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.
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 Happinessfor a couple of weeks now, and I was thrilled to begin it. How I loved her first book, The God of Small Things, which 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.
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 Newsweekincludes 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:
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. 🙂
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.
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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:
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
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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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 Winter. I 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.
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.
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:
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.
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I ran out of time before we left for Indonesia to put up a farewell post with a link to the blog, so I’ll do a little of that here and then catch up a bit. Indonesia was incredible! We saw so many glorious sunsets, experienced the strangeness of ogoh-ogoh on Bali, the wonder of the second highest volcano on Lombok (and a terrible accident for Marc, and a minor one for me as I burned my calf on a motorcycle exhaust and was too humiliated to mention it to the cute young guy who was driving me), and the thrill of finding an exceptional place, the tiny southernmost island of Rote. Goats and pigs everywhere, music in the dark, white sand beaches and crystal clear water. It was a great trip. You can look at the blog here. I haven’t finished writing it yet — there’s one last day in Denpasar and the winding-up to write, but everything I mentioned above is already fleshed out on the blog, and boy are there some beautiful photographs! Not because I’m a great photographer, certainly, but because it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture there, the setting is so spectacular.
I read TEN books on vacation, which might be my record. Two of those made it to my “absolute favorites” shelf on GoodReads: Human Acts, by Han Kang, and Why I Am Not a Feminist, by Jessa Crispin. I linked to my absolute favorites shelf, there, so you can read my reviews of both books if you’re interested. Han Kang also wrote The Vegetarian, which won the 2016 Booker Prize, and which was so startling and amazing I read it four times in about six weeks. When I read it the first time, I read the last word and just started reading it again immediately, straight through. Kang is an extraordinary writer, and in Human Acts, her storytelling skills are surely at their peak. She tells the story of a real event — a student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, in which the government slaughtered protestors. The first important chapter is told in second person, and the disorientation of that POV choice is so brilliant, SO brilliant. It’s a wondrous book, but not a fun book (except for the fun of realizing what a writer is doing for you to create such a book).
And I’ve just found Ottessa Moshfegh, and am loving her book Eileen. Since I read brand new writers all day long for my work, it’s always a huge breath of joy to read someone who writes sentences ONLY THEY could’ve written. That’s how Moshfegh writes. No one writes like her. No one else could write like her. With my clients, most of the time anyone could’ve written their sentences because most of them are just learning how to write, so they haven’t yet learned to trust themselves and let themselves have their own voices. But Moshfegh has a distinct voice even among writers with distinct voices. It isn’t that her sentences are extraordinary in their eloquence, or diction, or vocabulary, it’s that they’re distinct in their observation and stance. I’m only about halfway through the book, but wow.
My book life is exploding — not only do I read for a living, read every other moment I can, and review for Netgalley, but I’ve just been selected as a book ambassador for Little, Brown, a publisher whose list I’ve loved for a long time. So I’ll be talking about their books in the coming years, too. So many books. So. Many. Books. I read almost every moment I am awake, and it’s still not enough.
My life is going to be changing pretty dramatically in the coming weeks or perhaps a few months, but I’m not quite ready to say it all. There are details to be nailed down and people to be told in person, face to face. It’s good. It’s a welcome change, and it gives me a lot more peace in my life. I came home from vacation to plenty of work, which hasn’t been true for a very long time (I have a queue again, haven’t had that for 18 months or so), and also to the terrible allergies that plague all of us in central Texas at this time of year. I’ve been so miserable with that and jet lag, and trying to work, so I have been slow to get back here, but I’m back….so hello! I missed you!
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Since November 9, 2016, all my creative efforts have failed. All my cooking has flopped. My baking, just awful — even things I’ve been making for decades and can make in my sleep. Knitting? Fail, fail, fail, frog frog frog. My writing has been clenched and just kind of awful, though I have had a couple of things that worked, inspired by deep veins of emotion about my family, in one way or another.
Why is this? Why has the election of this monster (and the assumption of complete power by the evilest group of politicians that have ever skulked in the halls of power in our country’s history) had this particular effect on me? I wonder about it all the time, because cooking and baking and knitting and writing are such common activities for me, things I do for comfort, for pleasure, for myself and others, and for a creative outlet. But even uncreative things are failing too, like housecleaning. I bang into things, drop things, break things, knock them over. Putting the dust mop away, I realize there’s a wide swath of dust on the tile in the small hallway, how could I even have missed that, anyway? Like, how would it even be possible, given the width of the Swiffer and the narrowness of the hallway?
I’m less interested in suggestions to fix the problem (except for complete overthrow of our government and restoration to sanity), because I feel like I know the things to try, and have been trying them: I slow down, take a deep breath, create a setting that’s conducive to my enjoyment of the task, be present, note each step, take my time, etc., and still it’s all failing. So, OK. I don’t assume this is some kind of brain damage that’s happened inside me, I assume it will pass somehow. But I am interested in the mechanism, in finding some kind of explanation for it.
I’m sure it will notch right into a larger question that’s also confusing me: why am I this devastated? My own very specific life is not affected, if by “my own life” I draw the circle tightly around my personal physical boundary and don’t include “my care for vulnerable people.” Setting aside my real and surely justifiable fears that the Monster-in-Chief will get the world killed in a nuclear holocaust, this too shall pass, and we’ll get him and all his cronies out of office and if we have learned nothing else, we’ve learned that rules and norms don’t matter one bit and that one person can just sit in the chair and on day 1 sign a bunch of papers to completely change everything. So, OK. We’ll set it right, and in the interim it’s just going to be hard going. Why am I this completely devastated, four months and three days later? And of course it’s not just me, we’re all still shellshocked, pulled inward, trying to figure out how to take the next step. We’re mobilizing, fighting, having small victories and planning big ones. That feels good, it allows for the idea of the possibility of perhaps a spark of hope. (Note the distance to hope.)
But why? There are parts I get; I learned that there are enough people in this country to have fallen for his monstrousness and cast their votes for him, and that shocked me. They walk among us too. I knew they were here, I guess I just didn’t realize how many there were. So is it simply that? I don’t live in the country I thought I did? They aren’t just the fringe lunatics? That’s destabilizing I guess. But it doesn’t feel like the answer.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been running sweeps all around the country, snapping up hardworking people, splitting up families — kids come home from school and their parents are just gone. That’s devastating to know about, it goes against everything human and humane and that I care about. Just typing those two sentences made my breath get stuck, brought hot tears into my eyes, and gave me a kind of panic. But that response feels like a symptom not the cause, and it’s the cause of the enormity of my despair that I’m struggling to understand.
Then I look around the world and see this virus of hate spreading from one formerly tolerant country to another. There was a terrible-wonderful passage in a book I recently read, Ill Will by Dan Chaon. One character in the book, Russell, is an agent of destruction, and the scenes that describe the abuse he had suffered as a child were almost impossible for me to read, even though they were presented in a peripheral vision kind of way, hinting and just letting the taint seep into you through your eyes. When he’s in prison later in life, a counselor says to him: “When you’ve been abused in the way you were, you have a virus. And the virus will demand that you pass it on to someone else. You don’t even have that much of a choice.” Russell thinks, The idea that I passed on a virus, and the virus would turn around and it was my own doom? That was so fucking funny. That was so sad and so funny. [Do read Ill Will, it’s powerful. Here is my GoodReads review.] But YES, a virus. It feels exactly like the world is being infected with a murderous, deadly virus, and I hope it’s not fatal. Maybe that’s why I feel sick.
You don’t have the answer either, I don’t think anyone does. Mark Halperin (senior political analyst for MSNBC and Bloomberg Television and contributor and former co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics) said the election has “convulsed the country” more than any event since World War II, including the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I agree with him. I guess we’ll all grapple with this until we get it figured out, and that is likely to take a long time because every single day the administration hurls more horrors at us. Every. Single. Day. It’s so disorienting.
I want my pleasures back. I want to knit beautiful things again and not have to just rip everything out.
I want to bake sumptuous cinnamon rolls for people. I want to make really delicious vegetarian food for my dinners again. I want to make.
Even though I’m not asking for answers, I am wondering: is this happening to you too? Is it still happening to you?
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