what i’m reading lately

on my bookshelf.jpgRight now, this country is all jagged outrage and impotent heartbreak. I wrote about my bookshelf before yesterday’s Supreme Court decision (although, obviously, after the waves and waves of coverage on detained asylum seekers, babies in cages, and outrageous government-sponsored human rights violations). Books can be escape in desperate times. I hope, instead, they’re lightposts, wisdom to combat all this injustice and pain.

There was a time when books were my safety. I read constantly, voraciously. Friends would joke: I can see from Goodreads that you’ve read four books in the time its taken me to read one. Do you do anything else? I brought books to parties, because knowing I had one near was enough to stem the anxiety that crowds created for me. I referred my bookshelves, in unguarded and un-ironic moments, as my oldest friends.

In college, I made my roommate wait while I ran back into our apartment. When she saw me tucking a novel into my bag, and she laughed. We’re running errands. What do you need a book for? What if something happens, I tried to explain, and I have time to kill?

So you’re saying that we get into a car accident. I’m so badly hurt I can’t carry a conversation, and you’re going to whip out a book while you wait for an ambulance?

Last year, my reading life shifted, and it’s taken me the year to acclimate. When I stopped needing books to smother my pain, I stopped reading. I wasn’t the walking wounded anymore; I didn’t need the band-aids.

It’s been a joyful process to rediscover one of my earliest loves. It’s led to a deeper relationship and, antithetically, less attached relationship with the texts. It’s not an anesthesia, so I’m present for language and wisdom and plot development in ways I wasn’t. I’ve been rereading books to savor them in new and cleaner ways. I’m purging my shelves of what I don’t like, expanding my diet to explore what I do, getting more life of everything I read.

In other words, I’ve found my groove again.

Under the Tuscan SunBella Tuscany, Frances Mayes: I didn’t read these books when they were released a decade ago, didn’t see the movie, wasn’t old enough to get tired of the Tuscany-as-lifestyle frenzy they created. My mother passed them to me in a stack she was discarding, and I grabbed the first before a work trip I wanted some “light” reading for. Mayes is a fantastic writer. A poet, she operates at the level of the sentence, and I get why these books (the first, in particular) sent the world into paroxysms of Tuscan-fever. Everything is beautiful underneath her pen.

But beneath the language, and all the talk of wines and linens and the cucinia povera and the Etruscan walls (as an aside: I found this all fascinating, even if it was extraneous and vaguely pretension), I found in these memoirs a meditation on home, and who we are when we locate ourselves elsewhere. I’m moving this summer, and Mayes did for me what I ask literature to do: Her memoirs provided shape and language for the hopes I have for our move, for the dreams, the anxieties, the questions, the reasons.

The Good Mother, Sue Miller: Like the Mayes memoirs, The Good Mother is decades old, scavenged during one of my $0.50 per title book bin benders. This novel about a woman who became awake: After a dispassionate marriage, Anna Dunlap begins to lay a new foundation upon which to build a life for herself and her daughter, only to have this new life thrown into chaos by a decision made by her lover. The central crisis of this novel isn’t as nuanced as Miller likely meant it to be (although I’m speaking from a vantage point of thirty years), but the intensity of character’s experience is. Miller writes  a traditionally “female” story without any of the traditional sentimentality. Motherhood brings deep, radical love, but also compromise and limits. Romance is obsessive and consuming, but there’s no prince charming who will save a woman’s life. Familial ties are complicated. Love, in all its forms, is complicated. It’s a story that embraces, but doesn’t try to smooth, the rough corners of our experiences.

Vida, Patricia Engel: This is best book I’ve read this year. Engel is a sharp, beautiful writer who knows how to make language detonate. I read this very short collection of interconnected stories (140-ish pages) during an April snowstorm that left me snowed in. There’s nothing Engel won’t touch, and nothing she can’t make both beautiful and broken: prostitution, domestic abuse, death, immigration, heartbreak, girls who feel out of place, boyfriends who let you down. I read this book months ago, and still haven’t gotten over it.

This spring, I also reread Felicia Sullivan’s superb Follow Me into the Dark, Cheryl Strayed’s gorgeous memoir, Wild, and slogged through a few so-so titles that immediately wound up in the give away pile.

Currently, I’m reading Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Connor + The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison. The first, a novel I’ve had on my shelf for years, is one of my pre-move “read now or toss” books. I will haul the books I love across oceans without regret, but I really don’t want to get out to DC with boxes of books I’m going to disappointed in when I finally read them. So far (as in 50 pages in), Star of the Sea, historical fiction about a passenger ship crossing from Ireland to New York, is better than I expected.

The second, I’m reading slowly. Do you ever “save” the books you’re most excited for? I’ve wanted to read The Empathy Exams since it was released, but even though it’s been on my shelf for a year, I was hesitant to start it. When I buy a book, I put it on my shelf and wait for months, maybe years, for the “right time” to read it. I’m not sure if this is a sweet piece of my character (the anticipation builds my love) or another way I reinforce the beliefs that I don’t deserve to have I want. Either way, I’m finally reading Jamison’s essays, and they’re as gorgeous as I expected. I’m savoring each essay, one at a time.

Other books on my “to be read: special moving edition” pile: Joyland, Stephen KingIn the Country We Loved, Diana Guerrero, The Wonder Spot, Melissa Bank, A Box of Matches, Nicholson Baker.

What are you reading? What should I be reading?

thoughts on abundance versus reduction and what we create space for

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about reduction over the last few months. Reducing my spending, reducing my possessions, reducing my stress, reducing my clutter, (I want to say reducing my waistline too, but I’m working on self-compassion over here). The cleanness of January–new year, fewer plans, clear, winter light–makes me want to cut down, cut back.

On Monday, I lay awake in bed thinking about writing. I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, and thus far, he hasn’t written much about his writing, but the act of writing is a constant specter in the books. The joy of language (“These two places alone, which I could not believe I had written…are two of the best moments in my life. By which I mean by whole life.”), the industry of publishing, the slog of working on it, the anxiety of not writing at all.

I’ve written very little this past year. I did publish short story in a small journal in June (cue the trumpets!), and have written reflectively both in my journal and in this space, but as far as creating, pulling new stories out of the nascent fog, shaping those narratives into something readable, something publishable–I’ve only “done” three longhand pages of that kind of writing in the past seven months. Despite having written so little, I still feel writing on me the way I always have. I still shutter beautiful moments, listen for cadence as people speak, note the phrases strangers use as they cross me on the sidewalk. On Monday, I thought about how hard it is to create something new (even if it’s just for yourself), and then I remembered that I’ve done this again and again and again. Creating is hard, but it’s also as natural as breathing.

What will occupy the space I’m creating with all my reducing?

I wrote about this feeling last week: That I want 2018 to be an abundant year. It strikes me, lover of words that I am, that the two words that have been rising to the surface now are at odds with one another. Abundance and reduction.

But then I think about the two areas of my life where excesses can be most visible: my spending habits and my book collection. I’ve been diligent these past weeks at tracking my spending, and weighing my purchases, and while I’ve said no to what I haven’t needed, I’ve genuinely enjoyed spending each dollar I’ve spent this month. A Saturday night with friends, a haul of fresh, adventurous foods we turned into meals on a long, snowy weekend, sipping the “world’s best chai latte” in a warm parlor on a cold, cold night. Cutting back to make room for more.

Same goes with my book collection. Reading My Struggle, which is so compelling and wise and asks questions of me that I haven’t know to ask, has me thinking, yet again, about which books I keep and which I pass along. I have a tremendous amount of books, many of which I haven’t read yet, and while you wouldn’t guess it looking at my four full bookcases, I edit my collection frequently. I won’t keep a book unless I loved it, or unless it taught me something. The six volumes of My Struggle are the kind of books I will gladly haul with me from apartment to apartment, and from city to city. Books with this much life make me want to cut back on the volumes where the magic has dulled.

As is so often the case in my life (in all our lives?), I feel like I’m holding disparate things in one hand, and wondering what will be done with them. I want to write, but I don’t trust my words yet, or my ability to work with them. I want to foster abundance in my life, but right now, I’m taken with reduction. What is going to fill up all this space I’m creating?

I’m considering dedicating a month to a daily habit to try to create some forward motion for myself. Journaling, maybe, or mediating. I’m always interested in what happens when we commit ourselves to one thing. How can that one thing crack open the ten thousand?

I have all this joy right now, but also all this anticipation. The new year is arbitrary, I know, but the hope I have for it isn’t.