, a singer that Marnie introduced me to. If I could look like someone else, I would look like her. She’s Italian, from Long Island (Laura Pergolizzi, LP), and this article about her in Newsweek includes a newer video than the one I’m going to put in below this paragraph — just WOW. (And that’s not a T-shirt with a ship under her leather jacket, that’s a fucking TATTOO on her chest.) Here’s the video Marnie first shared with me:

She is definitely my ukulele hero, man. And beautiful however she expresses herself.

You wouldn’t expect that voice, would you? This great Buzzfeed article notes that she was shy about her powerful voice when she was young so she always sang over lawn mowers or vacuum cleaners.

I’ve never been a real girly girl. Never ever liked ruffles or lace, or flouncy bits. If I had money to spare for things like style, I’d style myself like her for sure. But a big part of her look is that fabulous hair, and mine is…well….not that. 🙂

***

Overcast and dusk-ey every “sunlit” hour of the day. And wet.

My mission today is to drive to nearby Margaretville (Margaritaville as Marc unoriginally insists on calling it) to shed some cash and become a New Yorker. NY license plates and registration and car inspection. My NY driver’s license once again, wonder if they’ll just use the photo from my last one. I wouldn’t mind even a little bit if it weren’t raining. That would be delightful, and an exception to the last few days.

Also: #fucktrump.

Sunday, a smorgasbord

Yesterday was day 1 of my reboot, and I’m declaring it a simple success. Were I to take a more complicated view of the day I would call it so-so, but in those cases where a reboot is so desperately needed, I’m willing to go with the simple tale. It was a simple success. I took my watercolor class, with my friend Deb. I shopped for good, healthy food afterwards, and didn’t succumb to buying anything else. I made my dinner even though I got sidetracked by a 1.5-hour-long conversation with Marc and then felt almost frantic with hunger….but I made my healthy, wonderful dinner. I didn’t walk or do yoga, nor did I drink lots of water all day, but I’m happy. Today is a gorgeous, sunny day. I’ll take a walk, drink water all day, see my super-intelligent book club tonight, it’ll be good.

And as Paul Harvey used to say, here is the rest of the story:

My version — and should you think it’s tacky (I do!), you should know that it’s pretty close to what she did. That’s not a good yellow branch, hers was definitely better, but this is like hers. SIGH.

The watercolor class was a BUST. I was hoping to learn a few techniques that are helpful in painting flowers, blossoms, blooms. Instead, it was a watercolor version of Painting with a Twist. The instructor placed a print that she had made on an easel, and we all had to paint that. It wasn’t a print I would ever buy (or hang, if I’d received it as a gift). It wasn’t attractive in composition or flower choices, and it didn’t even look like she had much talent. So there we all were, being walked through “now make coral tones, like this, and paint this part of the flower exactly like this.” She wasn’t very articulate, and she wasn’t very confident for someone who teaches this very class as often as she does. It

hers!

cost a lot of money out of my super tight budget so I was deeply disappointed. Still, it was nice to do that with Deb, and to go to a part of town I rarely visit (OH the hipster facial hair! My god! Will that trend never stop?), and to play with color. I’m calling it a simple success because I didn’t back out, I didn’t hate myself for my effort, or feel shame, and I just let myself play. Success!

 

I made a chickpea salad for dinner because I was just craving chickpeas for some strange reason. I also bought ingredients for a great-looking Sriracha Rainbow Noodle Salad, which requires an avocado, so I decided to add an avocado to my chickpea salad. Success! Such good food, so healthy every last bit. I went on to eat the whole thing (it should’ve made two meals for me), but I’m calling it a simple success. I didn’t buy Peeps (which are still available), or a beer, or grocery store sushi because I was famished and tired. I cooked for myself, which is something I’d stopped doing and missed terribly. I made a healthy meal, for myself, and it actually worked — which my creative efforts have not been doing since November. I rubbed my eyes with jalapeno-juiced hands, BAD BAD BAD, but otherwise success!

My knitting has been failing BADLY, except for the last thing I made which was a scarf using the wonderful Zauberball that my darling friend Becci sent me. I need to take a photo of it, it’s gorgeous and it worked. (It’s the simplest knitting, but lately I couldn’t even pull that off.) So, emboldened by my successful reboot day and the Zauberball scarf, I cast on a new project using a yarn I’ve got in abundance, a very pale shell pink (tosh merino light, porcelain). I was very disappointed by the color when the yarn arrived in the mail, years ago, so I set it aside. SO pale. Almost just a dirty white, in some light. And pink is complicated — at least it has been for me. It’s too associated with little-girly and I have zero interest in that. But I’m considering a rapprochement with pink, so I cast on a pattern called Yoga Shawl (link for Ravelers), basically a large rectangle, stockinette in the middle, chevrons on both ends, and buttons/holes along all the edges so you can wear it lots of different ways. Last night I got several rows completed while I watched an old Richard Pryor stand-up film on Netflix, from 1971. His brilliance and vulnerability were right at the surface, then, and at times he was almost frightening to watch, always compelling, and just so moving. The last part of the show is essentially a one-man performance of a play with several characters. SO, success there too, a friendliness to pink and my knitting, and time with an old love.

Because pink is beautiful

Isn’t it amazing? Really, stop to think about that. Look at that tree, nothing unusual, a cherry tree in blossom — but TREES bloom out in these delicate FLOWERS. Trees cover themselves in blossoms, just for a while. All the pinks, there. It almost makes me cry.

I guess I offer this post to those of us trying to find our way back. Claim success, even if its imperfect [it is, anyway]. Let the rest go. You can try to add the rest on as you go. Reboot, day 2, I see you waiting for me and I welcome you with a smile.

***

THIS BOOK!!!

Real quick, before I go, let me make a book recommendation! Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. From the very first sentence I was in it, even though I was exhausted and bleary-eyed and that can be a hard moment to start a new book.

Wow. It’s not like anything else I’ve read. The word most often used for it is astonishing and I think I have to agree. Here is the description from the book’s Amazon page:

“The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.”

That makes it sound like a history lesson, or like one of those horrible museum dioramas or something, and it’s NOT. It’s so alive (as far as I’ve read, which is only about 5% of the book) and it’s just not a story I’ve read yet. What a gift, when a book does that, when it kind of slaps your face and wakes you up. Unless it’s 3am when it does that, but whatev. 🙂

Not the Big Pile

I’m sure your To Be Read pile (TBR) is tall/long/extensive, like mine. There are 387 books on my kindle, stacks of books by my bed and various chairs and tables, collections of lists in every possible place, and a separate to-read list on GoodReads. I need to get better about taking care of myself if I’m going to live long enough to make any headway. In my various book clubs, I’ve always been surprised when someone had no idea what book to suggest when it was their month…..for me, the question is which one of all the ones I’m waiting to read. Assuming our so-called president doesn’t get us nuclearly annihilated, of course.

But in addition to the full TBR pile, there’s also the Currently Reading list, which is far shorter. One good thing about GoodReads is that it keeps the list for you, if you log a book when you start reading it. Right now that list shows seven books I’m currently reading, even though a good five of those are kind of in a permanent suspension (Nox, Jitterbug Perfume, U and I, The Art of Memoir, and Glass, Irony and God. Oh, also Minds of WinterI want to finish all those, I mean to, they’re just kind of….on pause). It’s funny how that happens — I really DO want to finish all those books! For each one, something happened to pause the book and then I just never got back to it.

But there’s a hot short list bubbling around at any given moment, the “which one, which one, which one to dive into right now” list. Mine includes:

  • The Idiot, by Elif Batuman. This one’s getting so much attention, and it’s supposed to be so funny and wonderful and beautiful. She’s a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I think I’d like to read something light and funny. And beautiful.
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit. For personal reasons having to do with my upcoming life change, this was recommended to me. And to be honest, while I really love Solnit’s activism and scholarship, I find her writing hard-going. Not clenched, exactly, but certainly not light and dive-in-able.
  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. I started reading this one and it’s fascinating, and on the edge of catching fire. It’s about the rediscovery of a nearly lost manuscript 600 years ago (On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius) and the way that manuscript sparked the Enlightenment, and changed the whole world. It’s well written, and interesting, and maybe it’s time for a bit of non-fiction?
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Saunders is, of course, one of our great humans. His compassion shines through everything he does, and heaven knows the world (and I) need him desperately. I started trying to read it and this one’s kind of hard to get into; but I know and trust him as a writer, so I want to push through the resistance.

All four of those are pushing on me real hard in their own ways. Have you read any of them? Any words, if you have?

It’s Tuesday, so poetry group meets in my house tonight, looking forward to that so much. I’m going to bring a couple of poems by Sharon Olds — not this one, but this is a gorgeous Sharon Olds poem:

Rite of Passage 

As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.

Olds has long been a favorite poet of mine, and she was recently included on a list of five female poets who are doing good work in the resistance.

The world feels extremely scary right now. Every day, scarier than the day before. I gaze at this beautiful child and hold my breath.

Love and Other Ways of Dying (including reading this book)

I’m an enthusiastic reader, and an enthusiastic recommender. I’m also a probably confusing combination of extremely picky and extremely accepting. I’m picky as a reader in that life is too short to read crap (even if everyone else loves it…..if it’s crap to me, my own life’s too short) so I am willing to abandon a book after a good-enough try. But I’m very accepting in that I don’t have to love the book, as long as I understand what the writer is doing. I can severely dislike all the characters, I can hate what happens, or even be bored to tears, as long as I see what the writer is doing and it’s effective and intended. For example, when I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s remarkable series, I felt so bored by it I finally had to set it aside for awhile — but I came back to it, because I felt like I was missing something. And then I realized what he was doing, and that the long period of boredom was critical, it’s what he was intending (just like David Foster Wallace in The Pale King). I never did end up loving The Pale King, and I did end up loving Knausgaard, but for recommendation purposes I could recommend them both heartily even though they felt boring.

So to understand my recommendations, it’s important to realize that I often recommend books that other people dislike — because I’m thinking about what the book is trying to do and whether/how well it does it. I don’t have to love it, it doesn’t have to become an absolute favorite. It’s also important to realize that I really dislike schmaltz. Oh how I hate it. I hate schmaltz and purple sentimentality however it comes at us: in prose, in greeting cards, on television and in movies, etc. Swelling violins, purple mountains majesty and flags waving in a gentle breeze, front porches with flag bunting and window boxes filled with flowers, True Americans wearing khaki or pressed blue jeans (even sometimes True Americans Of All Colors, but not usually) holding hands. GAG. One thing I’m always most happy to hear, when people read pieces of my memoir, is that it’s not sentimental. It’s not self-indulgent and pitying. I am sentimental as a person, but I very much dislike over-sentimentality in writing. I think writers achieve so much more when they use restraint when writing about emotional things. Don’t beat me over the head with violins! To my mind, the best emotional writing takes me there almost invisibly, and leaves me to do all that emotional work. Then it’s my emotion, it’s earned.

It’s a nice cover, though!

And so, to an extremely crappy book I just tried to read, and abandoned. Let me save you (although almost all other reviewers loved it, so read their thoughts if the book seems possibly interesting). Love and Other Ways of Dying, by Michael Paterniti. Thank heavens I just checked it out from the library.

It seemed to have everything going for it. The topic, the form, the fact that it was longlisted for the National Book Award, the other reviews, the blurbs….the topic, which is one of my favorite (it really is about love and dying, writ large and broadly). I’d just finished Eileen and was eager to dive into this, palate-cleansing in every possible way. And I really do love essays (and will take this chance to again recommend the most excellent collection by Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering), so I was literally excited when I started reading. I didn’t know the writer, who is apparently relatively well-known and publishes in great places. The first essay was about the crash of Swissair flight 111, an event so horrific and well-known that there are movies and television specials about it, including this NOVA episode. As I was reading, I periodically kind of rolled my eyes and thought, sheesh, this guy, he’d be super annoying to spend much time with. It was overwritten, it went too far into that kind of emotional manipulation that really wasn’t necessary, at all! The story itself, told with plain, short sentences and no elaboration, would’ve done that.

So I was a little concerned, but read the second essay, “He Might Just Be a Prophet,” about Ferran Adrià, the chef/owner of El Bulli, and the originator of an incredibly inventive way of cooking — he’s considered the best chef in the world by people who rank those things. And again, the topic was interesting enough that I kept reading despite the severely overwritten prose. I needed a bit of lemon ice to cleanse my palate from it, good grief.

But the third essay just done this old girl in. It was titled “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow,” and it was really the most patronizing, condescending schmaltz I’ve ever tried to choke down in my whole life. The whole ‘traditional good old American way of life, the cattleman on the prairie, shucks it’s all dying and look at this noble man and his noble wife managing a crappy motel with all their red necked nobility’ and truly, flags were smacking me in the face and the prose was Elvis in front of a lurid sunset on the blackest of velvet in Las Vegas, or maybe Elvis and Jesus. My god. It was just the most awful culmination, a peaked crescendo of the schmaltz that had permeated the first two, and I was done. I glanced ahead at the next essay just to see if maybe he got it out of his system (the next essay was about a giant who lives in Ukraine, or somewhere like that) but nope, so I broke up with him and threw his shit out on the street and we are finished forever.

Save yourself the trouble, and don’t read this one. (Or maybe do, if the other reviews make it seem like you’ll like it — and if you do, great! We all need to find books we love….this one just didn’t work for me.) If you like essays, and are looking for some recommendations, I have really enjoyed these and you can find my GoodReads reviews of them here:

And if you’ve read an essay collection that you really loved, tell me about it! I’m always looking.

bookie book book – Eileen

Blogs evolve (obvious-est statement in the world #1). Sometimes a blogger takes a hard left and changes it whole cloth, and sometimes it just shifts like a riverbed. Mine has been so many different things, including for a while a knitting blog. Usually it’s a personal blog, as you know already. Always I mention books because, aside from my kids and grandkids and my traveling life, books are the most central and defining detail of my existence.

Now I am a book ambassador for Little, Brown, a publisher that’s one of my favorites (along with Graywolf, and Vintage, and Picador, and FSG, and Penguin). All this means is that they’re going to start sending me books (hard copies, I think, which means I can start to rebuild my personal library that I had to decimate when I moved to NYC in 2005) and if I like any of them, I write, post, Instagram, share. No requirements, no expectations beyond that. I can do that, and happily.

I already review almost every book I read on GoodReads, and mention books in passing here, but thought I might start writing about them a little bit more on my blog, whether for Little, Brown or otherwise. SO! I just finished reading Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh, and it’s almost indescribable. It’s disgusting. It’s gross. It’s creepy. It’s awful. It’s wrenching. It’s unbelievable unless you’ve lived aspects of her life, which I have, so I know that it’s believable, even if you don’t think so because you are luckier than I have been.

I’m known in my former book club as a trauma book junkie. The joke about me was that if it was my turn to pick the book, it would be about the Holocaust. I guess to a large extent that’s true, and it’s that I am most fascinated by what people do when their backs are against the wall. That’s when you see who they are, and that’s what fascinates me. Who breaks, and how. Who comes through, and how do they do it. What are the consequences. Those issues fascinate me, along with questions of post-traumatic growth. If you’ve made it through hell, and you find a way to flourish, how do you do that, and what can it look like?

So in this book, Eileen lives in Xville with her late-stages alcoholic father, who is an ex-cop, and quite vicious, especially and almost solely to Eileen. Her mother has died and she wears her mother’s frumpy old clothes, hides in them. Her sister, favored by her father, is something of a fluffy, trampy woman who just shows up on occasion, gets praised by their father, and leaves Eileen to the mess. At the end of the first chapter, which sets the landscape of Eileen’s truly miserable existence, we get this:

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes—a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.

This is the story of how I disappeared.

Eileen is a gross young woman, her life is disgusting, the house she shares with her father is DISGUSTING and filthy. She takes large doses of laxatives, doesn’t bathe or wash her hair, eats like a furtive rat, and drinks too much. Moshfegh is extraordinary at providing the specific colors, textures, smells, sounds, to gross you out. I often felt nauseated by the description. Now, don’t you want to read it? Reviewers on GoodReads talk about how ugly it is, how dark, repellent, filthy, etc., and they aren’t wrong. But I still recommend this book, as long as you go in knowing this about it, because:

  • No one else could have written these sentences. It isn’t that they’re especially eloquent, or beautiful (obviously), or filled with lyrical description (obviously) or great vocabulary. It’s just that they are unique, and specific in their observation, and again and again I’d read something that just made me sit up because I’d never read a sentence like that. Or I’d never read that point of view, or observation, even though I knew the absolute truth of it. This is one brief passage I highlighted because it was like a spotlight hit me with the truth of it: “When poor people hear a loud noise, they whip their heads around. Wealthy people finish their sentences, then just glance back.” I have been that poor, and even though I’m not that poor now, my head still always whips around.
  • Moshfegh is a brave storyteller, and I admire that. Right from the very beginning you know something dramatic happens, right from the outset you know there is a crime, she leaves, but you don’t learn what it is until 85% into the book. I kept thinking she was about to reveal the twist — “This was my last day at work, even though I didn’t know it,” etc — but then on the book would go, tripping along with all these lasts, each digressing into story but never getting to the twist. That’s brave storytelling, trusting that she had the chops to keep you reading. Around 20-25% I started to get frustrated, and would scan ahead thinking the thing was surely just about to happen, and finally I decided just to trust her, and go with it. I’m really glad I did. (I’ll read the book again, for sure, and will be more relaxed about this.)
  • Nothing is simple or black and white, which is my FAVORITE thing in the world since nothing is. The catalyst character, Rebecca, is not well sketched-out, and the longer I thought about the book after I finished it, the more I realized I was unsatisfied by her. I think she was the least successful — not because of what she did, which was dramatic and odd and unexplained, but because I was not given enough about her to even craft a vague explanation for her. I didn’t need to understand her completely, or know her back story, but she was a bit too much of a cipher. Still, the way her part of the story ended was certainly not black and white, and if the book had been written by a less confident writer, it would’ve been. It would’ve been like any TV drama, and the book would have been less satisfying.
  • The end story for Eileen is beautiful and I just felt such relief for her. It’s funny; it reminded me of that old Steve Martin joke about how to be a millionaire and never pay taxes (“First, get a million dollars. Now, forget to pay taxes.”) — wait! I want to know that first part! In Eileen’s case, her whole life after she leaves Xville is glossed over and not at all part of the story. You don’t get to know how she got there, from here. But you get to know that she did.

I’m not a reader who insists that things be nice. Characters don’t have to be nice, or clean, or simple. It always surprises me to read reviews that are critical simply because the reader hated the character. I’m glad to hate a character! I’m glad to feel squidgey, to feel squirmy, to feel uneasy, to feel like perhaps a shower would be good right now because the story is that gross. If that’s the world of the story, and the writer does a good job with it, I’m all in.

So I recommend this book as long as you know it’s going to be gross. It’s going to make you uncomfortable. You’ll never read anything else quite like it, I can say that for sure. Here’s the Amazon link, if you’re interested.