I haven’t been to this space in a while because for the past year or so I’ve lived much of my private life offline. There’s something strange that happens when people read your words for years and feel like they know you (in an edited way because they come to know you by what you share) but they don’t. Not really. They know a version of you. I struggled with that tension quite a bit. Combined with trying to sustain a consistent stream of work (freelancing is hard and I’m drowning in graduate loan debt), and thinking about my second book while I completed my third–I noticed that coming here I had little to offer. Simply put, I didn’t have it in me.
Today I woke early and decided what I did want to share–what I’ve been reading! Reading has been a tremendous stress reliever and I’ve been reading one, sometimes two, books a week. And no, they’re not the same ten books you see on every spring reading list because I often discover authors or books far past their launch buzz. I’m also frustrated that the same ten books give massive hype while the rest fall to the wayside. Perhaps I’m…biased. I’ll leave it at that.
On to the books!
Dear Friend, from My Life I write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: Someone recently asked me to describe Yiyun Li’s work and I said, she’s the Chinese Jhumpa Lahiri. I realize saying that is reductive and gives off the wrong impression, so I immediately explained that like Lahiri, Li feels caught between two languages and cultures. Lahiri spent years learning Italian, a language that liberated her or at least shifted her away from the Bengali/English tension. Yiyun Li made a conscious decision to abandon Chinese and not have her books translated into Chinese, but the pull of homeland is a constant and is at the core of her essay collection.
It’s strange to call this book a memoir because while the events are true (Li battled suicide depression and was hospitalized twice), there exists a semi-permeable wall between reader and author because Li doesn’t seek catharsis in the usual tell-all style, rather, she tries to make sense of it rationally and intellectually through conversations with dead authors who’ve shared her illness. This is the story of her literary life and how she uses it to cope with the constant pull to darkness. Is writing not my way of rehearsing death? Li writes. There are so many reasons I loved this book, mainly because it was a realistic portrayal of someone suffering from depression every day. The neat 3-arc narrative that presents a life where the illness or pain or grief is finite is so antithetical for how people with mental illness survive their day. For Li, it’s a continuum, an ongoing understanding, and conversation.
If you suffer from depression or just love literature, you will LOVE this book.
An Arrangement of Skin by Anna Journey: What starts as a recollection of a near suicide attempt to navigating the world of art, love, infidelity, and the many skins (or masks) we wear, An Arrangement of Skin deconstructs those masks in an effort to get puncture through oneself. From her mother’s macabre bedtime stories and a friendship with a tattoo artist who believes what you write on the body is an expression of that self to her fascination with taxidermy, Journey manages to usurp traditional images centering on dismemberment and metamorphosis. She makes the grotesque beautiful, and I’ve really encountered an essay collection that felt…new. This was a swift read and well worth your time. I’m baffled that it hasn’t been covered widely.
Outline by Rachel Cusk: To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Rachel Cusk until I read this recent profile. I’m drawn to complex women who may not necessarily be sympathetic or, more importantly, don’t want your sympathy. (Brief parenthetical: This Jill Abramson interview is spot-on and reinforces that women leaders are often judged by how “nice” they are.) Apparently, you either really love Cusk auto-fiction style or you think she’s the most selfish person on earth. I’m in the former camp and I purchased all of her books. Outline is a life told through conversation. We follow a novelist (and I dare say cipher), Faye, who’s teaching a creative class one summer in an oppressively hot Athens. The ten conversations she has with people she meets along the way (her seatmate on her flight to Athens–a man who’s lived much of his life in regret, a one-hit wonder novelist, an insecure nuevo-famous author who uses her celebrity as a means to mask her emptiness). Through each of these stories and the novelist’s interpretation and retelling of them, we know more a woman trying to find her identity through the filling out of an outline. The conversations she has gives her shape and depth.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez: Sure, this was published ages ago, but it’s new to me and damn near broke my heart. Reading this book now felt fortuitous as it invites you to be empathetic to the immigrant experience. I’m not going to start with all the fear and hate-mongering after Agent Orange was elected, but we are ALL immigrants–unless we’re Native American. But I digress. Henriquez’s remarkable debut, told from varying points of view, outlines the immigrant perspective in a small Delaware town. From cultural adjustment to learning English idioms and feeling homesick for the familiar, you have a sense of what people give up to come to the United States. What spins the plot into motion is a well-off Mexican family that moves to the states after their daughter, Maribel, sustained brain injury as a result of a slip and fall accident. Soon after they move, Maribel (who’s an outsider) connects with a local boy, Toro, who sees in her a kindred spirit. Their Romeo/Juliet-type love unravels all of the characters to devastating effect. I loved this book so much, not only because of the exceptional writing but because you see how “Americans” treat people of color who were born here and people who come from abroad. If you pick up any of the books from my list, I suggest you start with this one.
Liar by Rob Roberge: Okay, I promise this will be the last book about mental illness, but this is a GOOD ONE. After a lifetime of heavy drug abuse/alcohol abuse and frequent concussions, Roberge learns that he’s developed a progressive memory-eroding disease. The notion that he’ll one day start to lose memories, stories–the core of who he is–devastates him, and he makes a point of using writing as a means of documentation of a life but also a catharsis for the inevitable end. Selfishly, I also love books that are not told in a linear fashion (so you have to work harder and be committed to the narrative–must everything be handed to you? I often think), and I think the structure evokes the feeling of disassociation, abject terror, and the need to commit everything to paper. I read this after Cat Marnell’s addiction memoir and it was refreshing to read a book about an addict told from the vantage point of perspective and age.
Compartment 6 by Rosa Liksom: It’s possible that a book can be relentlessly dark and laugh-out-loud funny. An unnamed Finnish woman leaves Moscow for Mongolia by train after having suffered heartbreak. However, there exists little time for grief when Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov is your compartment mate. A former soldier, Vadim is rude, vulgar, violent (he attempts to force himself on the woman several times and only stops when she beats him with her boot), drunk, and the woman’s unlikely companion. There is no startling plot revelation, but the journey, what’s revealed about the Soviet Union in a specific point of time, and how one copes with loss, is the real draw.
Also recommended: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees–I’m half-way through the collection and it is stellar.