“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” –Anne Lamott
If you’ve been enjoying my Christmas movie reviews, be sure to bookmark their new home on the web: Christmasterpeice Theater. There’s a new post up today about A Christmas Kiss that I just know you won’t want to miss.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I was pretty surprised when the world ended in a terrible plague in the first chapters! There is no traditional plot line, but the characters are wonderful and rich and interesting. There is no “main character,” either, more of an ensemble cast whose stories all intertwine in some deliciously clever ways. No one wants the end of the world to go down the way St. John Mandel describes, but if it absolutely has to, it was at least nice to see that some of us survive and maintain hope. Keep that immune system strong, y’all.
A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion.
Didion’s fiction is, to me, pretty absurd. The characters in this book are so unrealistic it’s almost laughable, the plot slow and cerebral with most things happening inside the heads of aforementioned characters or at a dinner party. Why do so many things happen at dinner parties or airports in these people’s world? That this book was published in the 70’s is obvious throughout. I saw someone somewhere describe this book as containing “microscopic prose” and cannot think of my own original phrase that more aptly sums it up.
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
The Big Plot of these books did not surprise me; basically by the end of the second book, I knew what the big stakes were and how the story would resolve itself. That aside, the world Pullman creates is engaging and fun to live within. The main characters are simple in some ways, but endearing and interesting; the myriad supporting characters – especially, to me, the existence of daemons, if you can even consider them separate from their humans – are what really make this triology readable. I raced through each book because: 1) I love fantasy, I can admit that now; and 2) they’re ultimately quite fun. I definitely recommend them for a young reader with an engaged parent (because there ARE some big themes and scary parts) or an adult who wants something lighter, but still not entirely mindless.
The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls by Julie Schumacher
I read this book because it takes place in a fictional Delaware town based on Wilmington, the town in which I (and the author) grew up and I needed one such book for the reading challenge I am doing this year. A young adult, Summer-of-Big-Changes story, the story is one you probably lived to some extent if you were ever a 15-year old girl. That said, there are some edgy, “real life” touches: a girl/girl kiss, underage drinking (and puking), joy-riding in a borrowed car with an unlicensed driver, and a book club organized by mother’s who met in a yoga class. One of my favorite parts of this book was the books the girls choose to read from their AP reading list – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Anna Perkins;Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin; The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros; and The Awakening by Kate Chopin – and the thoughts the club, both parents and teens, share on these works. Overall, not the best book I’ve ever read, but far from the worst either.
Look at Me by Jennifer Egan
The biggest thing I can say about this book is that I kept the copy so I can read it again at a later time. There is some CRAZY prescience on Egan’s part, when you consider that Look at Me was published in 2001, before September 11th – yes, I am talking a terrorist plot – as well as in terms of how social networks would be a part of our every day lives. There’s also some beautiful writing, some heartbreakingly realistic wrangling with identity. Who we are to others, how we are inside ourselves, and how those two can be very far from one another; a coming of age story, of sorts; and who we are culturally, how we change when we move from place to place. It’s one worth picking up.
Let the Right One In by
I wanted to read this book because I absolutely loved the movie. The book is even more gory and disgusting and gut-wrenchingly bothersome, but the writing is so very compelling. It seems impossible, but while many of the relationships are twisted – they are also sweet. You understand why the two parties have entered into such a relationship because in this book, even the monsters are more than just their monstrosities. Very dark, very disturbing, very scary, all the trigger warnings.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Many people love this book, and it was my first Didion (who I guess everyone loves), but I must admit that I wasn’t blown away. It was heartbreaking and difficult to read, but for whatever reason I felt pretty distant from Didion’s emotions as a reader – perhaps because she herself writes about them somewhat cerebrally. Halfway through another of her books, I realize now that separation and verbosity is just who she is, but it kept me from falling into the depths of mourning with her during Year. At the end, I thought to myself, “Did she ever say that she cried? Am I supposed to assume that she did?” I would never, ever say this book was bad… I just, didn’t feel all the feels that the situation seemed to demand of me.
Best Man In Wyoming by Margot Dalton
I got this book from the free pile in front of the anarchist space near my house. I can sum up the entire story for you: two long-time friends fall in love after a charity bachelor auction, but before they can be together they must deal with the emotional danger of her sexual trauma (which she “gets over” DANG quick, in the end, and the whole thing feels extraneous and opportunistic) and the physical danger of leading a group of boys through a treacherous trip to the mountains. There is some hilariously described sex. There are only attractive men with crooked smiles and beautiful women with beautifully messy hair. It’s a pretty stupid book, but it fulfilled the criteria for “classic romance” in my book challenge.
My co-worker Nat passed away two days ago. We knew that it was coming; we had been told that she wouldn’t be returning to work, and she’d been at Penn Hospital for a few weeks. I dropped off a card there on Saturday — it took forever to find how the hell to get in there, and I wasn’t allowed to visit because she had a “family only” policy. That makes sense considering she would only live for two more days. I am not even sure if she was aware at that point to receive the card. It doesn’t much matter, I guess. The card is irrelevant now; a vibrant, amazing woman has left the earth, card or no. Tony told me that she had passed as I began my shift yesterday. I found it difficult to concentrate; our co-worker, Mia, apparently had a breakdown earlier in the day (I came in early so she could leave); and they were just downright hiding it from Sharon, another old timer, until the end of her shift. Matt, our manager, was dreading the call he’d have to make to Tina. Tina, whose regular of 20 years just passed away a week earlier.
I don’t know how it works that customers and co-workers at a stupid diner become a part of one’s life, but they do. They are. We give you your coffee and English muffins (“not too much butter!”) and we gripe about you behind your back (“I’ll give you too much butter, lady…”) and somehow, somewhere along the way, we are all family. 75% of our clientele are returning customers. I see those faces again and again — sometimes more than once a week. Sometimes once a day.
Who are you that you do not have a family to eat with? What work do you do that you cannot muster the energy to make dinner for yourself and your kids? I’m not judging; I am curious. I would never wish that you found that energy, because I enjoy your company (and your money), and the fact that you do not have family nearby simply gives me entry to become the person you talk to over dinner.
This is just a job. It’s not even remotely the work I wanted to do with my life. It is not how I define myself. But for a year now, it’s been the reality. At times I’ve been ashamed of it. Others, I’ve been oddly proud. But proud or shameful, it is what I do. It is my offering to the world. And Nat, she was a lifer. She worked the first shift, called the cooks to make sure they were awake and headed in at six a.m. Then she left, cared for her invalid brother until he passed away, and once he passed, she took care of her grandchildren until her daughter came home. At night, she baked, made dinner, cleaned house. The next morning, she’d be at Lucky’s at five a.m., often with baked goods or food to share. When K left for her cross-country drive, Nat brought in an enormous bag packed with food, supplies, a bedazzled “driving hat” that reduced us to hysterics. For Christmas, she bought me a pair of earrings that “just shouted Lori.” She was right — I love them. They hang on the “Wear Often” rung of my jewelry frame. Nat was the lady at the diner who wore frosted color eyeshadow, whose voice sounded like she had gravel in her throat. She hated waiting on kids (“spend less, need more — I hate them!”), and she sadly epitomized her generation by using a racial epithet every once in awhile. But flaws or no, Nat was a fantastic lady. Even on her crankiest mornings, she’d crack you up with her commentary on humanity, on our small slice of the world. She left us so fast, it still seems like she never left. But sure enough, it’s Cindy who works the early morning shift now. And I’ll never see Nat again.
I had to leave a voicemail for K, letting her know. I did the same when I found out Nat was sick. We just don’t have the same schedules, K and I. She texted me back quickly last night though, having listened to the message. “I just wish I could have seen her one more time,” she said. But Nat didn’t want anyone to see her, not like that. So I’ll remember her as she was: fashionable, for an older lady. She had this tan leather bag with embroidered flowers that I would have worn happily and always complimented. Her hair all piled back up on top of her head, short and highlighted within an inch of its life. Pastel-colored eye make-up — always done, like she had time to do it at four a.m., just for the fun of it. Her peculiar walk, which, even when we were rushed, was always the same medium speed. Her smile, big and friendly, and kind of rare — at least the genuine ones. I’ll remember her for her generosity, her mothering, her sense of humor. She was just a good lady. Just all around a good lady. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her, and I know she’d tut-tut at that, but deep down, she’d appreciate the sentiment.
Written April 14, 2009. Featured image Sun-Times portrait of Marie Williams by Rich Hein.
The first pair of Doc Martens I ever had were green crushed velvet 9-holes. They were the flashiest pair of shoes I’d ever owned. I don’t remember where we bought them — I wish I did — but I remember begging my mom to buy them. I remember that they were on the expensive side and that my mom insisted I would never wear them. I insisted back that I *would* wear them and they were anything and everything I ever wanted in the world. Of course.
The Docs represented everything effortless and cool about the people I wanted to be like. I don’t remember who I thought that was at the time, but the feeling I recall acutely: I was always on the edge, so close to what I perceived as “it,” coolness, but relegated to the outskirts for some reason I could never discern. Likely, the reason was that I cared so damn much. When I was surrounded by people I didn’t want to impress, I relaxed, had fun, liked people and was liked in return. I should’ve taken that as a cue, but alas, I kept banging my head against that wall of popularity for all too many years. I’d have moments in the golden sun — like when Buzz, a senior, told our group of guy friends that I “looked hot” the night of the spring fling. I was wearing 100% [the same outfit that Jennifer Love Hewitt wears at the end of Can’t Hardly Wait, I stole the t-shirt from Wet Seal (which might have still been called Contempo Casuals) in the mall.
But the Docs pre-dated *Can’t Hardly Wait*.
These shoes represented so much to me, but my mom was right — I never wore them. They were a step I wasn’t ready to take, a person I couldn’t yet be. Plus, I think I had talked my mom into buying whatever was available which was a half-size too small. The coveted boots sat in the corner of my closet for years, gathered dust, and my mom never said a thing (because she’s a saint). I don’t remember when I got rid of them, but I’m sure they’re gone now. I haven’t thought of them in years, but when I bought a pair of black Docs the other day (steel toe, used, vintage, made in England), the memory of those crushed velvet Docs, my first, came rushing back. I’m sorry I didn’t do right by them, and I hope whoever’s wearing them now has loved them thoroughly.
Now that I’ve learned to love myself and my place in the world, I deserve a pair of my own, right? A pair I’ll actually wear? Right. Well, thanks for reading, I’m off to stomp the world with my protected toes. Growing up is weird.
I’ve decided to post some older, personal writings. The reasoning is a little complex, but a lot of this public blog is exorcising the lingering anxieties I still harbor after a traumatic relationship. This was years ago, but my partner at the time discouraged me from sharing my thoughts and feelings (as I had always done), he gaslighted me into keeping secrets that would have upended his manipulations, and made me complicit in hurting myself and others. Was he the worst thing ever? Not even close. But I deserved to share what I wanted to share then, and as penance to my older self, I’m sharing it now.
This was written in 2009.
Five years ago today I received your email, the one where you laid it all out for me — the one in which you called us “the bluish haze before the sunset,” part of one another, the one where you said that loved me and that we should jump, together, into the abyss of forever.
We both know how that ended up. But I think of you sometimes, and I think of that letter. I guess more than the beginning though, I think of the end and how very disastrous it was. I’m safe now, emotionally. No one is ever going to hurt me like that again unless I do something to end what I currently have. I mean, yeah, he could change his mind. But it would never go down like that. It’d be civil and kind and very sad, but it would never be brutal and crushing in the same way. So now I’m safe.
Can you sense the inherent disappointment of that word?
It’s not that this isn’t where I want to be. It’s definitely not that I want to be with you. It’s that I don’t understand where we went, those two people who were so incredibly in love that a distance of 500 miles made us fall more madly. I understand all of the little steps I guess, but I’m still somehow chagrined at how each inch added up to miles and miles and miles between us when we finally lived in the same town. More importantly, I think about how it applies to me now — how I still feel very far away from the person I was two years ago when I met [redacted], and how even though I want to marry him and be with him for the rest of my life, I can’t help but wonder if all of these little steps we are both taking will somehow add up to miles once again. And what if we are taking small steps away from one another, like you and I did, without even realizing?
A couple months ago, I randomly stumbled upon the woman who played informant on that diary site. She hasn’t written in ages and I don’t think we were ever actually “friends.” Maybe she had a different name then, I don’t know. It was such a mindfuck at the time, but now I just looked at her page and thought, “Man, if I had a friend who was in that situation, I would’ve told her too.” How can you hate a woman who is simply attempting to look out for a friend? You put so many people in such shitty situations, all because you took pleasure in being mysterious (which amounted to being unkind). I always thought you were so brave, but I didn’t realize until later how I was the more courageous one in so many ways. Yeah, sure, I didn’t climb trees to unsafe heights, I don’t like car trips without maps, and you were more of an adventurer in general, but I always had the courage to say what I meant and ‘fess up to my mistakes.
Which began early, in our case.
I was so afraid when I got that email. I was thrilled, too, and I still have never felt that kind of rush — it’s incredible to me, but you remain the one person who spoke my dreams aloud. It’s a fucking shame that neither of us could stick to it, but it still brings tears to my eyes to think of you. Of us. And I’m sorry for my part in it, from the very beginning. I am sorry I fell in love with [redacted], too. I’m sorry that I didn’t answer your email with a resounding, “Yes, let’s go, let’s jump and be in love and be the only thing for one another.” In the email, you admitted that my even meeting [redacted] was your fault — and it was, in some ways — but I should have recognized what that email was to you, how vulnerable you were for that briefest of moments. And it never happened again, not even close, but I am sorry I left you vulnerable. I’m sorry that I answered out of fear instead of using my heart and head to realize what it was you were offering me. The Mike of 2006 is so dear to me, the memory of you is still so dear to me. I am sorry to have hurt that person, the glimmer of hope and joy who wrote me that honest, beautiful email.
I don’t think that person exists anymore, at least not for me. But I hope he is out there somewhere, having learned lessons and grown bigger and stronger. Bigger than the parts of you who knowingly deceived weaker, more trusting souls.
It’s like every time I rehash this, I expect different words strung together into different phrases to give me the answers I don’t and will probably never have. (Why, why, why, why?) I wish I could post this somewhere and know you’d read it — the directness of an email, even though I know you wouldn’t purposefully hurt me now, is somehow too much. I don’t want to disturb your day if you’re having a good one. I don’t want to disturb my potential new, good day if you write back. I just want to say it, know that you understand it, inherently understand your response, and move on to the next mindset.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
I have a weakness for books about circus life, so this book, with its carny Binewski family as main characters, was a shoe-in for my particular tastes. It’s terribly hard to stomach some of the things the Binewskis do unblinkingly; their sense of morality does not match most outsiders, but it becomes clear over time that this is a defense mechanism that, at one point, kept them safe. This book is ultimately about the failure of that system, but it’s also about familial love, sacrifice, and growing up. This is a book that will stay with you, or at least it has stayed with me, and I have a feeling it’s one I will read again. It’s an addictive brand of heartbreak delivered here and one the reader feels so acutely precisely because Dunn has written such incredibly nuanced, interesting, complex characters.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
I was assigned this book as part of an online book club and, though it was on my long list of “Read This… Someday,” I was not feeling in a particular hurry. Calling this book “science fiction” is limiting — it’s ultimately about a relationship between two people and happens to have the setting of an alien world. The world itself is integral to the story, but it’s not laser beams and “beam me up” stuff that drives the novel, it’s the people. The beginning is slow; I think it’s intended to be, because by the time you reach the epic journey (you’ll know when you get there), you really appreciate all the background information you received earlier. The androgynous people of Winter and the exploration of gender alone makes this book worth reading once or twice.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
It should be no surprise from the title that this book is all about death, yet another of my favorite subjects! Ms. Doughty is a death worker who shares her early experiences working in the death industry, both from a personal perspective (coming to grips with death in your face all day every day, losing people from your own life, what am I doing with my life, etc.) and in a professional sense (how to handle dead bodies, upset families, and grosser subjects, like rotting bodies). It’s probably not for the faint of heart or terribly afraid of death types (though the latter probably should read this for their own good), but the tone is friendly, funny, and frank. There’s no sugar-coating, but you also don’t get the sense that Doughty is telling you things solely to make her reader squirm — and there’s plenty of history and factual information in there as she explores the “why” of her own industry for academic types. It’s worth mentioning that Doughty is responsible for the “Ask a Mortician” series of Youtube videos, which, if any of this interests you even remotely, I highly recommend.
Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
This is a great book with an engaging narrator. I felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop for a lot of the story because it follows the life of a real person — and real people’s lives are long and winding! At no point was I so enthralled that I couldn’t put it down, but the length is manageable and you can feel the love of the author towards her subject (her grandmother) throughout. Surprisingly, I think I liked this book more before I am interested in my own genealogy; wouldn’t we all like to have this much detail about the lives of people we loved in our own families? Overall enjoyable and something I would recommend to folks who like plain-talking, adventurous women and/or stories set in the American West.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
If you’ve ever wished you could run away and join the circus, you’ll love the setting of this book. The love story is great, though as in lots of books, the two people who fall in love didn’t have any realistic life together during which they might find out if their relationship would actually WORK prior to being forced by circumstances to make a huge, life-or-death decision. But this a book, not real life, and that’s just a pet peeve of mine. What I loved were all the magical details (both visually-described and the magic itself) and the book was rich with well-developed, fascinating supporting characters. I could read an entire book about pretty much every single one of them.