Right 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 Sun + Bella 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 King, In 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?