Growing up, I learned to play the piano from a hunchbacked nun at a local, catholic university. After my lesson was over, after she scowled at my clumsy fingers and scrawled the word “practice” over and over again in the margins of my music, I would wait for my mom to pick me up. As the oldest of four kids (all of us busy with multiple activities), I was usually sitting on the steps of the grim, gothic building a long while.
The hours spent waiting were the most coveted of my childhood. Sitting there alone with no one but stone gargoyles, I would read the books I’d smuggled from my parents’ vast bookshelves: The White Hotel, a mash-up of Freud’s erotic fantasies and the horrors of the holocaust; or one of Updike’s novels of tortured, suburban men; or Sophie’s Choice, which made me wonder whether my mom would choose me over one of my siblings.
That’s how I found windows to worlds far beyond my small Midwestern town. That’s how I answered the questions I was too afraid to ask. That’s how I made sense of everything. That’s how I still make sense of everything. Through books.
When Zoë asked me if I’d like to write a column on books for The Rumpus, I was nervous. I don’t have an MFA. I detest book clubs. I don’t write reviews of what I read on Goodreads. I thought, Who cares what a white-girl-from-the-Midwest-who-is-now-a-single-mother-of-two-teenage-girls-living-in-Los-Angeles has to say about books?
Yet here we are.
Because I want to introduce you to a book that will keep you up reading all night, a book that will compel you to abandon Twitter for a while, or a book that you’ll read out loud just to feel the words on your tongue.
I’ve decided I won’t share my opinions about books; there are enough reviews, likes, thumbs, and stars out there already. And quite frankly, I’m only an authority on myself (although there’s a therapist out there who might call me out on that). And I want to use this column as an opportunity to explore books that aren’t on anyone’s long or short lists, that aren’t adorned with a prize medallion on their cover. Or as Stephen Elliott wrote in a Daily Rumpus, the books where writers “didn’t win or weren’t nominated.”
Speaking of Stephen, I’m obsessed with Adam Phillips, a British psychotherapist and essayist. His book Monogamy is a series of short meditations on the very issue Stephen captured so brilliantly in a recent Daily Rumpus. Stephen wrote about a marital situation and stated, “Even when the marital apocalypse finally presents itself and she says she’s been cheating and you say it’s OK, but that only makes it worse. It turns out she wanted you to be jealous…she wanted to feel loved.” Phillips writes, “We are not, of course, naturally monogamous. We are the animals for whom something is too much.” And Phillips’ novel Missing Out, In Praise of the Unlived Life will turn your brain in on itself. He asks, why are we so convinced that the life we aren’t living, the life we could have lived, is so much better than the one we’re living now?
I love to read short story collections. A few that have recently graced my nightstand are: Bobcat and Other Stories, I Want To Show You More, Byzantium and You Only Get Letters From Jail. I also picked up the 2013 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories that includes some of the best short stories published in an American or Canadian periodical. So far my favorite story from the collection is “They Find the Drowned” originally published in Hobart: another literary journal.
I took a poetry class this summer, so I have stacks of poetry books all over my house. Some of my favorites of late: Holding Company, Slow Lightning, The Ground, Our Andromeda, Space, In Chains and two books that made me weep: Bough Down written by Karen Green, David Foster Wallace’s widow and Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced written by Catherine Barnett as a response to the death of her two young nieces in a horrific plane crash over the Atlantic ocean. On the poetry craft side, The Triggering Town and Madness, Rack, and Honey are fantastic.
As we have a history of mental illness in our family, I’m always searching for books that help my daughters understand it better. I think I hit the nail on the head with Sure Signs of Crazy. We’re also big fans of graphic novels and we’ve recently enjoyed Primates and Boxers & Saints.
On the to-read pile I have The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film as I’m about to take a screenwriting class, Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine as I’m fascinated by the world of literary magazines, Men We Reaped and The Daylight Gate (who knew Jeanette Winterson had written a scary book about witch trials in seventeenth century England?).
As I wrote this, I realized that even though I craved those hours alone on the steps as a kid, I was lonely then. And I was probably afraid and a little hurt. I had to sit there, alone for a very long time.
Like I said, I thought I might not do this column because you would think, Here is this LA-based mom from the Midwest writing about books and who cares? Which is just another way of saying that I was afraid.
Saying no to writing this column was just another way to feel lonely and a little hurt. So I said yes.