image: Pamela Fugate Designs
When I was little, I wasn’t really much of a troublemaker. In fact, I was as straitlaced as a kid could be: reading was my addiction, and it was the only thing that regularly got me in trouble. I didn’t backtalk, I didn’t beg for attention — I just stayed up late almost every night, reading into the wee hours of the morning, or as long as I could get away with it before my mom would catch me. And book reports? Girl, I could bust a move on a book report. Believe it.
In college, though, I hit my limit. The summer of my first big breakup, I began the tradition that would carry me through every rough patch thereafter: I threw myself into work to get through each day. I took four accelerated summer courses all at once — those two-and-a-half-hours-a-day, four-days-a-week kinds of classes, and all of them together were supposed to satisfy my major’s literature requirement. I’ll just lose myself in the worlds of all these books, I thought, and then I realized what I’d done: I’d signed up to spend half the summer reading four books at once, one stack after another, week after week.
FOUR BOOKS AT ONCE. Have you ever tried that?
If not, don’t. If so, you’re crazy. CRAZY.
It took a few years after that for me to pick up a book again for the sake of pure pleasure. In fact, it may have taken about ten. Somewhere in my twenties I decided I was just too busy to read (Too busy doing what, exactly? Watching VH-1?), but now that I write for a living, I’ve rediscovered my addiction and fallen completely off the wagon. Stephen King’s been quoted as saying, “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”
So, I’ve been stocking up on rope and pitons lately. It hasn’t been the most well-read year of my life, but I’ve torn through some satisfying stuff. I don’t usually squawk a lot about what book my nose is buried in, but I think I’ll do that today. Here’s a rundown of the pages I let myself get lost in this year, plus a few I’m about to dive into… because isn’t that feeling of connection half the fun of reading, anyway?
Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan — It’s been an interesting year in Texas politics, and our national — no, make that global — conversation (or is it more of a screaming match?) about gender equality is far from over. Girl Land, a brief but writerly glimpse into the world of being something/someone between a girl and a woman — you know, that space Judy Blume always captured so well — tackles the topic without making me cringe, which is kind of a tough thing to do. The complexities of being female in what’s long been a man’s world are deeply personal, and it’s easy to get defensive when we’re presented with viewpoints that differ from our own, but look: the author has been on staff at The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, and it shows. It’s worth a quick glimpse to remind ourselves of that part of our lives when we first started figuring out who we were and why. Those things, I think, are worth talking about with intelligence.
Paris: An Inspiring Tour of the City’s Creative Heart by Janelle McCulloch — I went to Europe for the first (and absolutely not last) time in my life this year, visiting London, Paris and Barcelona over the span of a week and a half. I could have spent the entire time in just one of those cities and been happy as a lark, but even in the short time I spent in the City of Light, this achingly gorgeous book helped me get a feel for the arrondissements (that’s fancytalk for “districts”) and find some tucked-away places I would never have known about otherwise. Lush and detailed, this whimsically-written guidebook is a love letter to the city itself.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — F*ck Baz Luhrmann. Seriously, f*ck him and however you spell his stupid name. (Oh, sorry… didn’t realize I had so much rage pent up still). See, I’ve loved The Great Gatsby since I first read it in school, and last spring, I was looking forward to a fresh cinematic take that got it right. So much for those great expectations teetering precariously on the director’s decades-old Romeo + Juliet cred. Regardless, I’ll always love the narrative voice in this Great American Novel, and I’ll always find Daisy detestable, but that last part’s okay — I’m not alone. Such a quick read packed with so much social commentary. It’ll never get old, no matter how many more auteurs try to butcher it.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac — I have an admission. Try as I might, I never finished this book. I know it’s a (mid-century) modern classic. I know it’s got that beautiful line about the mad ones and the yellow roman candles, and I know it’s got a lot of other beautiful lines, too, but there’s just so much mania between them all. That’s not to say I’m not up to the challenge, or that I have to be spoon-fed, but let’s be real: reading this guy’s prose is like riding in a car with no brakes. He typed it up on a scroll — a scroll, mind you — because changing the pages in his typewriter supposedly damaged his flow, for god’s sake. Still, I won’t be bested by this beatnik. I’ve picked the damn thing up twice and given it the old college try. I’m hoping the third time’s exactly as charmed as all those rumors swirling around it suggest.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling — With chapter titles like “I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back,” The Office (which I love) writer-plus-cast-member and Mindy Project (which I can’t get into) star nails countless perfect witticisms of a hard-working girl who’s sometimes prone to abject laziness, narcissism and materialism but who always comes through in the end. Her rant about the fact that John Cougar (Mellencamp?)’s ode to the unburdened liberty of youth, “Jack and Diane,” is patently awful and ought to be changed to “Nguyen and Ari, a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run, and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at Princeton Review” is… well, c’mon. You laughed, right? Me, too.
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison — Whoa dang. I made the mistake of reading the first half of this novel on a plane. Oh, the crying. Actually, to be honest, some of the crying came from the author’s note at the end of the book, which I skipped to during a key scene because something struck me as familiar. Turns out, Evison wrote the tragicomic book in an almost involuntary attempt to deal with the loss of his sister, which makes complete sense given his adeptness at toeing the weird tightrope grief puts us on, balancing gallows humor in one hand and real, profound sadness and rage in the other. I found myself letting go of some of my own baggage while reading this work, and I’m sure lots of other readers did as well, so here’s hoping the crass but elegant writer behind this book was able to move forward a little bit, too, while he was putting its pages together.
Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen — So, apparently I had a July full of Jonathans. Two of them, anyway… one full of heart, and the other, not so much. I chose this book by chance from a shelf at Powell’s Books in Portland last summer after perusing the Essays section and haphazardly landing on a page dealing with the ethics of writing about family members, loved ones and other people who are in a position to get super pissed off about what’s been committed in ink about them. It sat on my nightstand and in a carry-on bag or two for the better part of a year, and then I finally dove in. Increasingly agitated as I trudged through his collection of essays, eulogies and commencement addresses, I finally declared, “I hate this guy.” and abandoned the book about two-thirds of the way through. A few weeks later, a link to the article “A Handy Guide to Why Jonathan Franzen Pisses You Off” popped up in my twitter feed, and I felt vindicated. I didn’t even know being pissed off by Jonathan Franzen was a thing until I’d been there myself and then realized it’s a universal thing, like loving bacon or cheese or Bill Murray.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed — Oh man. This one. This one stabbed me on page 38. Stabbed me in the ribs and kept me bleeding until the end. It’s easy to get lost in Wild and think you’re reading a work of fiction because the willpower, discipline and grit displayed by the protagonist is practically otherworldly, and yet at the same time, it’s impossible not to empathize with her. I’ve read quite a bit about how the boys’ club that is the literary establishment didn’t seem to want to let Cheryl Strayed in when this book sold like hotcakes last year. Personally, I think they’re intimidated… that’s why they tried to relegate her to the ill-fitting (for her) and utterly irrelevant chick lit section, even though she was caked in mud after hiking 1,000+ miles of the Pacific Coast Trail alone. Chick lit, my ass. This woman’s the truth. If I meet her someday, the Snapple’s on me.
Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron — Full disclosure: I read this book as research for a Q&A I got to do with the author for a Citygram feature. Good thing I fancy myself a writer but not a journalist, since the tiniest anecdote about taking BBQ onto a plane can apparently win my affection in less than a third of a second. Anyway, this memoir by an acclaimed screenwriter, playwright and essayist (and incidentally, Nora Ephron’s sister) hit home for me in a number of ways: it deals with the subject of profound loss, it finds beauty in the tiniest of things, and it exposes the inner workings of a worrier who writes for a living. Check, check and check. Delia: you had me at “Sister.”
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What have you been reading? What’s up next on your nightstand? On deck for the holidays, I’ve got The Fault in Our Stars, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Brave New World (nope, I’ve never read it, nor its 1958 follow-up, but that’s about to change) and a whole bunch of essays. It’s so nice to delve into parallel worlds for a while to help us learn a little something about our own. Here’s hoping next year I’ll have a whole new mess of worlds to talk about with you. Maybe even one of mine.