Book Review: Awayland by Ramona Ausubel

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How many times have I mentioned that I adore a good short story collection? I feel like I’ve raised my hand at any appropriate moment, inserted myself in any conversation I can somehow relate to a short story collected, and have volleyed on behalf of this incredible avenue for storytelling. Fiction is most delicious to me in the forms of short stories- ripe and juicy clementines, bright orange and fast.

I’ve been looking forward to this book’s release for months. I adore the cover- the font, the slightly off-kilter alignment and odd use of floral fabrics, the strange looking creatures, almost mirrors of one another. And the title intrigues me, pulls me in- it’s a sister to Neverland or some other mystical realm, a world that is far off but still accessible, still, somehow, a land. I went into this reading experience having no past reading relationship with Aububel’s work (it hurts my literary soul that I had not previously devoted myself to her writing- two novels and another short story collection?! I can’t wait)- I didn’t know what to expect, and the book’s description didn’t offer much either. I deduced that Ausbuel implemented fantastical elements into her stories, that human themes were transferred and translated onto mystical beings. And I was cautious of this because I think it’s easy to get wrong. Ausubel, however, succeeded.

A collection’s organization is always something I take notice of- why did the author choose to place this story here, and that story after or before? Why, out of the many stories they’ve written, did these few end up in the same collection? What commonalities bring them together? What makes them different enough to stand out? How do you find the balance? Awayland‘s structure is even more interesting because of Ausubel’s employment of sections. The book is divided into four sub-sections, each containing a few stories in it. From my reading experience, this is not common. Typically, the stories exist via the binds of the book, and no other structure contains them. Another writer that comes to mind who has employed this structural technique is Jhumpa Lahiri- in her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri sections her stories into two separate sections, intertwining the two via shared characters and plot lines. I was floored when I read this book- it felt as if an entirely new reality of poetic prose had made itself apparent to me. And Jenny Zhang’s Sourheart, a story collection I adore from last year, also employs some interesting structural elements, like characters from some stories showing up in the peripheral of later stories. This is an innovative, deliberate, and creative stroke of brilliance that the short story possesses over the novel- a short story collection tells a quick story, firy in its brevity, but a collection can tell multiple stories, tied together delicately with the simplest of strings.

I took diligent notes on this collection during my reading (which only took me 1.5 days- I ate it so disgustingly quick) in order to deduce a thematical definition of the sections. I think the meaning(s) are expertly obtuse while still remaining openly inviting, making the reading so deliriously powerful.

The first section of the book is titled Bay of Hungers and includes three stories: ‘You Can Find Love Now,’ ‘Fresh Water From the Sea’ and ‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species.’ The first story, ‘You Can Find Love Now,’ walks us through a Cyclops (yes, a Cyclops) creating an online dating profile for himself. The Cyclops’ presence in the story only serves to further highlight the silliness inherently wrapped up in online dating, and the ways we describe ourselves in order to find someone interested in us- an elaborate hoax, a game likened to that of fishing. As the Cyclops says: “If you want me to set a trap, I’ll set a trap. A first date picking blueberries in the whitest, cleanest sunlight, tin pails. I’ll bring sandwiches and chilled Chardonnay and tell you that we are already the good people we wanted to become.” This story is a short burst through the bleakness of loneliness, an honest look at what it means to expose yourself in just the right amount to be interesting but not frightening. But what if you, yourself, are frightening? What if that’s part of your essence? “If I came to your house, tonight, where would I find you? The living room? The kitchen? Waiting at the door? I’ll call you Aphrodite and smell the sea in your hair and shuck oysters for you from the depths. I’ll tell you that I’ve never seen a real goddess until now. Come with me and be adored, deep below the earth. While you sleep, I will strike a huge sheet of metal until the shape of your body comes into relief. You never have to take me to meet your friends, you never have to take me anywhere. You never even have to see me in the light. Your grandmother will tell you that all the good men are gone, but then here I am, and I’m ready for you.”

The second story in this first section is one of my two favorites from the collection- ‘Fresh Water from the Sea.’ From a third person omniscient point of view, a tale of a mother and daughter grappling with death comes to fruition. The two characters, never named in this story but instead referred to as ‘the mother’ and ‘the girl,’ attempt to come to terms both separately and together with the mother’s upcoming death.  The girl travels from Los Angeles to Beirut where her mother is living (a city, which we find out later, was her mother’s birthplace that she was forced to evacuate but never stopped longing to return to). There seems to be no cause for her mother’s impeding death, but rather an odd phenomenon- the mother is simply shrinking, losing bits of herself, becoming mist. The girl doesn’t understand what’s happening, but she understands that she must provide support for her mother, especially since the girl’s sister does not intend to see the mother despite her upcoming death. Throughout the story, the girl longs to be closer to her mother, for the certainty and hardness of death to create a more intimate connection between her and her mother. “She wanted to ask for forgiveness or clemency. Her mother hardly knew her at all, and she suspected the reverse was also true. She had always expected some midlife understanding, a trip to India in which they wore a lot of loose white clothing, finally revealed their true selves, said all those unsayables. On one of the little paper pee cups, in the marker that was meant to be used to write your name on the sample, the girl scratched: Give us more time, please. As much as you can spare.” The girl reckons with her desire to know more of her mother and the truth that her mother’s intentional distance throughout her adult life enabled the girl to have more autonomy; “her life was an unplanted field, and everywhere she looked something waited to be sown.” As the mother continues to deteriorate, slowly becoming mist, she thinks about her past: her utter devotion to her home country, her belief that loving anything else would negatively impact her first love. She tells the girl: “‘you can love as many and as much as you want. I thought I had to save my love up, that I would run out. It turns out it’s the exact opposite.'” The story ends with some of the best fiction writing I’ve come across in recent memory. “The girl remembered hearing her mother crying in the other room as a child. She seemed to be drifting on an unknown sea. Every day, many times, the girl had tried to turn herself into an island on which her mother could land. The mother and her daughter were nothing more than strange weather. The girl asked her mother to tell her that they were both going to be all right. That they were both going to be at home wherever they were. The wanted it to be true, something the mother could know from her perch at the edge of life. Out over the sea, the sun grew hotter. The girl remembered the water cycle: evaporation, condensation, precipitation. The mother closed her eyes. She was almost invisible now. She was just the faintest color, like the rainbows thrown by a crystal in the window. The air hung against the girl’s skin, heavy. The woman was the air; the girl breathed her in. She looked around the room and could not see her mother anymore. A storm broke over the girl, thunderheads, lightning, rain and rain and rain and rain.” I want to burrow into this last sentence; in fact, when I first finished the story, I closed my copy of Awayland and cried. There’s something expert in the way Ausubel chose to exclude punctuation in the last sentence- it gives the ending an ongoing rhythm, a wake of sorts to carry on. Life, like water, flows, and eventually, dramatically, slowly, ebbs.

The final story within this first section is titled ‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species.’ It focuses on a small Minnesota town and its mayor, Tom. The town, similar to a town in Russia, struggles with low reproduction rates, and the mayor feels obligated to make a change. He uses his Russian counterparts as a model, and tries to inspire consummation across the town by offering an automobile as a prize for the couple who gives birth on a specific day. We see Martha and Jeff, a couple who utilize the day to indeed conceive. Martha, a very aware woman, contemplates the fact of motherhood: “When the baby comes, Martha knows, it will make her wonder whether anything else has ever been true. You thought all that mattered? The world will say. That old life was a set, just a painted background.” Humorously, Ausubel introduces us to another couple, known as the wrestling coach and Nathalia. The wrestling coach desperately wants to win the prize, and pressures his wife to give birth on the set date. When Martha gives birth, she is two minutes early to the specified winning date, and the wrestling coach cheers. “Martha looks at her baby, who knows nothing yet of the world waiting: corruption, bribery, teenage drivers, being flat-footed, having too little money and too much beer, doing the dishes, going out for dinner and being disappointed in the overbuild spaghetti sauce, getting up for work before light, coming home after sunset, the roses wilting on the table, the list of jobs that need doing around the house: cleaning the tiny screen on the faucet, breaking down the boxes your aunt sent and writing a thank-you note for the terrible-smelling bubble bath that was inside, scrubbing the frozen-on pink sticky in the refrigerator. This is life. It can be difficult to see the miracle in it. To her bundle, she offers an out clause: you were born, innocent and beautiful and straight from the lips of God, but if you look around and see the potholed streets, the mud puddles, the old nurses in too much makeup, and you decide you want to be an angel instead, I will understand. I will wrap you up in a soft blanket, cover you up completely and allow you to make your decision in private. If I open the blanket and you are gone, evaporated, I will forgive you for it. But if you are still there, pink and fussing, I will know that you have chosen to stay, to endure the old world. And I will try to teach you the tricks to make it easier. How to get on the bus without buying a ticket; how to pay for one movie and see three; how to fight with your father so that you always win; how to ensure maximum darkening of the skin in the sun; how to find your life’s horizon- that place just far enough in the distance to keep you moving forward but not so far as to be discouraging.” Martha embarks into motherhood, promising the bare minimum, which is the most.

In this first section exist three very different stories. Each of them hold some element of fantasy- the cyclops character in story 1, the dissolving into mist element of story 2, and the low-reproduction rate of story 3. The first story seems to focus a bit more on fantasy than the other 2; while the fantastical elements almost fade into the background of the second two stories, the cyclops stands firmly at the center of his. The Bay of Hungers, this first section, tells stories of hungry people. They are hungry for love, for companionship, for courage. But mostly, I think, they’re hungry for guidance. There are deep, hallow unknowns for the characters in this story- what does it mean to expose your flaws to another? What does it mean to watch your mother die without the time you expected to get? What does it mean to be a mother in a world you don’t quite see the light in? Despite how human these questions are, how undeniably present they are in many lives, the answer is still unknown. They pool, congeal, forming a slow-current, a Bay of Hungers.

The Cape of Persistent Hope, the second section in Awayland, holds another three stories: “Mother Land,” “Departure Lounge,” and “Remedy.” “Mother Land,” we quickly learn, is a story concerning the distant and cold sister from “Fresh Water From the Sea.” Her name is Lucy, and while her twin sister (who she deems as perfect), cares for her dying mother, Lucy travels to Africa with ‘The African,’ her white boyfriend. Lucy wrestles with the concept of foreignness throughout the story, pondering what it meant for her mother to never feel at home, for her sister to be good, for her to feel so out of place. She discovers that she is pregnant, and feels a sense of sadness at the fact that her baby may also not have a clearly defined home- she perhaps worries that her child, like her mother, will never have a ground to feel confident standing on. Throughout the story, Lucy ponders her relationship with the unnamed boyfriend, wondering how long their relationship will last, wondering when she will reveal to her family that she is pregnant. The two witness a political riot, and Lucy contemplates her upcoming murder. After not being murdered, Lucy’s true fears divulge: producing a child that feels alone. “‘All babies are foreigners. None of us knows what we’re going to get. Isn’t that the beauty?”

The second story, “Departure Lounge,” is a first-person story of a chef, one who works on the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii where a Mars training mission operates. The narrator interacts with the astronauts-in-training, the courageous people who have defined themselves willing to sacrifice life to start anew on an inhospitable place. She narrator does not feel a part of them- after her divorce, she wandered until finding this world within a world, this strange place that was far away while being close. Eventually, while working as the chef, the narrator gets back into contact with an ex-boyfriend from college, Peter, who is now gay. The two exchange intimate and quick emails, learning who the new versions of themselves are, coming together in their aloneness. Peter reveals to her that he wishes he had a baby, and the narrator hatches a plan- she leaves the base, illegal for all workers there, and descends the mountain into tourist-fluent Hawaii to meet Peter. “There were so many miraculous far-aways on this planet and yet they couldn’t find enough to keep them here.” Her and Peter end up sleeping together, which does not result in a pregnancy. Still, they keep up the charade, meeting once every few months in hotel rooms to, they tell themselves, work as tools for reproduction. The two do form a kind of connection, a bridge across the vast expanse of two lonely lives, two empty kitchen cupboards. The narrator contemplates what this strange relationship means (as if it needs to be deduced into something so transparent as a meaning); she goes walking and comes upon a group of teenagers sitting together and laughing. “I remembered being sixteen and feeling so in love with my friends that it seemed like they would be enough to sustain me for the rest of time. We wanted to be together all the time, six or eight of us, lying on someone’s floor, pointing out shapes in the puckered ceiling as if the expanse above us were as beautiful as the heavens. I knelt down in front of the teenagers and said ‘Stay as long as you can.'” Peter and the narrator decide to use a surrogate service in India where the price is discounted. As they prepare to fly to India, Peter asks the narrator to pose as his wife for his upcoming visit to his dementia-ridden grandmother, giving her a bit of peace before she dies. The narrator feels warmth at this facade, admits the warmth that she feels from Peter, a new warmth, a new far-away bubble of never-before-lived-on rock, just like Mars. “So much was possible. Here we were, on our way to a life of meaning. ‘Are you ready?'”

Next, in “Remedy” (which is probably my favorite in the entire collection), Summer and Kit, a beautifully in-love couple, grapple with the reality of death. Summer witnesses her neighbor man die falling from his roof; this spurs the story into motion, inspires Summer into paranoia, a new force in she and Kit’s small secluded world of two. She spurs conversations on with her husband, telling him that she will be the one to die before he does. “What he doesn’t understand is the relief she feels. Not knowing is worse than any answer, and Summer wants this the same way she remembers wanting other comforts: sweaters knitted by hand from the wool of rare rabbits, tiny landscape paintings with gold frames, important books she’ll never get around to reading. Before she met Kit, Summer prayed to die every day. She imagined the ghosts of her parents in a living room with leather couches and bookshelves that required ladders. She imagined that her mother would have plenty of yogurt to eat and her father wouldn’t need to bother with food at all. Except the occasional pecan pie, delivered at exactly the right moment, before he even realized he wanted it. There would be a chair for Summer there. A reclining chair, and outside, a garden. Every day with her foster family she thought of that place, wished for that place.” We learn that both Kit and Summer are orphans, alone in the world together. Summer continues to believe that she is dying, her symptoms nonexistent and the cause of death meaningless. “He disagrees with her diagnosis, with the idea that she can suddenly be dying of nothing in particular, but Kit believes Summer. That’s the whole thing of it- believing each other is what makes living feel real.” Eventually, Summer comes up with a plan, caving to her paranoia- in order to stay somewhat together after her impeding death, Summer hopes to transplant one of her hands onto Kit, and one of Kit’s hands onto her dead body. She writes to a doctor hoping he will agree to the procedure. “Kit looks at his hands. He imagines that one of them is his lady-love’s and that she is stumped. Kit feels a kink in his heart. His girl is in the shower, soaping every inch of skin. He cannot see the maze of tubes and cavities inside her body. He cannot know what is pumping right and what is pumping wrong, how each of those slippery organs is tucked against its neighbor and whether something bad is truly blooming there. Whether, even if her body is perfect, a truck will lose its brakes, tumble off the road where Summer is walking. There are storms beginning to twist in the warm oceans to the south, and make they will whip this way, tearing the houses like paper. The ferry could sink beneath them; poisoned gases could leak into the air at any time. The melted ice caps are washing toward them. They’re both dying- everyone is. The schedule of death is not made public. Love’s job is to make a safe place. Not to deny that the spiny forest exists, but to live hidden inside it, tunneled into the soft undergrass.” Oh, my favorite sentence of the collection. That spiny fucking forest- it’s there. Not even love can make it untrue. Kit adores Summer- it’s his adoration for her, his absolute wish for her not to suffer, that indices him into creating a fake email account posing as a doctor in Thailand, willing and able to do the hand transplant. He hopes that by choosing this far-away, foreign land, the truth of his lie will not be made public. He thinks that they will arrive at the supposed doctor’s office and be greeted with a non-English speaking person, a miscommunication turned into a vacation in a tropical isle for the couple. Upon arrival, Kit and Summer take different trips to meet the doctor, both telling him not to do the surgery, both feeling stupid in thinking that he might have any idea what they’re talking about. At the actual appointment, the couple laughs, realizing that instead of a hand transplant they’re getting massages. They fall asleep, and when Summer wakes up, her hand is not her own. “And finally she sees skin. She can’t tell if it’s her own because it is so swollen. Waterlogged. This hand looks twice the size of the one she used to carry around on the end of her arm. And at the wrist: a bracelet of stitches. X X X X. It is the way she would have sewn something, not knowing how to sew. Beneath, there is a clean cut. It is beautiful, the cut. The cut is absolutely perfect.” The cut- a metaphor for awareness, for a learning and growing moment independent and together. A marker of love gained and transcended.

What binds these three stories together? My first reaction is that less fantasy is implemented within these three stories; instead, Ausubel takes us to different kinds of awaylands, remote locations far away from the character’s normalcy (Africa, a Mars-like simulation, Thailand). Location is key in each story, as the characters attempt to thwart their domestic problems by vacating elsewhere. Lucy vacates to her partner’s home country, hoping to feel closer to a sense of belonging than she did in her familiar California life. The narrator in the second story runs away from her solitary bubble of astronaut trainees on a slim hope that she will create a renewed life with an unlikely partner. Both Summer and Kit travel far away to be alone together elsewhere, Summer in the hope that her idea for love transcending death will prove true, Kit in the hope that it will not. All of these characters are confronted with their problems, their loneliness, their fears, in their new awaylands, and each of them receive hope, a persistent, slow walk forward into the unknown. The Cape of Persistent Hope.

Next, in The Lonesome Flats, three stories tell different tales of solidarity. The first story, ‘Club Zeus,’ frames a first person narration around a 17 year old high school student working at an all-inclusive resort in Turkey. David, the protagonist of this story, longs to escape Orange County, where his senior year of high school and the questions of the future await him. He wants an escape, a reprieve from his predictable schooldays and his hyper-spiritual mother. Club Zeus offers that to him, but in the exotic, adventurous way he expected. Instead, he dresses up as an old, bearded man, and retells Greek myths for interested vacationers and lives with an older lady he affectionately calls Grams. Even across the world, David finds monotony and banality. One day, though, this spell of sameness is broken, when one of the vacationers drowns in the main pool. David sees the man’s lifeless body, and struggles to feel that same sense of predicatableness as before. David wanders across the grounds of Club Zeus, grief-striken and pained. He finds the dead man’s wife, an older woman who eventually begins the early stages of sex with David. Although he resists at first, David gives into temptation, admitting to the reader the glorious, wrongful appeal of her grief. Their coupling is interrupted by David’s boss, and the story ends with a retrospective David, announcing for the reader: “My mother was right: pain is an enzyme and I am softened. A year from now, when a girl asks me if I’ve ever been in love, I will lie and tell her no, but only because I will not know how to explain this night. Love, I want to say to the widow, love is an island. But when I open my mouth, the words get tangled. It begins to rain again. Emir clears his throat, trying to prompt us all to return to our separate lives. But when I lean into the widow’s hand, she holds my head up. Below us: all the world’s water.”

“High Desert,” the next story, again takes on the omniscient narrator role, telling the story of a childless mother and husbandless wife, who moved to a dry city in New Mexico to escape her traumas surrounded by water. At fifteen, the narrator’s daughter vanished in the sea, and quickly afterwards, her husband drowned himself. The story takes place much later, trailing the woman into her older age as she gets a hysterectomy due to her uterus literally beginning to fall out of her. As she’s healing from her surgery, her daughter appears, fifteen still and soaking wet from the water. The two talk as they fill the mother’s bathtub, which begins to overflow. “‘Did you ever encounter your father? He went in after you.’ ‘There are a lot of ways to take care of someone,’ the girl says. ‘He did his best.’ ‘Don’t tell me if you suffered. Don’t tell me what it was like in the water before you got used to it.’ The bath is full to the brim but no one reaches to turn it off. The woman puts her head on her daughter’s shoulder. Water begins to spill over the lip of the tub. It is warm and good. The floor is wet, the bathmat is wet, and the water keeps pouring. The mother lies back in the warm wet room and the daughter lies back in the warm wet room and they put their arms out. They grab hands and float.” Next, in a quick 2.5 page story titled ‘Heaven,’ a male protagonist describes his current living arrangements- a property that borders heaven and hell, which frequently sees sinners on their way to repentance. The man contemplates loneliness, and the concept of togetherness: “On a strange bright day, sun where there isn’t usually any, a dress catches on a branch. It is red, meant to tie around the waist and be untied by a true-lover and holding it makes the man feel suddenly very far away. He imagines pulling the dress’s woman onto the good earth, a vision, her whole self bared and holy and ready, everything unbeautiful washed away. How long it has been since he’s touched someone. The man hangs the dress as carefully as it is the woman’s shell. The arms are empty and begging, and the man comes close and wraps them around his body. They are grime-wet, and they stick to his skin. He is held on to.” These three stories exist in The Lonesome Flats, an arid, muted place that serves as some kind of purgatory; David’s life seems to take on a before and after because of a stranger’s death in ‘Club Zeus’; the mother in ‘High Desert’ ascends to a better understanding and acceptance of her lost motherhood; and the citizen in ‘Heaven’ reckons with his lonely boredom, and what his choice to choose this place out of convenience rather than love has meant.

Finally, the story collection ends with The Dream Isles, the last section of the story comprising two stories, both with elements of deeper fantasy than most of the book. In ‘The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following,’ Ausubel cleverly plays with humor to address the ironies of human entertainment; a museum boasts marketing strategies on behalf of the mummified Egyptian animals thanking the museum-goes for attending. Each of the said animals scoffs at the sign, explaining their lofty roles in the Egyptian society before being put on display in a fluorescently-lighted room. My favorite mummified voice in the story comes from ‘the eggs’: “The eggs wish to thank the idea of life, which has reassured them over the centuries that they were preserved in earnest, not simply because the priests mummified anything they could get their hands on. The eggs have been waiting for three thousand years to find out what they will hatch into. Will they become crocodiles or hens? Surely, when the egg mummies finally crack, it will be a god who has broken them…. What if, the eggs imagine, they have not yet left the shore, the tossing waves of the Nile are still ahead, and beyond them the true afterlife: kings and queens wait to receive rodents, baboons and cats, their royal arms open, welcoming home their great, delicate slaves.” Awayland finishes with ‘Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender,’ a story the begins with a sexual assault committed on a nine-year-old girl by her father, a ship captain. The daughter defends herself with a knife, which fantastically sets in motion the ship’s wreck a day later. As most of the passengers freeze in the Arctic Ocean, the captain (Halvar) and two other men, Esa and Paer, find themselves stranded on an unfamiliar shore. Paer has lost his wife to the sea, and the captain has lost his livelihood; Esa, as he admits, has lost nothing. Each of the three men come into contact with the same phenomenon: a beautiful, cold, near-death mermaid. Esa discovers her first, and decides to keep her presence a secret from the other two men- “From something that warm to something that cold. That is how Esa had always thought of love: a shock to the skin.” Paer discovers the mermaid next, and believes in spite of the evidence to the contrary that she is his drowned wife, returned to him. Finally, Halvar finds the mermaid, and misbelieves that she is his daughter, returned to him as his rightful property. He attempts to have sex with the mermaid, who cuts Halvar severely across his body with her tail. Each man reckons with what they know to be the truth- there is no way this love is probable or possible (none of them ask, interestingly, if she is reciprocating their interests, which she is not).- “Paer did not know how the next steps went, how a man turned into a fish. Yet knowing rarely made the journey easier.”  The mermaid watches the men dote on her with an exasperated sigh- she has loved many and is done with that stage of her life. She lets the men take comfort in comforting her though, as she sees how forlorn and alone they are. “Esa went to his mer. He would stay all night, brush the snow off. He worried that she was cold, though he knew the deep water must be just as chilly. He said, ‘I can’t live in water and you can’t live on land, but we can stay here at the edges. I’ll build a house on stilts, over the sea with a hole in the floor and a ladder. The place where air and water meet- that’s our home together.’ Sometimes it takes a shipwreck, he thought. Sometimes it takes a tragedy. The mer washed back and forth with the waves. She looked into Esa’s puddle-brown eyes. It was good, a service, to let someone believe.” At the end of the story, all three men lie with the mermaid, all four close to freezing to death: “Esa had enough blood to love the mer but not enough to be the only one. He wanted to kiss her but Paer was already there, his beard frozen and his mouth warm. Esa was freezing, every living thing was, and the world had slowed down so much that Esa was not sure it moved at all. The water had turned to ice, stopped lapping. The air was hardly breathable. Time had quit on them. Esa lay down in the snow and put his head on the mer’s belly. Home had found him, he thought. The differences were no longer the point: warm and cold, home and away. There was only this hour to move around in, and what it contained: bodies, ice, water, earth. On the horizon, the frozen edge, green light spit across the sky. The whole endlessness split open and bled.”

It’s a haunting image- this otherwordly sunrise of green breaking into the irises of four dying creatures, each a metaphorical (and in one case literal) fish out of water. Esa has achieved something to lose, Paer has achieved an epic love again. There’s a parallel between the fluorescent light that the animals see and the green light that the stranded men see- a sort of unrelenting passing of time. The Dream Isles– a literal island full of love-sick, deranged, dying men, and an exhibition room, a fantastical home for the once-beloved animals. They’re not necessarily happy dream islands but are instead places in which the characters can achieve a dream-like peace that they perhaps do not deserve.

I had the astounding pleasure of meeting Ausubel in Los Angeles at Skylight Books tonight. She read the first story in this collection, and shared a powerful and light-heard Q&A. She talked of the difficulty in writing magical realism, her troubles in finding the ‘crack of relatable reality and human emotion’ in the absurd. She warned of the perils of knowing what your story is about and enticed writers into letting a moment create a story instead of a plot creating itself. She said that a successful story revolves around an unseeable but forceful black hole, an unavoidable gravity that a story abides by.

I asked my question- the one about structure, and the reason for implementing sections within the story collection. she mentioned that her past story collection (which I am SO thrilled I still have yet to read- like a little hidden treasure!), ‘A Guide to Being Born’ was sectioned in terms of the life cycle- birth, gestation, conception, love. She mentioned that she first introduced sections into her story collections because she was worried that the plots weren’t different enough, that she was writing the same story again and again. The organization helped her differ the stories enough while still keeping overarching and central themes (blackholes). Awayland focuses very much on place, both geographical and fantastical; the sections, Ausubel says, helped her place each story in terms of exile and the concept of home- what the definition of home meant partially depended on which geographical place (section) the stories took place in. All of them exist within the larger place of Awayland, a fantasy land both familiar and nonexistent.

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I loved this book so, so much. It gave me hope and it gave me sadness. It made me laugh and it made me cry (twice). Ausubel was such a dynamic presence- look at that dress! It matches the lovely cover oh Awayland. I’m so excited for what else Ausubel’s work has to teach me.

 

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The Idiot by Elif Batuman Book Review

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“I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

Those are the last sentences in Elif Batuman’s masterpiece, The Idiot, a 400-something page novel that wrestles with the abstract concepts of language, learning, multiculturalism, and existentialism within the almost embarrassingly-naive and specific setting of the first year at college. Selin, the novel’s first-person narrator and protagonist, illustrates her freshman year at Harvard, where she encounters intellectual debate and confusion, social immersion she doesn’t quite believe in, and the wonders and limits of human relationships.

This book is the first in about a year to receive a 5-star review from me on my Goodreads account. As I age, I find that I give those 5-stars more sparingly than before- literature has to really hit me in a special way now to get such adoration and appreciation from me. That being said, The Idiot went beyond my expectations. The description of the novel insinuates that the plot centers around Selin and her email correspondences with Ivan, an older Mathematics student at Harvard. The description also tells us that Selin ends up in Hungary, partially due to Ivan, and that she will inevitably learn a lesson about the “mysteries of first love.” It’s a specific description, focusing on the year (1995), and the new phenomenon that was email communication. Perhaps I expected a trite love story about media- a thesis about the ways in which media consumption and technological advances and enhance and harm our relationships. Instead, I felt discovered. I felt that somehow the challenges of my soul had been put on display and had been reciprocated in another.

I was about ten pages into the novel when I discovered that Elif would be doing a reading at Chevalier’s Books, an independent bookstore near my new home in Los Angeles. I went, because already I loved Selin, and I recognized myself in Selin. I so understood her so early in the novel: “She believed, and I did too, that every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.” If we compare this line, which comes early in the novel, to the last two sentences of the book, we see the drastic change that takes place within Selin. She declares that she’s learned nothing, but the nothingness is precisely what Selin needed to know.

Elif’s reading and Q&A was one of the best I’ve ever been to. I learned at this event that Batuman was incredibly well-educated and academic, that she’d regularly written journalism for The New Yorker while somewhat dabbling in fiction. Elif told us the birth story of The Idiot; how the first, ugly draft came at age 23, its goals massive, its themes attempting to define the human condition as its Russian writer inspirator’s had beforehand. Elif abandoned the novel because she didn’t know what to do with it. She’d wanted it to span her entire college career and onward, the novel being highly auto-fictional; however, after Elif left the content alone for ten years, she went back to it, realizing that the true story was smaller, within the first year of college. She described how embarrassed she’d felt about writing about her own life under fiction, and then urged us as writers to be brave enough to blur the genre lines. Ultimately, Elif grew exceptionally as a writer in order to realize that this story was better as a contained story. It told something significant, something large, within a year. The hugeness of the story was in the smallness of the scope.

“This is a book about how we want our lives to conform to a narrative or to a structure and how heartbreaking it is to realize that that isn’t how it works.” This is how Elif herself describes The Idiot, adding further that oftentimes, during adolescence and those penultimate years of mysterious and painful and awkward mental and emotional and intellectual growth, we learn things that quickly become arbitrary to us- things like heartache, social ostracism, etc. She explained that we often forget that we ever did not know these lessons, that at some point we’d had to experience them for the first time. She references her epigraph as a follow-up, a passage from Proust: “But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through- awkward indeed but by no means infertile- is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind. There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.” At once Elif captures both the heart-wrenching pain of firsts and the pitiful, nostalgic look back at them.

Selin creates (and is partially thrown into) a life at Harvard- classes about art and language and writing, friends that are roommates or Russian language partners. She encounters different clubs and organizations, plagued consistently by the never-ending energy of the university life (what nostalgia I suddenly felt for dormitory life!). She’s challeneged consistently in social arenas and intellectual ones, meeting professors she has trouble learning from and attempting to decipher people’s actions that do not mirror her own. This book is such a contemplative story, and Selin is such an introspective character- she thinks and overthinks, worries and is mystified by her own worrying. Elif described Selin (and, thereby, herself) at this age- how she hooked the meaning of life on to one person, one class, one book- how she expected the definition of the human condition to be found in something tangible and how crushing it was when that did not (could not) happen. “I thought that was the point of writing stories: to make up a chain of events that would somehow account for a certain mood- for how it came about and for what it led to.”

Abstract concepts such as time and aging come to Selin often; she thinks of them not as abstract but as attainable: “At two in the morning the library closed and I walked home through the fresh snow. The clouds had cleared, revealing the stars. Light from even a nearby star was four years old by the time it reached your eyes. Where would I be in four years? Simple: where you are. In four years I’ll have reached you.”

After Batuman establishes Selin’s introspective and introverted nature, she introduces her relationship with Ivan, a classmate in Selin’s Russian Language course. The two work together in Russian, acting out the parts of Nina and Ivan, two characters in a ‘learning Russian’ story. Selin feels an untoward attraction towards Ivan and enjoys his general disposition and humor more so than she does most people. She takes advantage of Harvard’s email system and begins corresponding with Ivan, a man with a girlfriend he does not hide, via this medium, at first exchanging light-hearted self-deprecating emails about Russian class and the banes of freshman college existence. Soon, though, the emails become more intimate; the two take advantage of the anonymity of the medium and write their airy, existential thoughts, their fears, their desires. Selin becomes devoted to this connection, which becomes entirely dependent on email as Ivan stops attending Russian class and does not talk to her when he does see her on campus. It’s as if Selin lives two lives, one via email with Ivan (the arguably more intellectual and courageous and wanted life) and one in her dorm room eating cafeteria food with boring students worried about lesser. Elif echoed this dual life complex during her reading, explaining that the concept of duality had always interested her. The dual life, readers begin to see, becomes painful to Selin- it’s something that is not outright harmful but which alters and controls her life, something she gives herself entirely to, something she ‘hooks’ the meaning of life on to without realizing it. Life becomes uninteresting. Ivan and his emails become sustenance.

Throughout their on and off communication, Selin teaches ESL for the local community and also tutors mathematics. She becomes best friends with Svetlana and decent friends with her roommates Hannah and Angela and her friend Ralph. She wins a fiction writing contest. But these elements seem peripheral to her- “I think I’m falling in love with you. Every day it’s harder for me to see the common denominator, to understand what counts as a thing. All the categories that make up a dog- they go blurry and dissolve, I can’t tell what anything is anymore.” Ivan goes missing after Selin writes this email, and she is shipwrecked and distraught, attempting to discover what she’d done wrong. In one instance, she goes to a campus psychologist, desperate for some clarification on her situation: “It seems to me that your sense of other people’s awfulness might be compensating for our own sense of inferiority and fear of rejection. You rationalize the rejection of your peers by telling yourself it comes from other people’s deficiencies rather than your own. They can’t understand your philosophy or ideas. All of this leaves you terribly lonely and isolated, which I think explains your susceptibility to this computer fellow. He seems to be offering you just what you want: a noninterpersonal interpersonal relationship. With him, you don’t have to worry about whose side of the room the extension cord is on. But that’s because it isn’t a real intimate relationship. Real life is about discussing these things and coming to terms with them. This explains your anxiety, your sense that you’re going to make some kind of mistake. What I want to help you understand is that real intimacy is a place where there are no mistakes, at least not in the sense you feel. You don’t just blow everything with one wrong move. A friendship is a space where you’re supported and free to make mistakes.”

I paused after this interaction. I thought about how I would have reacted if someone had attempted to spell things out so clearly for me at age nineteen- I’m guessing it’d be almost exactly the same as Selin, who disregards the advice and does not return to the psychologist. I know the sort of love Selin believes to be in, and the feeling that no answer except the one you want will suffice. I know how significant it can seem to have something real with someone- to enjoy their conversation, their insights, to feel equally interesting in their presence. I know what it’s like to pin everything on this simple yet seemingly hyper-strong cord of connection. It’s almost revolting in how heart-breaking it is. How heart-sick I’ve made myself with more than one person because I distrusted human relationships and trusted an intimacy that felt real.

Eventually, Ivan comes back, and the two share in-person time together, awkward and with Selin drunk. The two spend early-morning hours awake together on the floor of Ivan’s dorm room listening to records, not touching. “‘How long do you think we’ve been sitting here?’ ‘A long time,’ I said, ‘We could have been sitting here long enough for the fish to evolve.’ ‘It’s possible. By that point we would probably evolve, too. What would we evolve into?’ I felt my body tense up. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. It was three now, and too cold to stay on the bench. At the same time, it was also too cold to move. It felt almost as if, if we sat there longer, it might get warmer again- it might actually become earlier rather than later, and things might still turn out differently than they had.”

Ivan tells Selin that she should volunteer to teach English in Hungary, Ivan’s home country, over the summer; he insists that she’d be a perfect fit for the program, and that they could spend weekends together in Budapest during. Selin, embarrassingly and obsessively (not because she’s a lovesick idiot but because this is real and for some reason she must work to prove its realness) agrees to the idea and applies. Her love for Ivan stretches, pulls taut: “The phone rang. I would die if it wasn’t him. That thought, I knew, was itself lethal.”

Selin and Ivan spend another day together swimming at Walden Pond and talking, spending another night awake together until 9AM. Here, Selin knows, is perhaps their last meeting: “I felt certain that something was finally over.” And indeed, Ivan goes quiet for weeks, writing her finally to say he “won’t try to talk to her anymore,” somehow indirectly claiming that Selin’s own unrooted love for him was to blame rather than his intentional heart-fishing. “I started to walk around the room, dazed with pain. I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to dispose of my body in space and time, every minute of every day, for the rest of my life. I didn’t understand how he was okay with never seeing me again, or why he was acting as if it were my idea, or whether I was supposed to not go to Hungary, or what I was supposed to do without him. More painful and incomprehensible still, he had, with no warning and for no reason I could see, taken back what he had said about the atom- that it was allowed to come out and play, be a crazy spark, and lie on his fingernail. He had called me, and now he was sending me into a rock. Then I reread what he had written now- that I had to get over the wild and crazy dreams, and abandon destruction, and build life for the future. He meant I had to go away, so he could build life for the future. He meant: disappear and become nothing. I couldn’t wrap my head around such perfidy.”

I felt so proud of Selin in this moment. Ivan had turned their mysterious, abstract relationship into something of Selin’s doing, as if he hadn’t asked her questions like “and what would we evolve into” or “what should I do if I’m not tired?” I felt Selin’s rage- he had made her fall in love with him, with this experience that he brought to her and then took away as if it had never existed. She could no longer even cling to the significance of the scenario because he had denied that, too. How dare he. How dare they.

In part two of the novel, Selin departs for Europe. She travels to Paris with Svetlana and a few other friends for a few weeks before her two month stay teaching in Hungary, which she decides to still do. Amazingly, on board her flight, is Ivan, whom she hasn’t spoken to since that final email altercation. En route to Paris, the two discuss the emails, Selin’s rage simmering, Ivan’s mystery-bubble starting to pop. “Ivan, Ivan. He got up in the morning, put on some clothes he got from somewhere, drank his orange juice, and went out into the world of chalkboards and motorcycles. He could be really arrogant sometimes. His jeans were always too short, and he thought clowns had something complicated to teach us about human fallibility. And still no waking moment went by that I didn’t think of him- he was in the background of everything I thought. My own perceptions were no longer enough to constitute the physical world for me. Every sound, every syllable that reached me, I wanted to filter through his consciousness.” In Paris, Selin faces misery- Ivan is in the same city as her but the two are still within their own finality, and she is forced instead to be a tourist, to interact with things she feels not even half way interested in. Svetlana provides Selin a bit of truth about the situation: “Ivan wanted to try an experiment, a game. It would never have worked with someone different, someone like me. But you, you’re so disconnected from truth, you were so ready to jump into a reality the two of you made up, just through language. Naturally, it made him want to see how far he could go. You went further and further- and then something went wrong. It couldn’t continue in the same way. It had to develop into something else- into sex, or something else. But for some reason, it didn’t. The experiment didn’t work. But by now you’re so, so far from all the landmarks. You’re just drifting in space.”

“Was it only to me that he seemed so much more present than other people, or was it an objective fact?”

Once Selin arrives in Hungary, Ivan meets her at the airport. Selin is surprised at his follow-through and his hospitality, inviting Selin to stay with his parents for a night before she begins her teacher training. And again, Ivan does Ivan, providing Selin small morsels of could-be-love, just enough to keep her fed but keep her hungry. Selin moves into a small Hungarian village, living with three different families throughout her time, learning the language and teaching English. It’s a beautiful experience, but not her primary one. Still, Ivan. “I imagined the stairs to the lobby, the pay phones in the dark, the coins against my thumb, his voice. The scramble to think of things to say, with only little reprieves, during which I would have to listen to whatever things he had thought up to say. Then the dial tone again, higher-pitched than in America- it was always there, like the sea inside a shell- and the empty full feeling in my chest, like now, only worse. At the same time, it seemed certain to me that someday I would really want to hear his voice and wouldn’t be able to, and I would think back to the time that he had invited me to call him, and it would seem as incomprehensible as an invitation to speak to the dead.” How sad it is, and yet how promising, to assign such a huge hope to one individual.

“I thought about all the ungrounded longing I had felt around Ivan, and it seemed to me that I couldn’t live another moment without feeling him inside me, filling that terrible emptiness. And yet apparently I could live, and had to live, and did live. I thought for the thousandth time of calling Ivan, and for the thousandth time was unable to think my way around the problems of how to get to a phone and of what to say. Nonetheless, the fact that I could theoretically call him continued to torment me until I fell asleep, and dreamed that I went to a little house where I was supposed to live, and Ivan was inside and shouted at me to go away; then he changed his mind and showed me how to turn the faucets on and off.”

Eventually, Selin does call Ivan, and he reveals to her that he will be leaving to Thailand soon, and then to California to finish his graduate degree. The reality of their true ending becomes real to her. “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time- the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness that been an aberration and might never come back. I wanted to write about it while I could still feel it and see it around me. Suddenly it occurred to me that maybe the point of writing wasn’t just to record something past but also to prolong the present.”

Finally, the two of them have a face-to-face, intimate conversation- an honest one, free of the romantic mystery bubble they have each romanticized and chosen to live inside. They ask one another the reasoning for their actions, talk about their futures independent of one another. And then Ivan takes her back to her camp, leaving her for good. “‘My email account will be active a little while longer,’ he said. ‘And yours will be active for a long time. So we could be in touch.’ Everything hurt, especially ‘could,’ and ‘a little while longer.’ I stepped forward and he drew me toward him, holding me so close that I had difficulty breathing. I said bye first, to be brave. I still thought bravery would be somehow rewarded.”

“I thought about the winter- how I used to run into Ivan sometimes walking through the snow-covered quad, a satchel strap crossing the front of his black puffy jacket. I remembered how we’d had so much time ahead of us.”

I can still feel the tremors of those physically painful heartbreaks, those goodbyes I muttered first because a part of me wanted to give the man a chance to say wait. I can feel the remnants of the lumps in my throat left still, years later, as an unwanted end irrevocably changes your life. What is one supposed to do with an experience that has utterly changed and fascinated you, one that you can’t continue? Where does that experience go? How should it be remembered?

At the end of the novel, Selin joins her family in Turkey. She attempts to take her mother’s advice to seek out beauty to fix the pain. And she begins to feel excited for the possibilities that a second year at Harvard offers, despite Ivan’s undeniable absence. Selin ends the novel by saying that her psychology of language courses have let her down, that she hadn’t learned anything at all. Which is, after all, what women like us need to learn. Nothingness. Emptiness. Meaninglessness. And meaning within the meaninglessness.

Thank you, Elif, for my one of my new favorite novels.

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Book Review: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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Maggie Nelson has been on my literary radar since I stumbled head-first and brokenhearted into her poetry collection ‘Bluets.’ I loved the way Nelson bent genre, her poetry often turning into prose and then veering back into the abstracts of poetic language once again. That book changed me. In fact, I’d argue that reading it inspired me to dabble in my own poetry, something I really gravitated toward during my busy two years of graduate school when the prose just wasn’t coming to me. Nelson’s excellent and mind-bending collection focused on the color blue, and how the color has always been a favorite of hers. The book plays with research and journalism- Nelson brings in outside sources and seemingly obscure references constantly, furthering her own personal assertions on the color blue. And quietly, she ties in her own personal story of heartbreak, and how the color blue both healed and crucified her: “I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”

I’ve been excited to read more of Nelson; she’s become one of those writers, like Munro, whom I save for later, longing and yet nervous to eat her entire breadth of work in one sitting. I don’t want there to come a day in which I have no more Nelson material to look forward to.

The Argonauts again displays Nelson’s playful and inquisitive writing style; the book, mostly creative non-fiction, parlays with journalism and literary criticism, balancing again Nelson’s personal story of motherhood and step-motherhood and monogamous romantic partnership with research into gender identity theory, the concept of motherhood and caretaking, and more. Within the first three pages of the book, Nelson reveals the main subject of her story: her relationship with Harry. Nelson begins with the revelation of love between the two, describing their stark disagreements regarding the use of expression via vocalization/verbalization: “And you- whatever you argued, you never mimed a constricted throat. In fact you ran at least a lap ahead of me, words streaming in your wake. How could I ever catch up (by which I mean, how could you ever want me?”

There’s something so incredibly romantic about using the second person voice, and Nelson employs it only in the sections of her book that are her personal story. I love and admire the way she employs spacing and the white space of the page to convey movement. “A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’ Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as ‘the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.'” Here is how Nelson arrived at the title of her book: The Argonauts. They were a group of heroes in Greek mythology who were so loyal to their ship, named The Argo, that they renewed their love for it by continuous journeys. Nelson uses this metaphor throughout the book, sometimes a bit highhandedly (I honestly lose track of the metaphor at times and paused every time The Argo was mentioned, asking myself what it was- maybe she didn’t spend enough time nailing down this metaphor? I definitely don’t think it’s clear enough to be made the title).

You’ve punctured my solitude, I told you. It had been a useful solitude… But the time for its puncturing had come. I feel I can give you everything without giving myself away, I whispered in your basement bed. If one does one’s solitude right, this is the prize.”

This is my favorite passage in the book. I too have discovered an infinite love after living in a pleasant, happy solitude. I can still feel that blissful solitude, too, even within my relationship. This is a beautiful passage, and it had me absolutely hooked. I couldn’t wait to get more of this material, the kind that was abundant in Bluets. But sadly, The Argonauts provides us with very few passages like this. Nelson deliberately avoids talking about her own intimacies, a main theme of the book being her inner debate about letting things exist in privacy or giving them a literary scene. And while I respect this sentiment, and have faced this same debate within myself, I can’t help but feel disappointed throughout. We lose this main thread in the book, and at times we feel bogged down by statistic or quotation or rumination on some seemingly abstract aspect of motherhood, of identity. It’s sometimes hard connecting these moments to the intimate ones- it isn’t as seemless as Bluets was.

What if where I am is what I need? Before you I had always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situation. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too.”

Nelson spends time describing her relationship with Harry, and the ways the two of them severely disagreed. She spends time developing their relationship for the reader, but this development between the two of them becomes peripheral after page 30. I still love the moments we do get it though: “During our hard season, I thought a lot about this fragment. At times it filled me with an almost sadistic urge to unearth some kind of evidence that George and Mary had been unhappy, even if at moments- some sign that his writing might have ever come between them, that they didn’t understand each other in some profound way, that they had ever exchanged ugly words, or differed on major decisions… So others lived this way, too. Every couple, every marriage, was sick.” This, too, makes extreme sense to me. There’s a paranoia that exists inside of me every time I argue with my partner, a fear that perhaps we’ve crossed a line from which we will never recover. I don’t know what’s ‘normal’ or ‘OK’ for a relationship, for a coupling. But maybe no one does.

We know from almost the start that Nelson has her own child, a boy named Iggy, with Harry. At times we see Iggy asleep on Nelson’s chest, a short paragraph describing his scent or the ways in which their intimacy has shocked her. And then we’re transported back in time to Iggy’s creation, the road Nelson and Harry had to travel to make Iggy possible. I appreciate this- the hindsight, the unromantic view of the reality of the situation. And I love the idea that Nelson is almost reassuring her past self that the difficulties, the arguments, the seemingly impossible divides in her relationship, were worth it. It’s a champion’s tale, in a way.

A large part of Nelson’s The Argonauts focuses on Harry’s gender identity. We witness Harry getting testosterone shots, see him undergo surgery to remove his breasts. And we feel Nelson’s respect and adoration for her partner’s decisions, while also feeling her nervousness, her confusion; she’s as close as she can be but yet not there. It’s impossibly hard to be a good partner. “Can fragility feel as hot as bravado? I think so, but sometimes struggle to find the way Whenever I think I can’t find it, Harry assures me that we ca. And so we go on, our bodies finding each other again and again, even as they- we- have also been right here, all along.”

Nelson also explores what being a step-parent means, as she becomes step-mom to Harry’s son. She struggles to gain footing in this identity, struggles to find the correct amount of caretaking to give. We then witness Nelson and Harry embark on IF treatments to get pregnant, a long and tiresome journey that was more than frustrating for Nelson. Eventually, the two use a friend’s sperm and become pregnant. One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Maggie discovers that she is carrying a boy; it’s another moment that the book freeflows into long questions of gender identity and how to be supportive while giving this being its own life, its own choices. Nelson has a deep awareness of herself and her own limitations, her own fears- it makes her a tremendous writer.

“But whatever I am, or have since become, I know now that slipperiness isn’t all of it. I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure. The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again- not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”

Nelson writes snippets of her agonizingly long birth, explains the pain in a somehow nuanced way, and also the joy. She tells us, briefly, that Iggy contracted a severe toxin that made him hospital-bound during infancy. “When Iggy had the toxin and we lay with him in his hospital crib, I knew- in a flood of fear and panic- what I know now, in our blessed return to the land of health, which is that my time with him has been the happiest time of my life. Its happiness has been of a more palpable and undeniable and unmitigated quality than any I’ve ever known. For it isn’t just moments of happiness, which is all I thought we got. It’s a happiness that spreads.”

Nelson goes back and forth with whether or not writing to a future Iggy is a good idea. She’s cautious of the tropes of motherhood. At the end, though, she does give this paragraph: “I want you to know, you were thought of as possible- never as certain, but always as possible- not in any single moment, but over many months, even years, of trying, of waiting, of calling- when, in a love sometimes sure of itself, sometimes shaken by bewilderment and change, but always committed to the charge of ever-deepening understanding- two human animals, one of whim is blessedly neither male nor female, the other of whom is female, deeply, doggedly, wildly wanted you to be.”

The end of the book sees Nelson return to her beginning metaphor of The Argonauts. She again references mythology: “When all the mythologies have been set aside, we can see that, children or no children, the joke of all evolution is that it is a teleology without a point, that we, like all animals, are a project that issues in nothing. But is there really such a thing as nothing, as nothingness? I don’t know. I know we’re still here, who knows for how long, ablaze with our care, its ongoing song.”

I wanted this ending to be stronger. I don’t think the mythological metaphor is earned. The strongest parts of the book are her intimacies with Harry, her intimacies with Iggy. I wish I didn’t lose the thread of her attempted metaphor but I do, and it leaves me a bit unsatisfied (note that I also had HUGE expectations because of Bluets). I’m such a fan of Maggie Nelson- I can’t wait to read another of hers soon.

Pieces of my book

Hi all. Below is a short segment of one of my essays from the book I am finally piecing together. I really love this, and love the way it captures my relationship so well.

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You sleep beside him now, every night, his comfortable mattress and hefty supplies of weed entrancing you into a rest you haven’t experienced since you were a child, when you could effortlessly nod off during the drives home from your grandmother’s house, somehow finding REM peace amidst the ice-covered road bumps and the metallic sounds of your father’s rusty red pick-up truck stalling and re-stalling, hiccupping and shifting. Yes, you sleep beside him now, tucked into the wall side of the bed, gravy duvet over your naked body (which you can’t even feel existing in your deep sleep until his arms reach for you and remind you that you exist), your head positioned always just a few inches below his, perfectly perched to allow mid-morning kisses. And yet still you wake some mornings tired from dreams that don’t seem to end- on those mornings it feels as if you’ve run a marathon trying to prove yourself to yourself.

The dream? You’re not entirely confident you can retell it. You’re not even entirely sure if it’s a recurring dream or slightly different variations of the same semi-hazy theme. And throughout each iteration, you battle your subconscious, race it to the finish line attempting to prove your worth (is this another exercise in imposter syndrome?); because you know that outside of this subconscious hellhole of doubt he is lying beside you, his big hands waiting to grab your hips in only an hour or so, his mouth probably slightly agape, front teeth sticking out in that way that makes your chest vibrate with an embarrassingly sentimental amount of affection. These are facts, you try to reason with your subconscious- he hasn’t gone anywhere. You are in his bed right now. But your subconscious always runs faster than you and it turns its head and laughs spirals of doubt into your conscious mind. Sometimes there are other people in the dream, asking you how dating is going; sometimes you’re looking at your phone, utterly fascinated, frustrated that when you create a text message you cannot find his name in your phone. You say his name, type his name- you’ve woken yourself up before with the loud S at the end of his name, enunciated clearly as if perfecting the pronunciation could somehow prove your worth, could somehow evaporate the condensation of doubt that finds its way into your dreams (the same fog that sadly and undeniably permeates everything- the pause before you step into that UCLA elevator, half-believing someone will tell you that the M.Ed after your name was only temporary; the close-eyed exhale after you park your car onto crowded LA streets, drivers honking as if they too know you’re faking it).

There’s something beautiful, though, in the way you protest the doubt- the way you know, consciously, that the man with the S at the end of his name is still beside you and will remain beside you. You wonder if that’s ever been the case- if you’ve ever trusted enough to sleep peacefully beside someone, if you’ve ever been able to drift into such a deep, pleasant, rejuvenating trance as you do most nights in bed with him. Yes, there’s something quite important in the fact that your conscious mind is the one fighting on behalf of reality, on behalf of a love you no longer feel like an imposter in.

You sweat through those dreams, those Freudian arguments, those synapsis of the brain that seem to only take place now in your sleep. You sweat and you run and you ferociously say his name. You can feel yourself fighting to wake up, to open your eyes and see him there, to cup his face into your palms and feel the reality of him, to smile with righteousness and with a confidence you have perhaps never experienced before, a bliss the color of the Pacific, a love accented by the sound of an S.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett Book Review

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“But we were girls once, which is to say, we have all loved an ain’t-shit man.”

The Mothers by Brit Bennett has been on my Goodreads list for about a year now. I picked it up nearly every time I ventured into a bookstore during 2017, and finally found my perfect copy about a month ago in Chevalier’s books. This bookstore has quickly become one of my favorites in my new Los Angeles home, and they pleasantly surprised me by selling me this particular signed copy (signed with a sharpie! In store!). I didn’t discover the signature until after I’d finished the dazzling story, which only made my relationship to the book stronger.

The title of this story applies to nearly every character at some point or another in the story; the women are mothers or would have been mothers, are caretakers and lovers and providers. A group of women at Upper Room, the local community church, calls themselves The Mothers, and is known as such in their small town. Bennett employs their narrative voice throughout the novel, introducing chapters with a first person plural (We). The use of the first person plural voice is so underutilized in contemporary literature, and Bennett uses it expertly; it’s not overdone, but is subtle, present in some parts of the story and absent in others. The Mothers have a sense of omnipresence over Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, but it is perhaps a faulty presence, one they’ve given to themselves. In fact, their sense of Nadia’s story is more than incomplete. The Mothers’ gossip and rumors only tell a small portion of the story, the rest of which Bennett completes with third person limited narrations.

This is a short novel- the story finishes just under 300 pages (in the paperback edition). But Bennett makes excellent use of those few pages, slamming a dynamic story that moves effortlessly from adolescence to adulthood; the pacing of the story is perfect, and the character’s aging goes nearly unnoticed and unblemished. The heartbreaks of adolescence condensate into the more disastrous and damaging heartbreaks of adulthood in The Mothers.

At the start of the story, the Mothers of Upper Room tell the audience that it all started with a rumor- a rumor that Nadia Turner, the seventeen year old girl whose mother committed suicide a few years prior to the actions of the story, was pregnant with Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son’s, baby. Further, the rumor went, she was suddenly ‘unpregnant,’ an abortion said to have taken place swiftly and securely. The Mothers tell their audience that they should have wanted Nadia, that they knew Luke and had known Lukes previously: “We would’ve told her that all together, we got centuries on her. If we laid all our lives toes to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself. In all that living, we have known men. Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.”

This is my favorite passage from the novel- it reveals a theme of the book, one that elevates above the typical trials and lessons of passion and love. The Mothers gives voice to one of the many plights of women, all women, those before us and those after us: we can’t force love, can’t scrape that jar of honey forever. We can’t make the men we love choose us or choose the right decisions. We can’t even make them choose their own happiness. And perhaps even more heartbreaking- we’ll live off of the scraps of love they do give us, licking it up and forcing sustainability far after it’s gone.

Nadia Turner did indeed get pregnant by Luke Sheppard, and she did indeed have an abortion. The first section of the novel defines their romance, an innocent first love punctuated by sex in parents’ houses and dates during his work shift. Bennett tells the story of their romance in flashbacks, taking us through the gritty details of Nadia’s abortion at the clinic (and Luke’s abandonment, her embarrassment at having a nurse take her home, at being “one of those” abandoned girls), and then filling us in on the love these two developed and cultivated prior. We come to see this romance as significant, as deep rather than innocent. In one instance, after Nadia gets accepted into University of Michigan, we see the young couple celebrating at the pier: “She licked cinnamon sugar off her fingers, sun-heavy and happy, the type of happiness that before might have felt ordinary, but now seemed fragile, like if she stood too quickly, it might slide off her shoulders and break.” The before Nadia refers to here may be in regards to the abortion, but I think it also refers to her mother’s death; this ghostly presence throughout the story hits Nadia hard, and I believe it taught her to catalogue and remember the happy moments, the effortless ability to smile at licking cinnamon off of your lover’s hands.

After her abortion, Nadia becomes enraged at Luke for abandoning her, for making her feel as if their love wasn’t as strong or serious as she knew it to be. She cannot accept what the mothers have foretold- that he was offering only that littlebit love, that he had indeed abandoned her (we’ll see later that perhaps it was Nadia who was right instead, to the mother’s chagrin). She ends up wrecking her father’s truck after drinking too much at a party where she confronted Luke, and in an effort at retribution, her father forces her to work at Upper Room to pay him back for the truck’s damages. Here, Nadia works for Mrs. Sheppard, an intimidating woman whose intimidation is made worse by the assumed secret Nadia is keeping from her (we’ll find out later in the story that Mrs. Sheppard knew the entire time and had, in fact, paid for the abortion). Also at Upper Room, Nadia first interacts with Aubrey Evans, a religious girl volunteering. The stark differences between the two is obvious- Nadia assumes, wrongly, that Aubrey has not been touched by grief, that her shining smile and naivety mean she has not felt loss: “Her yellow flip-flops had sunflowers in the center, as if they were blooming from between her toes. Watching her flounce around in them, Nadia wanted to rip the flowers off. How dare she enjoy something so stupid? She imagined Aubrey Evans in the shoe store, passing rows of sensible black sandals and plucking that sunflower pair off the shelf instead. As if she believed herself deserving of every flourish.” Nadia reads Aubrey wrong- it’s not that Aubrey believes herself worthy, but that she must convince herself she is.

The two girls embark on an epic and true friendship, spending a long summer together asking one another questions that only two people spending a summer together can: what were you like as a kid? what’s your best memory? Nadia never tells Aubrey about her abortion or about her relationship with Luke, perhaps too wounded and vulnerable still. We find out that Aubrey has demons of her own, griefs pertaining to her own mother that leave her breathless. Aubrey lives with her sister and her sister’s girlfriend because her mother’s boyfriend Paul molested Aubrey. The molestation is never clearly articulated, but is rather hinted at, a black hole that Bennett gets close to but vacates before entering. It’s another difference between the friends- Nadia’s grief she lives in and ponders at, Aubrey’s she shoves away.

“A girl nowadays has to get nice and close to tell if her man ain’t shit and by then, it might be too late. We were girls once. It’s exciting, loving someone who can never love you back. Freeing, in its own way. No shame in loving an ain’t-shit man, long as you get it out your system good and early. A tragic woman hooks into an ain’t-shit man, or worse, lets him hook into her. He will drag her until he tires. He will climb atop her shoulders and her body will sag from the weight of loving him.”

Is this a fair assessment given by the mothers of Luke Sheppard? It’s said directly before Bennett gives Luke his own third person limited voice, prompting us to go in with ain’t-shit opinions of him. But from his short moments, we learn that Luke wanted his and Nadia’s child. That his love for her was as she’d thought it to be, and that wrecking that love has turned him quiet and resolute. Luke confides to Nadia that he didn’t want to abort their baby the night before she leaves for Michigan, prompting Nadia to give an identity to her loss. Their Baby stays with her, grows and ages in the corners of her mind as lively as he would on the floor of her home.

Nadia finds a new life in Michigan, far away from Aubrey and Luke and memories of loss: “At home, loss was everywhere; she could barely see past it, like trying to look out a windowpane covered in fingerprints. She would always feel trapped behind that window, between her and the rest of the world, but at least in Ann Arbor, the glass was clearer.” In California, Luke starts playing football again with a semi-pro team, training his injured knee back and training his body to peak condition. Amidst working full time and practicing, Luke thinks about Nadia, and looks at her social media, at her new impressive lifestyle and her interesting boyfriend. Eventually, Luke creates an important relationship with one of his teammate’s wives, Cherry; the two bridge on romance, but never cross a defined line. Nonetheless, the football team attacks Luke, redamaging his injured leg and leading him to years of physical therapy and assisted living. In rehab, he meets Aubrey, the sweet girl bringing him treats and food from Upper Room. The two discuss Nadia, Luke never revealing their history, both Aubrey and Luke amazed at Nadia’s travels abroad. Aubrey and Luke grow close, and he becomes ardently impressed by her, sustaining a respect he hasn’t felt for anyone before. He imagines his life with her, staying put, so contrary to Nadia’s: “He would live a small life, and instead of depressing him, the thought became comforting. For the first time, he no longer felt trapped. Instead, he felt safe.” Luke and Aubrey begin falling in love, and he reveals to her that a girl he’d once slept with had had an abortion. Luke seems to want to test Aubrey’s goodness, to punish his own un-goodness by the reveal. Nadia remains nameless, and the strange secret love triangle evolves.

Nadia returns home for Aubrey and Luke’s wedding; she still remains silent about her and Luke’s shared past. She feels out of place back in Oceanside, small and at the same time too big: “A prodigal daughter, you could pity. But she’d abandoned her home and returned better off, with stories of her fascinating college courses, her impressive internships, her cosmopolitan boyfriend, and her world travels. Was she pretentious now? Or had leaving caused an irreparable tear between her and the other women of Upper Room? Or maybe the fissure had always been there and leaving had allowed her to see it.” I feel so this way when I return home- both embarrassed and emboldened by the new life I’ve cultivated, shy and pretentious in the same minute. Nadia lives with this discomfort, coupled with her discomfort at the Luke history that is the only secret existing between she and Aubrey, and attempts to create an enthusiastically happy atmosphere for her soon-to-be-married friend. The two girls spend a day at the beach together, and meet two marines. Miller, one of the marines, flirts with Aubrey, and, very un-Audrey-like, she lies with him, making out and nearing sex more than she ever has before (even with Luke). She stops herself only barely.

Nadia watches Aubrey and Luke marry. She feels rage, happiness, envy, sadness: “he’d made her feel like love was something she had to claw her way into.” Why couldn’t he had loved her the way he seemed to love Aubrey? Why couldn’t he have picked her up at the clinic that day? She and Luke share a flask at the wedding, reminiscing and coming to terms with one another. Mrs. Sheppard approaches Nadia afterwards and reveals that she knows Nadia had had an abortion, and that she’d paid for it. She tells Nadia she knows what kind of girl she is, and warns her to leave her son alone. “Later she would wonder how Luke had found the money so quickly. She’d been so desperate, she’d imagined him capable of anything. Now she knew that he was.” This revelation reopens Nadia’s heartbreak, an unending tumult of loss and grief and what-could-have-been. As Luke promises to be good to Aubrey, Nadia dreams of their baby.

Nadia flies back to her life in Michigan and then to Chicago, where she embarks upon a breakup and law school. Bennett has effortlessly glided us into the character’s adult lives, Nadia’s full of coffee and cramming, Luke’s full of a quiet job he loves, Aubrey’s full of empty desires of motherhood. Nadia decides to stay far away from California, until her father’s grave injury prompts her to return indefinitely. This section introduces us to Nadia’s own motherhood, the way she cares for another avidly and serenely. Nadia stays longer than expected, Aubrey there in the hospital and there afterwards, assisting in any way she can. Luke helps, too, and Nadia ponders what being married means: “This had always frightened her about marriage: how satisfied married people seemed, how unable they were to ask for more. She couldn’t imagine feeling satisfied. She was always searching for the next challenge, the next job, the next city. In law school, she’d become prickly and analytical, gaining a sharpness while Luke had rounded and filled. She felt hungry all the time- always wanting, needing more- but Luke had pushed away from the table already, patting his full stomach.”

Nadia bonds with her father during their time together, and she learns more about her mother than she’d ever known. Aubrey undergoes tests for her fertility, worried that because Luke had gotten someone pregnant previously, their troubles must be her fault. At the clinic, the doctor asks Aubrey if she’s ever had an abortion, a question Nadia bristles at vocally. The entire appointment makes Nadia uneasy, but she goes to be a supportive friend, as Aubrey has done for her with her father. Eventually, Luke comes to help Nadia with her father, and gives her a much needed rest. He tells her he wants to take care of her, and they begin their long-awaited love affair again. “In her bedroom, the curtains whipped open in the breeze and Luke lowered her onto her childhood bed, which squeaked under their weight. Quiet, quiet. Not the rushed motions of their youth, a dress shoved up to her stomach, jeans sagging to his knees. Now he unbuttoned his shirt and folded it on the back of her desk chair. He slipped her socks down her ankles. He loosened her freshly washed hair and buried his face in it. Now they were slow and deliberate, the way hurt people loved, stretching carefully just to see how far their damaged muscles could go.”

And this is the hard part of the story. This is the hard part of love. Is the love any less true when it’s forbidden? Are the people any less good after they commit something bad? Is Luke that ain’t-shit man and is Nadia that homewrecking girl? I think they’re something more, just as Aubrey is something more than the naive innocent Christian (Bennett makes this especially clear in her continued correspondence and one-time date with Miller, the boy from the beach, who Aubrey arguably has more intimate conversations with than her husband).

Nadia begins offering rides to the mothers of Upper Room, doing her part for the community. And the mothers, of course, begin talking. They watch Aubrey- “She may hear this story, someday, and wonder what it has to do with her. A girl hiding her scared in her prettiness, an unwanted baby, a dead mother. These are not her heartbreaks. Every heart is fractured differently and she knows the pattern of her cracks, she traces them like lines across her palm. She has a living mother and besides, she was always wanted. But she hasn’t yet learned the mathematics of grief. The weight of what has been lost is always heavier than what remains.”

We see Aubrey trying to seduce Luke, attempting lingerie and wine for the first time in their marriage. And we see him angry with her because of her lunch date with Miller, the two launching into an argument that ends with a significant punch: Aubrey knows Nadia is the one who’d had Luke’s baby aborted, and she’s the one he still wants even now.

The mothers report to their audience that Aubrey is rumored to have moved out of her and Luke’s place after the blowout. Nadia reflects on her confrontation with Aubrey, who simply asked her friend how. “The how of any betrayal was the hardest part to justify, how the lies could be assembled and stacked and maintained until the truth was completely hidden behind them.” Aubrey ignores Nadia despite how often and in how many different ways she attempts to apologize. Nadia learns from Mrs. Sheppard that Aubrey is pregnant. And we get Aubrey’s voice too- “a cord stretched from her to her baby girl, but she wondered if, along with food and nutrients, she was sending other things to her child. If a baby could feed off her sadness. Maybe that cord never broke. Maybe she was still feeding off her mother.” Aubrey eventually sees Luke, eventually reads Nadia’s apologies. They end their affair. The mothers talk.

Nadia’s father discovers Nadia’s baby pin, the one remnant from her abortion, and confronts the Sheppards. “Didn’t he know by now that you could never truly know another person?” Nadia packs her bags over this disagreement and fracture with her father, and has one last goodbye with Aubrey- “magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn’t want was a haunting.” “Inside of her was a whole new person, which was as miraculous as it was terrifying. Who would you be when you weren’t just you anymore?”

The last chapter of the novel switches again to the first person plural Mothers. They say they’ve seen Nadia once more (at least they think they have) bringing toys to Aubrey and Luke’s child. “We imagined her walking up the steps with the present and kneeling in front of the girl, a girl who wouldn’t exist if her own child did. Then she disappeared around the corner, and as quickly as we’d seen her, she was gone.”

And the punching ending-
“We will never know why she returned, but we still think about her. We see the span of her life unspooling in colorful threads and we chase it, wrapping it around our hands as more tumbles out. She’s her mother’s age now. Double her age. Our age. You’re our mother. We’re climbing inside of you.”

Wow. What does it mean to be a mother? To be a mother to someone who doesn’t exist? To be a mother to the byproduct of hurt and lies? To be a communal mother, the We?

Book Review: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

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Alice Munro, the Chekhov of modern times- I ingest her stories and can’t get enough. Each collection brings something fresh while still exhibiting classic Munro storytelling- significantly unique character details, impromptu time shifts, delicate symbolism… and this collection, one I’ve been saving to read, delivers all that I’ve learned to expect from Munro and more.

This collection includes 9 stories, including stories about children, middle-aged husbands and wives, and aging 70 year olds. The title defines the theme of the collection: the complexities of human relationships, and the ways in which one significant relationship can change throughout a lifetime.

The first short story, taking the same name as the collection, involves two story lines converging at an accidental point. Johanna, the protagonist of the story, sells furniture and purchases new clothing in preparation for her upcoming move. She feels embarrassed buying nice clothes, an imposter in the world of romantic preparation and feminine preparedness. Johanna tells the store clerk that she is purchasing the new clothing for her wedding day, and admits to the readers that she isn’t exactly sure she’ll be married after all. This ambiguous opening of the story expands as we learn that Johanna was a maid for Mr. McCauley, a man connected closely to Johanna’s new beau, Ken. We learn from Mr. McCauley, in his astounded fury that Johanna has abandoned him and that Ken has swindled him, reveals that Ken is his son-in-law, Mr. McCauley’s daughter having died years ago. Mr. McCauley suspects that Ken persuaded Johanna into selling furniture to make money off of Mr. McCauley’s back, and grows angry. While Johanna travels to her expected new life, Munro introduces the second part of the story: that of two teenage girls playing a game of which they have no idea of the consequences. Sabrina, Ken’s daughter, and her best friend Edith, watched Johanna, an awkward, ill-looking woman, trip over her crush on Ken, and decided to intercept her letters to Ken and respond as f they were him. Johanna, then, is moving for a life that Ken has not himself orchestrated but which has been constructed by two young girls obsessed with the unknowns of love, only as two innocents can be. Johanna arrives and finds Ken miserably ill; although he has no idea why Johanna is there, he is too sick to argue. This acquiescence carries through the rest of the story in which Johanna, believing the two of them are in love and on the same page, falls into a life with Ken, who decides to go along with the strange situation because of Johanna’s financial stability. The two of them end up married with a son, which the readers find out by Edith reading a newspaper announcement. The story concludes with Edith noting: “You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know- what fate has in store for me, or for you-.” This is a story that involves guilt, the malleability of human relationships, and the insecurity of love.

The second story in the collection, ‘Floating Bridge’, captures one day in the life of Jinny and Neal, a married couple traversing the difficulties of Jinny’s cancer diagnosis. On this specific day, the two pick up Helen, the couple’s house girl, from her job at a hospital and decide to drop her off at home. Jinny watches as her husband flirts with Helen, unabashedly, and feels a sense of guilt that she knows what Neal does not: her cancer is in remission, and the death each of them anticipated may very well be delayed. Jinny feels a desperate guilt watching her husband flirt with this young girl, feels responsible for dashing his hope for a new love. As they arrive at Helen’s house, Jinny decides to stay in the car as Neal and Helen go in for dinner. She ruminates on her secret, and feels an overwhelming urge to leave. She removes herself from the car and explores the cornfield out back, eventually getting lost. Ricky, Helen’s cousin, finds Jinny in the cornfield and takes her to his favorite spot in the woods- a floating bridge. There, Ricky kisses Jinny before returning her to Neal, and the story ends with this unlikely pair talking. Jinny nearly laughs at the “grace” of her being saved from her illness, and the ironic way in which this, too, is a curse: “What she felt was a lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given.” What I love the most about this story, and many of Munro’s other stories, is something I call the shrug-factor. Although nothing is as expected in this story, although we’d like to see Jinny and Neal rejoicing in her remission, Jinny still manages to find compassion, to feel a ‘such is life’ shrug, a hilarity, that prompts her into a youthful kiss.

The next story, ‘Family Furnishings,’ tells of a relationship between a niece and an aunt. The narrator, the niece of the story, grows up admiring and wondering about her aunt Alfrida, a big-city woman who has never married. Eventually, Alfrida is ostracized from the narrator’s family for her romantic involvement with a married man; however, when the narrator goes to college close to Alfrida’s city, Alfrida attempts to reconnect with her niece. The narrator feels a sense of embarrassment for her old life, now that college has increased her artistic sensibilities and has refined her manners: “That was the kind of lie that I hoped never to have to tell again, the contempt I hoped never to have to show, about the things that really mattered to me. And in order to have to do that, I would pretty well have to stay clear of the people I used to know.” The narrator attempts to put off her visit with Alfrida, but eventually gives in and visits Alfrida and Bill for dinner. At this dinner, Alfrida retells the story of how her mother died- while she was holding a lamp, the liquid blew up and she died of burns a few days after. Alfrida tells the narrator that the hospital wouldn’t let her see her mother after the burns- “‘You’re just better off not to see her. You would not want to see her, if you knew what she looks like now. You wouldn’t want to remember her this way.’ ‘But you know what I said? I remember saying it. I said, But she would want to see me. She would want to see me.'” This sentiment, this sentence, sticks with the narrator, long after the narrator avoids visiting Alfrida again. The narrator becomes a writer, and uses this story, this exact sentence, in one of her stories. Alfrida avoids speaking to the narrator, and dies, admitting to the narrator’s father that the story upset her. At Alfrida’s funeral, the narrator meets Alfrida’s estranged daughter, who is more explicit in her contempt for the narrator. This resentment leads the narrator to reminisce on the day the had dinner with Alfrida and Bill: “When I had walked for over an hour, I saw a drugstore that was open. I went in and had a cup of coffee. The coffee was reheated, black and bitter- its taste was medicinal, exactly what I needed. I was already feeling relieved, and now I began to feel happy. Such happiness, to be alone. To see the hot late-afternoon light on the sidewalk outside, the branches of a tree just out in leaf, throwing their skimpy shadows. To hear from the back of the shop the sounds of the ball game that the man who had serve me was listening to on the radio. I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida- not of that in particular- but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories. The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation. This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.’ I feel a strong connection with this story, especially for the imposter syndrome that the narrator so obviously feels.

The next story, ‘Comfort,’ is one of my favorites in the collection. Near the beginning of the story, Nina, the protagonist, finds her husband, Lewis, dead in their bedroom of suicide. We learn, inch by inch, that Lewis planned on committing suicide, and Nina was aware. Lewis, it turns out, was dying of Parkinson’s, and his slow death mortified him. There was no pride in a slow death, especially for a man who had already been mortified by his embarrassment in his career. Lewis taught science at a high school, and was mocked by his students and his student’s parents for his disbelief and hatred for Christianity and creationism. Steadily, students began harassing Lewis for his disbelief, enough for Lewis to dismiss himself from his teaching position. As readers get this necessary back story, we also learn that Nina, at home with the dead body, is desperately searching for a suicide note from her husband. She grows disappointed, depressed, that there was no goodbye from a man who had carefully calculated his departure from her world- “It was beyond her to think how she could live, with only her old pacific habits. Cold and muted, stripped of him.” The next segment of the story involves Nina and Ed Shore, the mortician that deals with Lewis’ body. Nina grows incredibly frantic when the mortician’s office asks her about caskets, as Lewis wanted a cremation. Ed Shore, a family friend and local mortician, delivers Lewis’ ashes and apologizes. Her interactions with Ed Shore remind her of a prior interaction between Lewis and Kitty, Ed’s wife; the two of them had argued religion while Nina and Ed snuck out to the backyard and kissed. Lewis never knew, and Nina never reflected on it. Ed ends up giving Nina a note that was found in Lewis’ pajamas, the suicide note Nina so desperately wanted to find. And yet still, the contents of the letter disappoint her, as Lewis still focuses on his career and exploitation of Christianity rather than their love. Nina takes Lewis’ ashes and stops aside the road- “She got the box open and put her hand into the cooling ashes and tossed or dropped them- with other tiny recalcitrant bits of the body- among those roadside plants. Doing this was like wading and then throwing yourself into the lake for the first icy swim, in June. A sickening shock at first, then amazement that you were still moving, lifted up on a stream of steely devotion- calm above the surface of your life, surviving, though the pain of the cold continued to wash into your body.” What a fucking ending. Again, we have the Alice Munro shrug, the dispassionate and passionate question of what to d next. Nina, despite her disappointment, despite her loss, will still wade into the water, will still continue moving.

‘Nettles,’ the next story, is another of my top three favorites from this collection. The beginning of the story, only three paragraphs long, show the narrator visiting her friend Sunny and Sunny’s husband Johnston. Munro then shifts to the past, the narrator growing up with a boy named Mike McCallum, the son of the well-digger in town. The two children fell in love, playing war with other children, dirtying themselves all summer long. And then, unexpectedly, Mike leaves: “Future absence I accepted- it was just that I had no idea, till Mike disappeared, of what absence could be like. How all my own territory would be altered, as if a landslide had gone through it and skimmed off all meaning except loss of Mike.” Munro then changes the time again to define the narrator’s relationship with Sunny. The two women were pregnant at the same time during the narrator’s first marriage, and formed a time-specific friendship based on growing belies and an interest in literature. We learn that the narrator separated from her husband not for any specific reason, and that her two daughters have stopped visiting her. The narrator admits no guilt, even reveals that she may be happier in this independent life- “When I came back, alone, I gathered up all reminders of them- a cartoon the younger one had drawn, a Glamour magazine that the older one had bought- and stuffed them into a garbage bag. And I did more or less the same thing every time I thought of them- I snapped my mind shut. There were miseries that I could bear- those connected with men. And other miseries- those connected with children- that I could not. I went back to living as I had lived before they came. I stopped cooking breakfast and went out every morning to get coffee and fresh rolls at the Italian deli. The idea of being so far freed from domesticity enchanted me. But I noticed now, as I hadn’t done before, the look on some of the faces of the people who sat every morning on the stools behind the window or at the sidewalk tables- people for whom this was in no way a fine and amazing thing to be doing but the stale habit of a lonely life.” There’s an admission of something here, but I don’t think i’s guilt- I think it’s of happiness. It’s an awareness that that happiness may fade, but for now, it exists. Back to the present time, the narrator arrives at her old friend Sunny’s, and finds, incredibly, her childhood lover Mike at the sink, a good friend of Johnston’s. The narrator’s bewilderment turns into an ecstatic and painfully impatient desire that she suspects will not come true but still anticipates it- Mike is married, and she knows he will not come to her bed- and yet still, she waits for the door to open. The next day, she and Mike decide to golf rather than eat breakfast; again, the narrator longs for him, romanticizing their relationship, even in the downpour that follows. The two hide in the bushes of the golf course amongst the nettles, where they kiss and he tells her his secret: he accidentally killed his three-year old son by running him over. The narrator knows then that Mike will never be his any more than he has ever been, and that such a terrible accident had solidified his marriage in a way that he could not stray any further than a kiss. And the end of the story- “Well. It would be the same old thing, if we ever met again. Or if we didn’t. Love that was not usable, that knew its place. Not risking a thing yet staying alive as a sweet trickle, an underground resource.” -this rumination on their relationship- followed by a small paragraph that is itself a metaphor. “Those plants with the big pinkish-purple flowers are not nettles. I have discovered that they are called joe-pye weed. The stinging nettles that we must have got into are more insignificant plants, with a paler purple flower, and stalks wickedly outfitted with fine, fierce, skin-piercing and inflaming spines. Those would be present too, unnoticed, in all the flourishing of the waste meadow.” And aren’t these two final paragraphs one in the same? Aren’t they both noting that love, in any flavor it comes, matters? That it’s growing too, maybe not as quickly, maybe not as noticeable, but still there, next to you in the coffee shop?

‘Post and Beam,’ the following story, makes my heart ache. The opening of the story threw me off, and re-reading it now, it still doesn’t make much sense to me. The story, centered around Lorna, a married woman with a demanding husband and not much domestic freedom, shows her becoming romantically(?) interested in Lionel, her husband’s pupil at the college he works at. Brendan, the husband, sees academic and intellectual potential in Lionel, and Lorna sees intrigue. Lionel gives potential to Lorna’s otherwise scripted life, and her interest in him grows when he begins to write her poems in the mail (although these are never romantic or even about her). The crux of the story focuses on a visit from Polly, Lorna’s (we find out later) step sister. Polly, a country girl like Lorna used to be, has saved up money to visit Lorna in her new life, and Lorna, although she’s personally excited to see her childhood friend, grows nervous at her upcoming visit because of Brendan. It turns out that Lorna was right to be nervous; Polly’s first interaction with Brendan is a negative one in which she mocks the style of their home, which Brendan announces with a snobby pride to be the “Post and Beam” style of house that Polly, an unrefined farm girl, would know nothing about. Throughout Polly’s visit, Lorna is forced to balance her husband’s dislike for Polly and Polly’s own neediness. Polly reveals to Lorna just how bad things have gotten at home, and relates her angst that she has to stay and take care of the family while Lorna was blessed with freedom. We know, though, despite how we empathize with Polly’s misgivings, that Lorna’s life is not one of freedom but of transferred obligation- no longer to her relatives but to her husband. Lorna’s curiosity leads her to looking through Lionel’s apartment, attempting to learn more about this opportunity of newness in her life; she learns nothing about who he is, however, and grows frustrated at the emptiness of this, too. During Polly’s visit, Lorna and Brendan leave for a wedding, leaving Polly, in her already melancholy state, alone. On the way home, Lorna thinks about Polly and fully convinces herself that Polly has committed suicide while they’ve been gone, and her hanging body will be waiting for them upon their return. Munro spends multiple pages describing how sure Lorna is of this- “This is stupidity, this is melodrama, this is guilt. This will not have happened. But such things do happen. Some people founder, they are not helped in time. They are not helped at all. Some people are pitched into darkness. When they entered Stanley Park it occurred to her to pray. This was shameless- the opportune praying of a nonbeliever. The gibberish of let-it-not-happen, let-it-not-happen. Let it not have happened.” This part of the story especially resonates with me- I, too, have felt ashamed when I take to a desperate kind of prayer, the only prayer I’ve ever really known, to save something. Munro later describes this as an act of bargaining, and does not realize the repercussions to bargaining until years later. Upon their return, Lorna and Brendan find Polly in the backyard, perfectly fine, flirting with Lionel. Lorna feels shock, and a kind of disappointment; she had prepared herself, as best as she could, for a scene of tragedy. Ironically, for Lorna, the reality of Polly and Lionel together may be just as tragic. “What made more sense was that the bargain she was bound to was to go on living as she had been doing. The bargain was already in force. To accept what had happened and be clear about what would happen. Days and years and feelings much the same, except that the children would grow up, and there might be one or two more of them and they too would grow up, and she and Brendan would grow older and then old. It was not until now, not until this moment, that she had seen so clearly that she was counting on something happening, something that would change her life. She had accepted her marriage as one big change, but not as the last one. So, nothing now but what she or anybody could sensibly foresee. That was to be her happiness, that was what she had bargained for.” This was a much larger bargain than expected, then; one that ensnared and trapped her in the confines of no newness. The final note of the story reads: “It was a long time ago that this happened. In North Vancouver, when they lived in the Post and Beam house. When she was twenty-four years old, and new to bargaining.” This ending, a section break after the main storyline, is another classic Munro move. It delivers a retrospection, almost an omniscience, that tells us that life goes on after we leave Lorna in her heartbreaking jealousy and emptiness. What other bargains will Lorna face? The bargains we all do, and more.

Next, Munro takes us to another married couple: Meriel and Pierre. ‘What Is Remembered’ is a story, as one might expect, about memory- how slippery details can be, how desperate we can be to remember, and how vital certain memories are to one’s sustained happiness. The two of them, in the throes of married life, have not been in a hotel room together since their wedding night, and are faced with intimacy due to attending the funeral of Pierre’s best friend Jonas. The funeral is in a part of Canada close to Meriel’s old friend, Aunt Muriel (whom the protagonist is named after). Aunt Muriel is in a nursing home far away, and Meriel decides to use the geographical closeness to pay her a visit. Dr. Asher, an attendee of Jonas’ funeral, offers to drive Meriel there, which Pierre accepts to save him a drive. Meriel is struck by Dr. Asher’s willingness to take her places, perhaps something her own husband has failed to do. She’s struck, too, by Dr. Asher’s ability to entertain and speak with Aunt Muriel rather than looking away and letting Meriel handle the affair as Pierre and other men often do. The story spends a lot of time questioning what will happen between the two of them- we, like Meriel, are romanticizing this hook-up, expecting it to be a grandiose experience for her; instead, Meriel finds herself in an unremarkable apartment, probably used for many other of Dr. Asher’s women, and soon wakes up and disembarks on a ferry back home. The final pages of the story involve Meriel reflecting on how she will remember Dr. Asher: “The night on the ferry, during the time when she thought she was going to get everything straightened away, Meriel did nothing of the kind. What she had to go through was wave after wave of intense recollection. And this was what she would continue to go through- at gradually lengthening intervals- for years to come. She would keep picking up things she’d missed, and these would still jolt her. She would hear or see something again- a sound they made together, the sort of look that passed between them, of recognition and encouragement. A look that was in its way quite cold, yet deeply respectful and more intimate than any look that would pass between married people, or people who owed each other anything.” This description prompts the reader to acknowledge a truth- the short could bes sometimes exist in memory more fiercely and tragically and romantically than our ordinary realities. They are made more beautiful because of their brevity, their limitations. Years later, Pierre reads an announcement in the paper that reports Dr. Asher’s sudden and unpredicted death. His death leads her to think of their final goodbye, which, despite her years of recollecting she cannot remember: “How did they say good-bye then? Did they shake hands? She could not remember. But she heard his voice, the lightness and yet the gravity of the tone, she saw his resolute, merely pleasant face. She did not see how she could have suppressed it so successfully, for all this time. She had an idea that if she had not been able to do that, her life might have been different. How? She might not have stayed with Pierre. She might not have been able to keep her balance. There was another sort of life she could have had- which is not to say she would have preferred it.” Despite how desperately she clung to some of the memories of her night with Dr. Asher, she abandoned their goodbye in order to steady herself, to give her the strength to go back to her husband and live with no open end. Remembering their goodbye would have made the situation more tragic, more desperate. A vague goodbye until the ultimate goodbye- that would be best. Again, Munro details all the loves that come and go in our lives, the ones that weave together and weave apart, the ones we announce and the ones we keep secret.

‘Queenie,’ the next to last story in the collection, sort of flips the story of Lorna and Polly from ‘Post and Beam’. In ‘Queenie,’ we get the farm-girl narration in first person from Chrissy, who goes to visit her old step-sister Queenie in her big city apartment. Queenie’s real name is Lena, which Chrissy has to get used to calling her because of Stan’s, Queenie’s husband’s, dislike of the nickname. Like in ‘Post and Beam,’ Munro details a controlling and demanding husband, this one decades older than his young wife. We learn throughout the story, as we witness Stan’s slights toward his wife, that Queenie ran away with Stan when she turned 18 after working for he and his deceased wife. Chrissy’s family has written Queenie off permanently, and Chrissy is the only one that’s attempted to visit her. The readers remain unsure, as Chrissy does, if Queenie is too stupid to know that her husband is constantly berating and mocking her, or if she simply brushes it off to get by in sanity. Later, though, when the couple throws a birthday party, the abuse of Stan becomes undeniable. Queenie bakes a cake for the apartment building, Andrew, Stan’s apprentice, comes, everyone gets drunk, and Queenie puts the cake away for later as it was uneaten. When Stan asks for the cake a few days later, Queenie can’t find it, and Stan, in an absolutely horrific and stubborn way, berates her, claiming that she lied to him and that she gave the cake to Andrew, who she was flirting with the night of the party. Stan hits and chokes Queenie in front of Chrissy, and refuses to speak to her until Queenie tells ‘the truth.’ Eventually, driven mad by her husband’s silence, Queenie admits that she gave the cake to Andrew (although she did not), and a few days later she discovers the hidden cake. She laughs at the turn of events to Chrissy, who becomes even more confused by her relationship with her husband. And, once the reader thinks enough twists have come from the story, Munro hits us with another: this entire time, Queenie HAS been flirting with Andrew, writing secret love letters behind her husband’s back. The last few pages of the story show Chrissy married, employed, with children, telling us that Queenie ran away again with Andrew, and that no one knows where she is (although Chrissy thinks she sees her everywhere). The saddest detail of the story is that Stan, the abusive and vile husband in the story, still sends Chrissy christmas cards every year; a lonely and mean person, reaching out despite.

The last story of the collection, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain,’ is one of Munro’s most praised and beloved stories. One of my favorite podcasts, The History of Literature, devotes an entire episode to analyzing this one short story- it’s incredible, and I highly recommend it.  history-of-literature-for-fb-db.png
The story opens with the early days of a relationship between Fiona and Grant, two youthful and energetic lovers who decide to get married after Fiona’s proposal- “He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.” Then, after Munro introduces these two characters in their youth, she quickly takes us to the present, where Fiona is leaving her house that she has plastered with sticky-notes in an effort to remember. We learn in the following paragraphs that Grant has decided to put Fiona in a nursing home because of her growing dementia; we see a heartbreaking conversation between the two of them, and Fiona’s recollection of her home that will no longer be hers. Grant has to stay away from the home for a month, per their rules, for Fiona to adjust; and in that time, Grant wonders if he’s made the right decision, if Fiona feels as if he has abandoned her. The two characters, both so young at the start of the story, have aged differently, one deteriorating much quicker than the other. When Grant is permitted to visit her, Fiona barely acknowledges his presence; she treats him like a guest, her main focus attuned to her card partner Aubrey, an older man she seems romantically linked to. Grant is astonished at this, and asks Kristy, the nurse, if anything is happening between them. Grant doesn’t quite feel anger or jealousy, mainly because of the delicacy of Fiona’s situation, but he does feel a curiosity, a fear. Grant reflects, in between his visits with Fiona, on his own promiscuity throughout their marriage; as a college professor, Grant had many affairs with students; this too, complicates his feelings on the blossoming relationship between Fiona and Aubrey, both too old perhaps to know who the other person actually is. Eventually, as Grant continues watching Fiona and Aubrey, Aubrey’s wife Marian pulls Aubrey out of the home and takes him back to their house. This leads to Fiona’s absolute depression- a refusal to eat or move, a disinterest in any activity. Kristy warns Grant that she will soon be moved to the extra care floor, where most people go to die. And here we see how self-sacrificing Grant is, how much he loves Fiona in this uncharted territory of aging and death. He takes it upon himself to get Aubrey back in to visit Fiona, knowing his visit would energize her and inspire her to live more so than anything else. He asks Marian to permit these visits which inspires a potential relationship between the two of them, something Grant isn’t too keen on but goes along with anyway for the benefit of his dying wife. Munro doesn’t reveal exactly what occurs between Grant and Marian, but we do know that eventually she relents and allows Aubrey to visit Fiona again. The final paragraphs of the story involve Grant bringing Aubrey to see Fiona, and asking her: “‘Fiona, do you remember Aubrey?” Her response is ambiguous, an expert move by Munro the craftsman- she writes: “She set the book down carefully and stood up and lifted her arms to put them around him. Her skin or her breath gave off a faint new smell, a smell that seemed to him like that of the stems of cut flowers left too long in their water. ‘I’m happy to see you,’ she said, and pulled his earlobes. ‘You could have just driven away,’ she said. ‘Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.’ He kept his face against her white hair, her pink scalp, her sweetly shaped skull. He said, Not a chance.” Do you see the intentional ambiguity? Who is the He? Is it Aubrey, whom Grant has brought? Or is it Grant, the man who has worked away his own pride in order to give his wife some grace in her finality? We’re not sure, and Munro never specifies. I want it to be Grant that she’s hugging. I want the two of them to have found their way to one another again and to have granted themselves and one another such grace as to hold one another after all of the unknowns, despite of. And, maybe the true ending is that it doesn’t matter who He is. Perhaps Fiona loves and her ailment doesn’t let her distinguish Aubrey from Grant, Grant from Aubrey. Perhaps she takes advantage of the moments, clear or unclear, and chooses to live in them as best she can. And do we abandon the one we love as they traverse a part of life we have not yet known? Not a chance. It’s a story that gets better after every re-read, that surprises, still.

This collection may be my favorite that I’ve read of Munro’s. She’s an expert storyteller, and every story feels like a novel in its breadth. Her details are poignant and memorable, and she writes the mundane instances of married life as dire experiences, which, they end up being. I always pay attention to perspective in these stories- whether she chooses to write in first person or third person and why. What does it benefit the story to be told with She instead of I? What do we lose? I also pay heavy attention to the beginnings and endings of each story; often, the first two and last two sentences are mirror images of one another. Munro wraps her writing up with a haggard, polka-dotted bow, pretty in its refinement but still unexpected. I never want to finish my arsenal of Munro stories- these teach me to give more of a shrug to the events of life, despite how mundane, despite how tragic.

 

2017: A Year in Books

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The year that surpassed 2016 (possibly) in its horrendous-ness has finally come to a close! 2017 was, as always, a year of transition for me. It incorporated a tremendous amount of growth that was long overdue- my heart expanded, my hair grew longer, my patience increased (however minutely). If you were to take a journey throughout this blog, you’d see the transitions incorporated into 2017. Change plagued my year- books anchored me. Despite the changes around me- my boyfriend’s cross-country move (and subsequently mine- I’m writing from LA!), the ending of a close friendship, my work on my own mental health- books were always my confidante. Reading has been a constant for me my entire life, and 2017 has been especially poignant in its delivery of books to me. My 2017 reading list incorporated fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and more. Each reading experience felt crafted especially for me at that time.

Here’s my 2017 reading list:

  • The Dream of A Common Language: Adrienne Rich
  • Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: Carrie Brownstein
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Miserable Mill
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy
  • Dubliners: James Joyce
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: James Joyce
  • Ulysses: James Joyce
  • The Fate of the Tearling: Erika Johannsen
  • A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles
  • The Sirens of Titan: Kurt Vonnegut
  • No One Belongs Here More Than You: Miranda July
  • The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood
  • Fates and Furies: Lauren Groff
  • The Secret History: Donna Tartt
  • The Vegetarian: Han Kang
  • Men Without Women: Haruki Murakami
  • Young Goodman Brown: Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Nest: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
  • Caballero: Jovita Gonzalez
  • Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude: Ross Gay
  • Bartleby and Benito Cereno: Herman Melville
  • The Mysteries of New Orleans: Ludwig von Reizenstein
  • The Sunshine State: Sarah Gerard
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Mark Twain
  • The Girls: Emma Cline
  • The Clansman: Thomas Dixon JR
  • The Best American Short Stories (2013): Elizabeth Strout
  • The Dinner: Herman Koch
  • Everyone’s A Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: Johnny Sun
  • The Gunslinger (Dark Tower 1): Stephen King
  • The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower 2): Stephen King
  • The Waste Lands (Dark Tower 3): Stephen King
  • Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower 4): Stephen King
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole (Dark Tower 4.5): Stephen King
  • Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower 5): Stephen King
  • Songs of Susannah (Dark Tower 6): Stephen King
  • The Dark Tower (Dark Tower 7): Stephen King
  • Sour Heart: Jenny Zhang
  • Moby Dick: Herman Melville
  • Homegoing: Yaa Gyasi
  • Birthday Letters: Ted Hughes
  • The Best American Short Stories (2010): Richard Russo
  • Human Acts: Han Kang
  • Annihilation: Jeff Vandermeer
  • Authority: Jeff Vandermeer
  • Acceptance: Jeff Vandermeer
  • Delicate Edible Birds: Lauren Groff
  • Turtles All The Way Down: John Green
  • The Best American Essays (2017): Leslie Jamison
  • It Devours!: Jeffrey Cranor & Joseph Fink
  • The Best American Non-required Reading (2016): Rachel Kushner
  • Too Far to Go: John Updike
  • The Marriage Plot: Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Best American Short Stories (2017): Meg Wolitzer
  • On Such a Full Sea: Chang-Rae Lee
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Empathy Exams: Leslie Jamison
  • The Best American Non-required Reading (2017): Sarah Vowell

Initial thoughts on this list: damn, I read A LOT of anthologies. In my opinion, few things are better in the literary world than an excellently organized anthology/collection. Shorter pieces that fit nicely together speak more creatively to me; I take great pleasure in deriving meaning out of an anthology or collection, to investigate what exactly connects each piece into its ultimate cohesion. I tend to stick with anthologies/collections once I read one great one, and it becomes difficult to transition back to longer works after. I’ve always been a fan of The Best American series, and was lucky enough to find my own 25 cent copies at a huge warehouse sale in Gainesville, Florida! The Best American Essays and Short Stories have been favorites of mine since I was introduced my first year of undergrad. Luckily, 2017 introduced me to another Best American anthology that I’m confident I’ll keep reading: The Best American Non-required Reading. These anthologies include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, interviews, and more; the collection is put together by high school students in California, and edited by a well-established writer. I love the medley of all genres thrown together, and was especially impressed by the 2016 collection.

2017 also gave room to an incredible new fiction writer: Jenny Zhang. I regret not including the image for Sour Heart, Zhang’s short story collection, on my above collage because it truly was one of the best books of the year for me. Sour Heart is a collection of stories from different narrators, all of whom are either Chinese immigrant girls or the daughters of Chinese immigrants. The stories vary in narration (some girls are very young while others are well into adulthood), but mainly take place in New York City. Zhang’s storytelling feels fresh; she speaks of a girlhood I cannot recognize as a white girl, but writes common unifying threads of girlhood that feel achingly familiar and sad. This collection does what I love best: effortlessly collides stories together to make an incredibly moving and powerful larger story. Zhang’s characters and stories all speak to one another, and ultimately explore what it means to be a girl still having fun (as insecurely or securely as one can be) in the world of toxic xenophobia and sexism.

The three other short story collections I read this year include Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami, Too Far to Go by John Updike, and No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. Each of these also represents strong collections, and each writer expertly maneuvered the unique art of the short story. I remember reading and finishing Murakami’s short story collection in the mountains of Blue Ridge, Georgia- I sat on our AirBnB’s deck and shedded my early-morning coat to feel the sun on my skin and I cried. I cried for the men in the story, each of whom lost and/or rejected a woman’s love, and I cried for myself, a woman loving a man. It was a tumultuous time emotionally, and Murakami’s collection helped make my pain universal- my heartache almost felt trite compared with that of Murakami’s characters. He writes such exquisite sadness. I came to Updike’s collection by way of The New Yorker: Fiction podcast- it was an episode featuring Matthew Klam reading Twin Beds in Rome. I fell absolutely in love with the Maples, the couple starring in this story, and eagerly ordered Too Far to Go: The Maple Stories afterward. This collection centers around the story of a married couple, The Maples, and follows them from newlyweds to divorcees. Updike unleashes the ugly truths that accompany long-term monogamy; the two characters spit vile at one another in the form of terrifyingly cold arguments that arise from the simplest of moments. Updike expertly narrates the tumultuous nature of marriage- the power that a partner has, and should choose not to use. If marriage were reducible to a course, Updike’s Too Far to Go would be required reading. Miranda July was on my reading list in 2016 for The First Bad Man, her novel. I was struck by July’s quirky and fresh storytelling, and her ability to craft incredibly unique characters that were still somehow personable. I LOVED July’s short story collection, and felt incredibly compelled by a few in the collection so much that I reread the collection a total of FOUR times before setting it aside for something else. Leaving July’s world felt inopportune and sad- I wanted to bask in the fantasy worlds of her characters for as long as I could.

Some solid, 4-star books I read this year include: It Devours! (I am truly obsessed with Welcome to Nightvale, and will purchase any merchandise associated, but this was a cool story), Turtles All the Way Down (a simple and very real portrayal of anxiety), One Hundred Years of Solitude (how did it take me so long to read this?!), Human Acts, Homegoing (SO good), The Sirens of Titan (I think 1-2 Vonnegut reads a year is a great thing), The Handmaid’s Tale (a must read), The Marriage Plot (Eugenides is just so good) and more. I really didn’t dislike anything I read (although I did detest some- I’ll get to that below…); a ton of solid 3-4 star choices. My two Masters courses led me to some on this list- I took a James Joyce seminar and read most of Joyce’s work. I could read Dubliners forever, and Ulysses was a once in a lifetime experience. I loved meeting Molly and Leopold Bloom, and my heart echoed that final, resilient yes at the end of the book. I then took an Early American Lit course and read some familiar titles (Melville, Twain, Hawthorne) along with some very off-the-wall reads (Mysteries of New Orleans, Caballero). I loved that course, especially for the New Mexican cowboy professor I had and the ways he challenged me. I can’t wait to be taking graduate English courses again!

Everyone’s a Aliebn When You’re a Aliebn Too by Johnny Sun is arguably the cutest book I’ve ever read. Sun’s comics of an aliebn navigating earth’s surface via relationships with earth’s creatures (bees, bears, etc.). Sun’s aliebn adventures with the curiosity I’ve had navigating foreign cities, and the aliebn’s sincere desire to connect with beings really inspired me. The book is an honest and sweet examination of how to best explore this confusing and sad reality, and encourages us to try our best. It’s a great reminder, especially in 2017.

Okay, here it is. The negative part of the post.
I’ve been waiting to read The Dark Tower series by Stephen King for YEARS. A very trusted book friend of mine adores the series, and a few more of my trusted book friends have recommended it as well. The movie’s release (the movie, by the way, is so horrendously bad) pushed me to buying the series. I read all of them- all eight books, thousands of pages… and I… hated… it.
After finishing the first novel, The Gunslinger, my boyfriend said ‘how’d you like the first and best book of the series?’ I looked at him as if I’d been stupefied. Getting through The Gunslinger was NOT a fun experience for me- I persevered because I hoped the rest of the series would get better. I did the same throughout the second book, and the third, and the sixth… and before I knew it, the books were over, and I was left full of a disappointed rage. King writes from four(ish?) different perspectives throughout the books, and one of those perspectives irked me so bad that I had to stop reading the series for a bit. King writes as Susannah, a black disabled schizophrenic woman from 1960’s NYC. This character felt so rehearsed and so unbelievable- each time King wrote ‘you honky!’ from Susannah’s voice, I cringed. It’s as if King wanted to include more than just a white male perspective, which I can respect, but instead of creating a fully-formed human being, he thrust each minoritized population into one being who quickly turned into a caricature. This alone made The Dark Tower painfully hard to read for me. On top of that major criticism, King’s fantasy throughout the books felt too Deux Es Machina- his attempt to be meta fell to pieces and the entire plot felt strung together with paper clips (writing himself into the story- WHAT?!). I was so far removed from the plot that I honestly don’t even think I could summarize how the story ended. I’ve never regretted reading something more. I so wanted to like King (I’ve never read any other King-related work), and I felt ready to love the Dark Tower. I was sourly disappointed.

And, as for my favorites of 2017? It’s a hard choice, but I’ve narrowed it down to the following: The Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. The majority of these choices have their own blog posts (see earlier posts for details on them), but I never got around to writing a blog post for The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, an incredible science-fiction work that absolutely blew me away. I’m usually not a science-fiction reader, but the beautiful cover art of this trilogy pulled me in, and the pacing of Vandermeer’s writing made it impossible for me not to finish these three books at an alarming speed (all in 1.5 days!). The books are an original take on a post-apocalyptic/alien invasion (maybe? still trying to decide what the fuck is actually going on in these books, to be honest), and involve plot lines of romance, parenthood, and more. After I finished Acceptance, I spent HOURS reading reddit theory threads trying to piece together what I’d read. Vandermeer doesn’t give a lot of answers, but somehow the mystery of his storytelling does not feel frustrating. The unknowns are unknowns I’m comfortable with; in fact, I think they make the story stronger. I really recommend this trilogy- it was an exhilarating read, and I’m excited to see the film soon!

Thanks, 2017, for one of the most pleasant reading years I’ve ever had. I made it to 61 total books (I set a goal of 75) this year and plan on getting to the same in 2018. Let me know what I missed out on and what you recommend for 2018!

There is Never an After

This week my therapist asked me what I would say to a younger me. I referenced the blog post I wrote a few years back, the letter I wrote to my 14-year-old Xanga photo, the way I pitied her in a warm, friendly way. ‘But what did you feel towards her,’ my therapist asked, reaching for more in the way she always does. ‘What is your relationship to her? Have you accepted her?’ Yes, I wanted to say, yes of course. But the truth was, I’m not sure if I had or if I have. The lighthearted pity in that letter wasn’t a tone of acceptance; in fact, it was barely a tone of empathy. That young girl was not someone I accepted or even respected. She’s someone I barely know. I can only recognize her in her report cards and obsessively-organized school planners, in old time cards from her multiple jobs and in her oddly-angled myspace photos.

I’m working on a move to Los Angeles. I suffer from bouts of extreme anxiety about this move, bouts that have been quiet recently but flared up again this week. I was waiting to hear back from a hopeful job opportunity (which I didn’t get) and something about the waiting triggered the spiral. What ifs piled up and overflowed, each panicked thought drowning itself over and over again for more space in my brainwaves. ‘Where is the anxiety about the move coming from?’ Fuck if I know, therapist.

But I’m trying to know. And the therapist’s push to get me to dive deeper into the girl I used to be might be a part of the answer. I grew up in a low-income family in the rural Midwest, a first-generation college student who would have laughed at the thought of living in California. I simultaneously pushed to distance myself away from this town and pressured myself to abide by its rules, its limitations, its stereotypes. High school existed as a starter to my real life, as a preparatory period that didn’t matter. I excelled in my coursework, in my solo preparation for college, in anything that would push me beyond 44707. ‘Can you tell me about a day you remember in detail from high school?’ No, I can’t. I remember studying. I remember waking up at 4AM thinking I was late for school and panicking, getting dressed and heading out to the bus stop before I realized it wasn’t time. I remember the loneliness I felt at football games, the existential thoughts I had as my friends painted my face red for Friday nights (what’s the fucking point? when will any of this matter?). I remember a brief day of mindfulness- I won an award, a scholarship, and finally exhaled at the realization that I had worked hard to be what I now was. I stared at that award a lot that day, and it’s one of the only times I can remember being present during those four years. I had paused and reflected and congratulated myself. I allowed myself to feel pride, a notion I hadn’t indulged in due to an inexplicable fear that if I acknowledged my success, it’d somehow be taken away from me. I’m still not over this superstitious notion. It’s what wakes me up at 4AM some nights still, what leads me to the insane ultimatums I sometimes give myself- if a bird flies overhead within the next minute, you’ll be OK. These superstitions forego control, alleviate the pressure I put on myself to make things work. But they’re not the truth.

I had this notion in high school that if I worked hard enough, if I lived with this constant pressure and tight-chestedness, there would come a day when it paid off. I’d forfeited mindfulness throughout my teenage years because I thought it would lead to a long exhale, a tranquil life in which I’d be far away from my hometown, in love with a partner I believed in, pursuing education, writing (check, check, check, and check). But perhaps the biggest thing I’d thought such hardwork would get me, the inspiration for As and college applications? ‘What about that girl haven’t you accepted yet?’ I expected there’d come an after. I expected I’d reach all the goals and a sigh of relief would filter out the drowning thoughts in my mind. I thought that because I’d danced with anxiety so much in high school, a graceful partner, it’d vacate once I’d achieved.

But- and here’s the sad, epic truth- the bucket list has been reconciled. The goals have been met, have been exceeded. I’ve been to 15 countries. I’ve gotten a master’s degree. I’ve lived out of state. I’ve published a work of fiction. I’ve fallen in love with someone I’m confident in. But that sigh of relief never comes. And it never will. The high school girl still knows the pattern of the dance, still opts out of mindfulness, still wonders what the fucking catch is to all the goodness that doesn’t feel like hers to take.

There are no signs. A bird flying overhead is just a fucking bird. It can’t decide for you. You can decide, even when your thoughts tell you you cannot. The truth is there. What you want, what you truly truly want, is there, sometimes buried in the deep and protective and annoying membrane of anxiety. A friend told me yesterday- “this isn’t a house of cards. It’s a house with an actual foundation. You built this. Over time. With lots of work and screwing up some corners and rebuilding them. But it’s here and you’re working on things. Painting, maybe. The point is, it isn’t going to blow over or shatter or disappear. It’s here. So step into it. Live there. Trust it’s going to keep you dry when it rains. You don’t have to ask the house if there is a hole in the roof. You’ll find out and you fix it when there is.”

There is never an after. There’s only a now, and a now after that. And now is good. Now is good because I made it that way.

Love in the Time of Anxiety

I didn’t know what anxiety was in high school. People used the word interchangeably for crazy or stressed or sad. And I guess at times anxiety can be all of those things. Can probably be more. But there were things missing from this definition that were crucial to me understanding anxiety in any real way.

At that time grades were important to me. I made a 4.0 GPA in high school and took as many courses as I could. I started prepping for college, something no one in my family had done before me. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, but I started making a plan. Plans. To-do lists cluttered my desk and my school calendar; there were evenings I forgot to eat because I was too busy updating my planner, too busy crossing things off of my lists- this, I thought, was how I nourished myself: writing down the steps to get me where I thought I wanted. There were times (and still, confessedly, are) in which I’d add things I’d already done to the end of my to-do list just to see another black line. This, intentionally completing things, was how I’d get to the land beyond the to-do lists, that fictional terrain where I’d be able to breathe without writing it down, without writing a check-mark beside the simple act of breathing to know that I’d done it.

And finally at age 25 I’ve come to the truth of anxiety- this destination, the place I thought planning and over-analyzing and check-marking would get me to, does not exist. The to-do lists have only led to more sticky-notes, to color-coded keys for my calendars, to two majors and three minors. Worse than any of that, though, it’s led to an inability to love. Or, maybe closer to truth, an inability to let myself be loved. Anxiety makes you believe that if you try hard enough, if you make enough lists and stretch yourself thin enough, your happiness will exceed any boundaries you thought this world put on you. I never imagined that anxiety was something that could not be defeated, that a world without the constant treadmill of useless, unnecessary, harmful thoughts and emotions was not accessible to me. And I’ve lived for 25 years awaiting the year in which the anxious thoughts would leave; in which I’d succeed and feel complete, in which I’d open my heart and have a relationship free of anything but confidence and contentment. I guess, in a way, this is the year I’ve been waiting for. It just doesn’t look the way I expected it to.

I’ve been in love a handful of times, and each time has felt like a failure. I know now that I have always leaned too heavily on the men I’ve loved, always expected too much out of them and blamed them for the emptiness I felt when they did not (could not) deliver. The false control I thought I’d had over my own life- the sense of control that endless to-do lists and pressure can give- led me to believe I could find this same control in a partner. I mistakenly thought that if I could not find such an organized, controlled atmosphere in a relationship, it wasn’t the right one. It gave me an out anytime a man left. ‘He didn’t try hard enough’ was my defense. And this defense did its job; it protected my heart. It left me to my to-do’s and my endless quest for happiness. I taught myself that love wasn’t for me, that my heart couldn’t be matched. My romantic idea of ‘the one’ fell away and left me with a wall, one larger than I then recognized. The heartbreak of my early twenties left me scarred and broken, and the only thing I knew to do was to nurture myself. Anxiety is funny in that way- at times, it feels like a friend.

When I moved a year and a half ago, I met someone. I wrote about him on the blog, wrote about him after the breakup. My anxiety spiraled after he left; I felt alone, unsure of this new city and my new life. I felt inadequate at my job, uncomfortable in my apartment. I hadn’t done yoga in months, had only read a few books in a number of weeks, hadn’t written a word in verse. I’d lost control because I’d tried so fucking hard to maintain control of a relationship I didn’t even truthfully want to be in. But the illusion of control was enough- the thought that I had someone’s apartment to fall asleep in, someone’s coffee breath to wake up to- that was enough. I clung hard. Ironically, though, I pushed away harder. I questioned a lot. I felt a wave of doubt pass through me nearly every day, heavy and murky and powerful. Oftentimes it’d lead me to crying, to him asking what he did and becoming frustrated at my apparent ‘craziness over nothing.’ There were multiple days in which he wouldn’t answer my messages for 24 hours, and I’d hyperventilate until I got home and could sob and scream into my pillow. Anxiety told me that loving someone was dangerous, that letting someone love me signified a loss of control. But it also told me that losing this love was a failure larger than I could stand. I thought that he was my entryway into the land of no anxiety. I lost him (not too much of a loss, in the grand scheme of things). But what I gained was larger: a need to dissect my anxiety, to stare at its ugliness and say ‘I accept you, but you are no longer going to win.’ I finally learned that living without anxiety was never going to happen for me, and that the land of happiness was not one in which anxiety did not exist but one in which it coexisted with the larger, friendlier parts of me.

I sought therapy for the first time in my life. The therapist wasn’t the best fit, but it felt good to cry once a week to someone who didn’t know me. It felt good to admit the things that lurked deep in my brain, to say things aloud that I hadn’t thought about for years. I was scared by how much I didn’t know about my own thought processes, horrified at the havoc my own brain had caused in the name of self protection. I made progress. I recognized that what I thought was a healthy independence had actually been an unhealthy aversion to romantic love, a distrust in the things I most wanted: long-term monogamy, the concept of ‘the one.’ But I did not think I was ready for love; I wasn’t sure I was as good of a partner as I’d always thought myself to be, and I thought I needed to do more work alone before I could do it with someone. But I met him anyway. The one. Even writing those two words takes a little bit of deep breathing, a willing abandoning of protective cynicism. But I’ll write them again and again because I believe them: the one. I still don’t know if I believe in the concept of ‘the one,’ but I do believe in the partnership he and I have cultivated. I do believe that this is the biggest love I will ever have. And I know that recognizing it as such is important to my ongoing acceptance of it.

I pushed him away for months. I denied and questioned every romantic impulse I had towards him, expressed that we were just friends. I spoke to him constantly, found myself yearning for his witty text response or invitation to go to the movies. Other people began to bore me, and I started wishing he was with me when I did certain things I enjoyed doing (the bookstore, mostly- I really, really wanted him to watch me trapeze through the aisles of Chamblin’s, wanted to feel his eyes and his smile on me as I pretended not to notice). I knew from the beginning that he was leaving. He’d told me via text message that he was moving to LA and I cried silently throughout my night class. We’d agreed from the beginning to not do distance, recognizing the pressure and the absurdity that would be commitment at so early a stage in a relationship. We had six months before he left- we could make the most of that time together and part as friends- that felt like control. That, in the beginning, was something my anxiety smiled upon.

Eventually and inevitably, I realize now, we came together, falling in a quiet, ground-breaking kind of love over inhales of cigarette smoke and the sounds of Frank Ocean, Blind Pilot, and Father John Misty. We went to museums and movies, leaning into one another shyly at first, learning the curves of one another’s body, eventually melting into one another effortlessly. We drove in his car and listened to podcasts, ate terrible food on the floor of his studio apartment and woke up hazily wrapped in naked limbs. My best friend turned everything.

The first time I mentioned wanting to do distance was in his bed late at night. I’d been wanting to say it for weeks, and spent time trying to figure out whether or not my anxiety was controlling the decision- was I, like I had previously, clinging too hard out of fear to lose what felt like control? Did I want him simply because being in a relationship felt like success? The answer to both of these questions was a loud and defiant no. I wanted to be with him because I believed him when he laughed.

I sobbed until my eyes couldn’t open when he told me no. Weeks later I tried again, and then traveled to China for work. He took care of my apartment and my cat while I was gone, 12 hours of time difference between us and barely functioning wifi. I felt, especially when we were apart, the crushing wave of anxiety welcome me back. I felt its blackness, the way it entered into my bloodstream like an anesthetic, its sharp and unavoidable insistence that you have no control, that you are destined to fail, seep into my heart. I thought of him and thought only of what I was to lose. Every conversation I began to look for the holes, the defining lines which proved that I was not enough for him. Anxiety convinces you that it is right, assures you beyond a doubt that the thought it has produced reigns supreme. And once I believed that he was not willing to do distance with me because he did not love me enough, nothing he said could convince me otherwise. I was back to the mantra ‘he isn’t trying hard enough.’ I came home to a man who greeted me at the airport with taco bell, who stayed awake when I couldn’t beat my jet lag and who rubbed my back until I fell asleep. He’d washed my car and fed my cat, took out the trash and made sure I had a cold coke can waiting for me in the fridge. All logical signs pointed to the truth: this incredible man loved me so much. But my anxiety insisted that he did not. Even when, a few days later, I accidentally let slip ‘I love you’ and he returned it with a serious ‘I love you too,’ even when he pulled me into my kitchen and revealed a note he wrote with my fridge magnets that said ‘I love you,’ revealing that he indeed loved me, had known it before I’d said it, had written it while I was in China listing in my mind all of the reasons he did not love me- even then I doubted it. I doubted him. And most of all, I doubted that I was worth loving.

We went on like this for a few long months. I started agonizingly long conversations that had no ending, just an endless loop of buts and what ifs. I went to LA for a work conference and got to see his new apartment; while I felt an other-worldly sense of happiness for him and the life he was about to begin (I knew how big he’d make his life), I felt a panic so severe that I couldn’t sleep. Each day I woke at 5AM wanting to call him like some kind of addict looking for the hit of ‘I love you.’ At that point I needed him to tell me he loved me every hour else I’d begin to doubt it, to spiral into the abyss of convincing myself I was unworthy of a lasting love. The patience this man displayed during those months was close to heroic, and if there is ever any need for me to seek validation in his love for me (which, unfortunately, there still sometimes is), I only have to look at what he was willing to do for me then: comfort me every hour while he prepared to move his entire life across the country. I was unbelievably selfish but I didn’t realize it. The anxiety made me feel justified. It smiled deep in the darkness of my brain and awaited the completion of the self-fulfilling prophecy (tell yourself you are unlovable and that is indeed what you become).

I wish I could say that all of this changed. That I defeated all of this on that work trip and I handled the rest of our relationship (which is, I’m so happy to say, still happily going!) with grace. But the truth is those feelings only became more rampant and uncontrollable. In the face of losing him I became irrational, I became pathetic. And the worst part was I knew it. I could feel the anxiety take over, but I felt helpless at its feet. I whispered no and it happened anyway. I felt helpless, which only fed in to my suspicions that I was unlovable. I lost 15 pounds. I checked his social media endlessly and began telling myself that it meant something if I was not on his story or his feed. I sought out signs that would prove my anxiety was right because it was safe. Settling into the familiarity of these anxious thoughts was safer than letting myself be loved with the possibility of being hurt. I could control this hurt, and wasn’t that better than the unexpected heartbreak that might come from love?

The answer, of course, was no. It was sadder. Lonelier. More of a heartbreak than anything else ever could be. I used to want to yell at myself for ever pushing away what I have most wanted but now I only ever want to cradle that part of me, the one who fears loss and heartbreak and abandonment so much that she abandons her confidence and herself before someone else can. I’m on the road to loving that part of myself, and understanding that she is just one of the myriad of parts that make up my whole. She has tended to amplify herself in my romantic relationships, has engorged herself and become too big to be healthy.  But whereas I used to see this part of myself as far away, as if on an insurmountable mountaintop, I now can beckon her down to the summit, look her in the eye, and say ‘no.’

Sometimes she doesn’t listen. Sometimes still I have these conversations with my partner who has been long distance from me for more than two months now. I still, of course, dread them when they happen. But I feel that chill, that diabolic urge to question my worthiness, my relationship, less and less. It wields so much less power. I’m going to therapy with a new therapist and I’m taking medication for the first time ever. This combination enables me to pause the rapid assembly line of thoughts in my mind, lets me sit in child’s pose for 15 minutes at a time with a mostly empty space. At other times it lets me laugh at all the extra work my brain is doing and has done- sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and remind myself: ‘you are fighting battles that do not even exist.’ I have a partner states away who decided, after all, to stay in this. We have a plan for me to move in with him soon and we talk all the time. For awhile I struggled with accepting that he actually wanted to be with me until I realized- why else would he be doing this? The ability to rationalize my thoughts against my anxiety felt revolutionary. Together now he and I are able to laugh at my need for him to respond to my snapchats or tell me he loves me multiple times before I fall asleep. There are times when I do indeed still need these things, weak moments when the loneliness and missing him gets to be too much and I start delving into the thoughts of ‘what if I’m not enough for this to last?’ The anxiety can still turn me selfish. It can still make me feel as if I’m a bad partner. But now I only have to look at his short (I love his easy, quiet love) response of I’m not going anywhere to feel re-energized; and when it feels like it’s too much, when it begins to feel insurmountable again, I’m able to at least have faith that the feeling will pass. I can call her down from the mountaintop and tell her no until she dissolves into the background, never gone, but less present.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang Book Review

The_vegetarian_-_han_kang

The Vegetarian, a book about a woman who never herself gets to speak from the main narration, tells the story of Yeong-hye, a woman first described as plain and not difficult, as ordinary. This plainness becomes quietly disrupted when Yeong-hye decides to adopt a vegetarian diet due to a nightmare, something we get brief depictions of as violent, bloody, and mysterious. Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian seems to be quiet at first, but it grows ever louder, impacting her and her family’s lives irrevocably.

This story happens in Seoul, South Korea, and explains the importance of familial and marital dynamics in Korean culture. The narrator of section 1 is Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Chan. From his first-person narration, readers come to view Yeong-hye as a plain, ordinary Korean woman, apparently subservient to her husband and easy to manipulate. But Mr. Chan’s narration also serves as a red flag; what is he leaving out of these descriptions? It’s obvious there is something in his wife that he doesn’t see or understand, and this inability to truly see her comes to a head when Yeong-hye strongly delves into her vegetarian diet. Her need for vegetarianism stretches not only into her diet but also into her husband’s diet; she refuses to cook meat for him, and eventually decides to stop sleeping with him because of how much his skin smells like meat (Mr. Chan ignores her, however, and begins to rape Yeong-hye). Mr. Chan’s frustration with his wife’s vegetarianism drives him to contacting her family, and staging a sort of intervention. Power dynamics are at major play at this dinner; the women of Yeong-hye’s family attempt persuading her to eat meat at first, and when this fails, her (somewhat abusive) father steps in, slapping Yeong-hye and literally forcing a piece of meat into her mouth. The meeting is uncomfortable and sad, something Mr. Chan watches in disgust and we watch in pity and horror. Yeong-hye ends the meeting with something even more unpredictable than her sudden change in diet: she cuts her wrists using a kitchen knife, resorting to harming herself in lieu of eating meat. It is only then that her family, Mr. Chan included, seem to take her vegetarianism for something more than a stubborn phase.

Yeong-hye’s family sends her to a mental institution. Mr. Chan’s embarrassment at his wife’s behavior and status at the mental institution creates even more of a bitterness that can only come from an unhappy marriage. Yeong-hye’s family begs Mr. Chan not to divorce Yeong-hye, and his first-person arrogance explains how benevolent it is that he still visits his wife in the hospital, despite all she’s done to embarrass him. He still discredits her behavior, vegetarianism included, as something silly, something trivial; she has lost the need to save face, and this rather than worrying him, insults him. At the end of this first section, Mr. Chan finds Yeong-hye escaped from the hospital holding a dead bird. Bitemarks are visible on the bird, and the reader is left to wonder if Yeong-hye killed the bird by biting it, her violent dreams coming to fruition. Or, perhaps Yeong-hye is so haunted by the dream, any dead meat holds weighty significance. The first section of the novel felt obsessively incomplete, a disrespectful and shallow description of a woman who never got to describe herself. If we believed Mr. Chan’s description of Yeong-hye, we severely underestimate the multitudes that exist inside of her.

The second section of the novel, The Mongolian Mark, switches from Mr. Chan’s first-person perspective to a third person narration from Yeong-ho, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. Although Yeong-ho’s perspectives on Yeong-hye are much more favorable than that of Mr. Chan’s, his perspective is also absent of real presence; whereas Mr. Chan downplayed Yeong-hye’s humanity, Yeong-ho romanticizes it. Yeong-hye isn’t the plain woman Mr. Chan had us believe but is instead a mysterious, alluring presence, something not quite understandable and irresistible in that lack of understanding. Yeong-ho’s attraction toward Yeong-hye began the day of her self-harm attack in her family’s kitchen; Yeong-ho was the one to carry a bleeding Yeong-hye to the hospital, her blood saturating his clothes in an almost sexual way. The second section of the novel reads as a ballad of sorts; an effort for a man to create art he deems valuable, and an insatiable thought that this art needs this woman. Yeong-ho, a cynical and disheartened documentarian, becomes suddenly inspired, something he hasn’t felt in years, when he imagines creating a work of art depicting Yeong-hye’s Mongolian Mark. Yeong-ho learns from his wife, In-hye, that her sister has a bright blue birth mark on her butt, a Mongolian Mark from childhood that has never disappeared. A fire erupts within his brain, and an entire idea is formed in an instant: a film of this women, naked, with painted flowers all over her, originating from her Mongolian mark. Yeong-ho’s artistic need coincides with his intense sexual attraction to Yeong-hye (and, I would argue, his sexual attraction to his own creative work– the male ego!); he begins devising ways to visit Yeong-hye away from his wife and their infant son, and eventually gets the courage to ask Yeong-hye to model for him. “He was living with a new intensity. It seemed the happiness that had enabled him to feel that quiet peace was now lost to him forever. And yet he found himself unable to think of this as a loss.” Yeong-ho completely gives in to his desire- he feeds himself on it.

Interestingly enough, Yeong-hye agrees. She tells Yeong-ho “I didn’t want the flowers to come off, so I haven’t washed my body. It’s stopping the dreams from coming. If it comes off later I hope you’ll paint it on for me again.” The vegetarianism again- everything, for Yeong-hye, revolves around her dreams and her life now far removed from eating meat. Eventually the two sleep together, Yeong-ho’s obsessions fulfilled: “I want to swallow you, have you melt into me and flow through my veins.” Yeong-hye’s response to their sex is much more heartbreaking: “will the dreams stop now?”

From the first two sections of the novel, we don’t know much about Yeong-hye. What the novel shows us is that one person can be many things to many different people; the same Mongolian mark can serve as a source of disgust for one man and one of extreme desire for another; one woman can appear plain while in a different bedroom appear exquisite; can any one perspective get the whole picture? Can we as readers really know The Vegetarian by reading about her instead of hearing from her?

In-hye walks in on her husband and her sister the morning after their sleeping together. The novel has introduced readers to In-hye as well, giving Mr. Cheong’s opinion on In-hye (very positive- she’s hardworking, a great mother, sexually appealing, a good wife) and Yeong-ho’s opinion on her (much the same as Mr. Cheong’s, with the added acknowledgement that she is too good for Yeong-ho). Readers can see how strong In-hye is, how much of a master she is at controlling her extremely heavy emotions. She tells her husband that she is disgusted, that there is something wrong with him for taking advantage of her mentally weak sister. Yeong-ho attempts to throw himself from Yeong-hye’s balcony before he’s taken into hospital custody along with Yeong-hye.

The third section of the novel, ‘Flaming Trees,’ switches to In-hye’s third person point of view, the wronged sister of Yeong-hye suffering heartbreak at her husband’s infidelity, at her sister’s apparent psychotic break. In-hye remains a loyal sister to Yeong-hye, visiting her in the hospital and aiding in the search when Yeong-hye goes missing. In-hye’s life combines single motherhood, owning a business, and faithfully attending to her sister; it’s a life that seems full but proves to leave time for contemplative, deep thinking. Thoughts in this section alternate between her failed marriage, her spritely son, her sister’s strange condition, and her own misery. We see that Yeong-hye has lost significant weight and is refusing to eat anything at all, claiming that she will soon turn into a tree. In-hye at first feels disgusted by this behavior, but Yeong-hye’s intense belief in it leads her sister into feeling pity, and, by the end, a bit of understanding.

“Usually, when she has given up on trying to wring any more sleep out of the night, it is around three in the morning. She washes her face, brushes her teeth, prepares some side dishes, cleans and tidies every corner of the house, and still the clock goes as slow as ever, the shifting of the hands like the almost comically suspended movements of some ponderous dance. In the end she goes into his room and listens to some of the records that he left behind, or puts her hand on her back and spins herself around the room as he once had. ‘When did all of this begin?’ she sometimes asked herself in such moments. ‘No-when did it all begin to fall apart?'”

The third section of the novel punctuates the ultimate theme: we really can’t know everything about a person; and even if we do think we know, so much can change. Your husband can become a stranger. Your self can become less familiar than anyone. “The lives of all the people around her had tumbled down like a house of cards- was there really nothing else she could have done?” In-hye reflects that despite how careful she’s lived, the worst has still happened: “time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart. Even as a child, In-hye had possessed the innate strength of character necessary to make one’s own way in life. As a daughter, as an older sister, as a wife and as a mother, as the owner of a shop, even as an underground passenger on the briefest of journeys, she had always done her best. Through the sheer inertia of a live lived in this way, she would have been able to conquer everything, even time.” This sentiment speaks strongly to me- the false control we think we have when we plan- the sense of comfort we get from the A on the test, from the ‘congratulations’ when we secure that job, from the I DO we hear him say at the altar. It’s nice to comfort ourselves in such milestones, to keep the paranoia of life unlived, of life unknown, at bay. But it’s never at bay. And we never have total control.

Yeong-hye continues believing she will soon turn into a tree, explaining to In-hye that soon emotions and words will cease to exist within her. She seems unafraid to die, and In-hye’s incessant worrying, her constant prod to her sister to eat, seems to loosen. She thinks of her own immortality, contemplates what she can do to live a more present life.

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her success had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely.” In-hye contemplates suicide, utterly annihilated with the truth that her life is not one she envisioned. And she thinks of her sister, Yeong-hye, dying because she believes in death she will become a peaceful tree; no longer is Yeong-hye the insane sister. She may be, instead, the wiser one: “Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread that had kept her connected with everyday life. During the past insomniac months, In-hye had sometimes felt as though she were living in a state of total chaos. If it hadn’t been for Ji-woo- if it hadn’t been for the sense of responsibility she felt toward him- perhaps she too might have relinquished her grip on that thread.”

“The only times when the pain simply, miraculously ceases, are those moments just after she laughs. Something Ji-woo says or does makes her laugh, and then immediately afterward she is left blank, empty even of pain. At such times, the sheer fact of her having laughed seems unbelievable, and makes her laugh again. Admittedly, this laughter always seems more manic than happy, but Ji-woo loves to see it all the same. ‘Was this it, Mum? Was this what made you laugh?’ Then Ji-woo will repeat whatever it is he’d just been doing, such as pursing his lips and using his hands to mimic a horn growing out of his forehead, or else making a clattering sound, sticking his head between his legs and calling out Mum! Mum! in a silly voice. The more she laughs, the more he ups the ante with his clowning. By the time he finishes he will have run though all the secret mysteries of laughter that human beings have ever understood, mobilizing everything at his disposal. There is no way for him to know how guilty it makes his mother feel, seeing such a young child go to such lengths just to wring a bit of apparent happiness from her, or that her laughter will all eventually run out. Life is such a strange thing, she thinks, once she has stopped laughing. Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet and washing themselves- living, in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud. And they probably have these same thoughts, too, and when they do it must make them cheerlessly recall all the sadness they’d briefly managed to forget.”

As Yeong-hye inches closer to death, In-hye reflects more on her life. She comes to realize that her sister’s break from reality may be closer to a true life than her own. And instead of seeing sadness in her sister’s passing, in the way her sister has lived her remaining life, In-hye tells her dying sister: “What I’m trying to say… Perhaps this is all a kind of dream. I have dreams too, you know. Dreams… and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over… but surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because… because then…”

The novel ends with In-hye staring out Yeong-hye’s window at the trees, the very thing her sister has wanted to become. There seems to be a determination renewed in In-hye, a will to live or to be honest with herself that was not present before Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism. What Yeong-hye becomes is so much more than a vegetarian; she unearths a truth(s) about humanity, about existence, that is too much to bear while also being nothing to fear. It reminds me a lot of The Awakening- a character learns something deep and dark and can never, ever return to a normal reality. The Vegetarian, from this third section, is no longer romanticized or put down; instead, she is exposed in her truths, and is seen as her dying wish: flaming trees.