The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Spinster: Making a Life on One's Own by Kate Bolick
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith
This is Running for Your Life: Essays by Michelle Orange
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Spinster: Making a Life on One's Own by Kate Bolick
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits
After Birth by Elisa Albert
Selfish, Shallow, and Self Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision to Not Have Kids; edited by Meghan Daum
I have said it before, (once, in January) and I'll say it again, (but luckily for different reasons): it's entirely possible to read too many books - to fit into one blog post. Which brings me to a tentative statement: (announcement feels like too important of a word for what basically amounts to a personal log) I think for the sake of my observations I will shift from posting this monthly to bi-weekly, and ideally then also including tidbits from my varieties of internet reading and how it all relates to my efforts in the creative endeavors. Reasons abound, but as stated above – nine is too many books to fit into a concise post. (And I couldn't. After four books I was at over four thousand words. Post one of two for May it is!)
The other problem with waiting until the end of the month is that my room is very messy and my brain can only fit so many observations about books before they leak out in unfortunate favor of things like how to use the espresso machine at work and trying to finagle schedule changes...for work. There's the rub: all I do is work and read/write. And run, I also run. But that's pretty much it.
On the bright side, you will notice from that sentence the conspicuous absence of 'spend hours of time being unbearably anxious,' and I am glad to report that although I am under no impression that I am completely out of the woods of panic, (because anxiety is a lifelong problem that one must learn to manage effectively rather than eradicate completely, et cetera et cetera) I have made many strides in said panic management in the past month, without having to expel anyone from my life on a permanent hiatus! I will attribute this to the general ability of humans (in this case, myself) to adapt to their circumstances and habituate to things that once made them panic. AKA, everyone and everything that has stressed me out (people, work) is effectively the same, but I am learning to be different in regards to negative reactions to poor stimuli, which is probably the goal of adulthood?
Back up two paragraphs: re: my room being messy. Once again I have temporarily misplaced a book I read this month, and thus cannot go back and refer to my assiduous notes in its margins. This book is the first book I read this month, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. On the bright side, while looking for this book, I found the book I lost in March, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, so that leads me to believe that Joan is not far afield.
What I recall: that I felt like a jerk, because while reading about Joan's inescapable misery upon the death of her husband, I was really taken in by the images of her fancy intellectual life with her husband, pre-death. To be fair, I'm sure that she was also very enamored with her fancy intellectual life pre-her husbands death, but I doubt that was supposed to be the primary takeaway.
Perhaps it's for the best that I have temporarily misplaced this book, because I feel a little ridiculous having a commentary on Joan Didion. It's like, what do you, young writer of perhaps some unharnessed talent but no success or acclaim, think of one of the greatest living nonfiction writers? Inquiring minds are super curious! Not. I mean, this has never stopped me from having an opinion on literally anything in the cultural canon before, including several writers who I will go on to write about this month (I'm looking at you, Zadie) but given that this book was a prolonged meditation on grief, I'm not that party to be like 'meh here were the problems.' I think she's earned herself the right to an entire book on grief, given the fact that currently sitting on my desk is an anthology of her work, i.e. if you are still alive and have an anthology and your life partner dies...you can do whatever you want. Plus, it was beautiful.
Or, I will remember to write things down before I lose any more books.
It turns out that in the cultural chaparral of San Diego, I am not the only person who reads books. Neither is the person of whom I have said 'But I must keep speaking with him because no one else in this city reads books.' There is a third, and it is one of my coworkers, who lent me The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera once she heard that I am the resident bookworm of the restaurant.
I am naturally wary of both recommendations and classics, the former because I fear not liking something that someone lent me due to my pretentious tastes so I often avoid the issue entirely by just not reading the book, and the latter because I live in the constant fear that my general inclination towards contemporary literature is hiding a secret intellectual disability regarding great old works. Luckily, in this case, neither of these was a problem, which will hopefully open the door to an exciting future of reading book recommendations and enjoying classic literature.
I recently read some n + 1 commentary on The Unbearable Lightness as literary porn, which I don't particularly agree with because although it is certainly a novel about the complications of erotic entanglements, it doesn't actually contain that many graphic passages about sex. To dismiss that as literary porn seems a sad designation, because complicated erotic entanglements written in an artistic manner are not only more interesting than reading about traditional domestic relationships, (sorry, but not really, because everyone already cares about domestic life as they're living it, why does it have to be interesting to people who have chosen to eschew it? Anyway) they help bring to the forefront the fact that real lives exist out of the traditional paradigms of love and marriage.
And of course, there's the fact that the novel is just about much more than the complicated sexual relationship between the two main characters. The central conflict, from which the novel takes its name, is how to live every day when life is so inherently meaningless, how to carry the weight of the knowledge that everything is such a chance occurrence.
“We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the 'es muss sein' to our own great love. Tomas often thought of Tereza's remark about his friend and came to the conclusion that the love story of his life exemplified not 'es muss sein' (it must be so) but rather 'es konnte auch anders sein' (it could just as well be otherwise).”
Are things the way they are for a reason, because they were destined, or could life just as easily have taken another path? Who knows! And the book doesn't ask you to know! It lets us wonder along with the characters the whole time, and welcomes us to live freely in the uncertainty.
I'll include one more tidbit of interest, from toward the end of the novel. Kundera is discussing the ways in which we desire to be 'known' by those around us, and creates a very interesting categorization of how we interact with the social world.
In his first category, is people who desire to be known by 'an infinite number of anonymous onlookers.' For example, actors. The second is people for whom it is 'vital to be looked at by many known eyes.' Such as social butterflies, hosts of cocktail parties, etc. The third is 'before the eyes of the person they love,' and the fourth 'live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.' I loved this description because it's so rare to read a true analysis of how people interact with each other and socialize that isn't cast aside for being silly in the shadow of identity politics. It really speaks to the ways that we choose to live our lives as a result of our social needs, even ones that we don't cognizantly think about.
Even more interesting is that Kundera claims that the third category, valuing the gaze of the person you love before all else, is the most dangerous. (The reasoning being that said person can, you know, leave you or die.) I found it interesting because at least from my vantage point, it seems like most people fall into that third category, and the most common category being the most dangerous is quite a social concept. Then again, it's also possible that more people actually fall into the whole spectrum of categories, but they just prioritize the gaze of their signif other because that is the cultural norm.
Pause, clear your mind, and now pay attention to this if it is the only sentence you remember from this entire litany of words:
Read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
I'm not going to be able to state this enough.This is the book. Of the month, of the year, of maybe the decade? Okay, I really can't speak for the decade. But it's reams of paper beyond every other book I've read lately, and certainly in the highest circle of books that I've read ever, and maybe deserves a monument or something. Definitely I'll go on a rampage if it doesn't win some major prizes this year. (But it'll be up against the new J Franz so it's going to be a big old conflict in my head)
A Little Life follows four college friends through their adult and professional lives in New York City circling in on Jude, who has a nearly unspeakably dark past. The first overarching thing (of many things) that I absolutely adored about this novel is that beyond that basic sentence I just wrote, nothing about the characters lives is traditional. The novel rarely focuses on what so many novels are obsessed with: domestic life, traditional relationships, children, basically all the things that normal people elevate to godly importance, this novel ignores in favor of lives and passions that are not often glorified or discussed. The characters do reach startling professional success, but none without many years of struggle and the details are so finely wrought that they are extremely believable.
Foremost of the unglorified passions that the novel sheds light on is the lifeblood of long term, intense friendships. The replacement of a traditional domestic family with a group of friends is at the core of the narrative, and with that is brought a whole plethora of singular moments that illustrate how great friends operate on a day to day basis, from the smallest moments of entertainment:
“When they told JB and Malcolm this, however, they made it into a comedy; the apartment floor became tattooed with mouse droppings, the man across the way had almost exposed himself, the agent was upset because she had been flirting with Willem and he hadn't reciprocated.”
to small gems of intense truth - “Friendship, companionship, it so often defied logic, so often eluded the deserving, so often settled itself on the odd, the bad, the peculiar, the damaged.”
to the (many) mentions of the guilt inducing benefits of intense friendships that exclude others as much as they include the participants: “One night it was just the four of them. This was early in their third year, and was unusual enough for them to all feel cozy and a little sentimental about the clique they had made. And they were a clique, and to his surprise, he was part of it: the building they lived in was called Hood Hall, and they were known around campus as the Boys in the Hood. All of them had other friends (JB and Willem had the most), but it was known (or at least assumed, which was just as good) that their first loyalties were to one another. None of them had ever discussed this explicitly, but they all knew they liked this assumption, that they liked this code of friendship that had been imposed upon them.”
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the friendship portion of the book, though, was how well it portrayed the singular moments in the day to day that make our best friendships what they are. The silliness, the goofing off and saying of ridiculous things that you really can't do with anyone else. The tangents that turn into games that you play for years, the conversations in the car that leave you laughing so hard you're not sure if you're capable of driving. I know these exchanges so well, because they're one of the most cherished things in my life, but I've never read a writer capture them so acutely and meaningfully, while keeping the silliness, that Yanagihara does.
And of course - “After all, where else would they get to use their semaphores, that language that had only two speakers in the whole world?”
The book narrates each stage of life that the characters go through so intuitively that I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Yanagihara had been writing the book for her entire adult life, focusing on each age as she lived it herself. (This is not true, because like a baller she wrote the 700+ page book in 18 months.) This passage, in particular, struck me about being the age and place in life that I am now:
“'I better be fucking up there, or this whole thing has been a fucking waste, just like everything else,' everything else meaning, variously, grad school, moving back to New York, the hair series, or life in general, depending on how nihilistic he felt that day.”
Or this one, illustrating how the smallest things can feel like giant accomplishments to those of us for whom even having a stable and independent adult life is a dream realized:
“he would enter the apartment with a feeling of accomplishment. Only to him and Jude would Lispenard Street be considered an achievement – for as much work as he had done to it, and as much as Jude had cleaned it, it was still sad, somehow, and furtive, as if the place was embarrassed to call itself a real apartment – but in those moments he would find himself thinking, This is enough. This is more than I hoped. To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people's words! - it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.”
Without going into the particulars of what makes my life an absurd not life, I identify so much with the conflicting feelings of absurdity and pride, of a life that you work so hard to maintain even though to so many people it isn't much at all.
As if a 700 page long book with friendship as a main pillar weren't enough, Yanagihara also made the living of life outside of traditional domesticity a tenet of the book.
After one of the characters parents suggests they stop being so attached to their friends and couple up - “But how was one to be an adult? Was couplehood truly the only appropriate option? (But then, a sole option was no option at all.) Thousands of years of evolutionary and social development and this is our only choice?”
Um, WORD. I think it's a little odd how so many writers are championing the portrayal of domesticity in books when...that is literally the only common feature in most books. If there's a big trove of current serious literature that doesn't involve marriage / children that is getting all the awards that people are pissed about...can someone tell me where it is?
One of the great pleasures of reading is when a book puts voice, eloquently and universally, to an idea that you've been mulling over in your own head in not so eloquent terms. I've been thinking lately about how complex the discussion of privilege is, given that everyone feels negative emotions and struggles, regardless of the money or privilege in their life. Do not mistake, I still spend a few hours a week bemoaning people who have fancy connections after attending Ivy League colleges, but I spend a lot less time than I used to rolling my eyes at white men, because hey, shitty things happen to all of us, and being peeved at privileged people sometimes amounts to a waste of time.
“'What does Malcolm have to worry about?' JB would ask them when Malcolm was anxious about something, but he knew: he was worried because to be alive was to worry. Life was scary, it was unknowable. Even Malcolm's money wouldn't immunize him completely. Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them.”
I don't think I can talk about the book without mentioning how incredibly tragic it is. I don't want to transcribe passages in this case, because most of my favorite tragic passages are too revealing of the events of the novel, and one of the great joys of reading this book is how carefully and slowly the details of Jude's life unfold. For that you have to read it, except you have to read it anyway because it is the best book in the world. In probably one week I'm going to just break down and start buying it and anonymously sending it to people because I so badly want someone to discuss this novel with!
Both A Little Life and the next book I read, Spinster by Kate Bolick, are books that I pretty much knew I had to purchase as soon as I heard about them because the subject matter was so inherently appealing to me. Spinster keeps the theme from A Little Life of nontraditional lifestyles, but instead of describing friendships, it focuses on another favorite theme of my life, being an independent woman.
Spinster is a mixture of memoir and social history, describing Bolick's journey in realizing that she doesn't crave traditional partnership in the way that women are expected to, and researching five artistic women throughout history who behaved out of the traditional female as dependent spouse and mother paradigm. Bolick discusses the centuries long stigmatization of the single woman and the many forms it has taken throughout history, as well as the still current practice of placing negative connotations on women who own their sexuality.
This book really instigated a thought process for me about how society regards the single woman. Ever since reading it, I've been taking notes and thinking thoughts for ideally, future articles about how those who thrive in the patriarchal society use the negative image of the single woman as a form of oppression. Before the wolves descend, I know that the oppression of the single woman is not anything like the oppression of the extremely impoverished or racial minorities, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. So more on that later.
Bolick speaks, early in the book, to the idea which I fully support that to evolve as an artist, you need to spend a lot of your life growing not-alongside another person. This relates to an idea that probably many people have said but I most recently read in the voice of Meghan Daum, that people who are in intensely serious relationships when they're very young tend to grow together, and develop interests and lifestyles that are entangled. What Bolick asks, is if this way of living is conductive to being an artist? She seems to think that no, it isn't, and I agree: “But also because we were both trying to be artists, and as we neared the end of college, I began to sense a friction between the intimacy we shared and the autonomy required to become the people we wanted to be.”
This is emphasized by a passage later in the book: “Being single is like being an artist, not because creating a functional single life is an art form, but because it requires the same close attention to one's singular needs, as well as the will and focus to fulfill them. Just as the artist arranges her life around her creativity, sacrificing conventional comforts and even social acceptance, sleeping and eating according to her own rhythms, so that her talent thrives above all else...so a single person has to think hard to decipher what makes her happiest and most fulfilled.”
Through Bolick's own experiences, she communicates without explicitly stating a central aspect of living an independent life as a woman (or anyone, actually): unless you have an extremely low sex drive or are asexual (or really, really okay with having one night stands all the time) part of this lifestyle is finding people who are as independent as you are and willing to make intimacy a part of your lives without following the traditional path that implies: eventually moving in together, getting married, and having children. Sometimes you fall into this naturally and maybe other times it happens with more careful planning, but Bolick never states or implies that she wants to not have men in her life at all, rather that she wants to enjoy relationships that don't bind her to a long term contract. And I'm like, same.
Bolick also discusses the flaws in the logic that govern couplehood as the ultimate goal, the primary desired status. “But one aspect that hasn't changed at all is [marriage's] fantasy of certainty. It's true that the per capita divorce rate has dropped from its all-time peak in 1981 of about 53 divorces per 1000 people – but even so, today nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. It's amazing, really, how deftly we hold in our collective consciousness this disconnect between what we want marriage to be and how so many marriages actually turn out.”
This could be seen, from a romantic's point of view, as an endless faith in love, that our story will be the one to defy the odds. Or, it could be seen as a crippling fantasy. Viewing marriage as certainty is about as good an idea as viewing anything in life as certain, which is to say, not very.
I don't want this to turn into a shit storm session on couples, since approximately 90% of people I interact with are in serious relationships so I'd be offending like, everyone. But then again, why am I so worried about offending people who get the everyday affirmation of doing something that society approves of? What's so wrong with hailing authors who discuss the pros of alternative ways of living? It's not like Yanagihara or Bolick are saying that doing the accepted thing is bad, just that other ways of life are also okay. As Amy Poehler said last month: good for her, not for me.
To those wondering about me saying all this when I also spent an amount of time quite anxious about these very things: sometimes, anxiety stems from feeling that your life falls outside social norms, and once you realize that you're truly free of them, you settle into it.
Maybe I'm full of shit, and I'll meet some guy who I want to spend every second of the day with and have a bunch of kids and whatever, but as time goes on and I learn more about myself, the world, and the people that I like best, I find it increasingly likely that the people I'll have the most satisfying interactions with (be that friendships or intimate partnerships) with are people who need space, who do their own thing, who probably have as many inner debates about their conflicting desires for companionship and solitude as I do. Slash, with each passing day I am more convinced that I will never want children.
And anyway, look how long just writing about four books was! Hence, here I end, and post, and will now write about the next five books, giving my three readers a convenient break.