Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Smashed and Loose

So Day 5 of the Book Challenge asks me to share a non-fiction book that I "actually enjoyed." Don't make me laugh, challenge. After graduation, I read almost exclusively memoirs, all but one of which I enjoyed immensely. Most of them were grit, based on things that are not usually nice to talk about. Similar to the reason I love Chuck Palahniuk, things that seem dark, disgusting, or irreputable take on a different sheen and cast when spoken of well. The right words shine light on the bits of motivation and intention on things that seem unimaginable and incomprehensible.

The kick-off to these memoirs for me was one written by a very favorite professor of mine, but he will have his own post and his own day. But after having him as a professor, and then reading his book, I finally understood the notion of the author reading to me- I could hear him telling me his stories. Memoirs took on a new fascination for me when I realized that if I was an attentive enough reader, I could pick out the voices of any author from the pages of what I was reading. I just had to try very hard, or stop trying too hard, and sink into the words.

The memoirs I read right after graduating college negate what I said about happy childhoods. They were mostly about girls who had an addiction or disorder: anorexia; alcoholism; the choices were endless. Some were screwed up by their parents, while others did it all on their own. All of them had one thing in common- they pulled themselves up to overcome, or at least battle what ailed them, and in doing so found strength enough to write about it. I admired these girls, these women. I admired them for being bold enough to write the deepest secrets of their hearts, something I played at in college, but never truly touched.

One such memoir for me was Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. This book is incredible. The voice is compelling. The story is heartbreaking. Is there more that needs to be said?

Another favorite was Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. Are you getting the picture? These books,these stories of girls completely out of control gave me some sort of control over my own life, which felt like it was in turmoil. I wanted to be out of control; I was afraid I was out of control. I discovered that in comparison, of course, I was not. I still don't know if that was a disappointment. I haven't had the heart to do the soul-searching required to discover that.

These stories can be seen as toeing a thin line between exploitation and self-truth. Because, as we know, nothing draws an audience like a trainwreck. These are our tabloids, our 72-hour celebrity marriages and our realistic zombie apocalypse theories.  The rubber-neckers of the literary world are dying to read these stories. But does that give them less merit? We love to watch other people fall apart, because it means we in comparison are living safe, sane lives. We have self-control because we aren't out binge-drinking every night of the week and showing up at work hammered, if we show up at all. We aren't living lives of quiet desperation because we have 401ks or 403bs or IRAs that we put money into so we don't end up homeless living in our cars. We would never do something as stupid and foolish as these girls did, because we aren't anything alike.

But one thing always hits home with me when I read these memoirs. I identify with them. Sometimes almost completely.I understand their vulnerabilities and their fears because I have them, too. One wrote such an amazing description of a panic attack that I almost burst into tears because that's exactly what my senior  year of college felt like. I've felt like them. And therein is the crux. I have been these girls to a lesser extent. I have been almost as out of control, as neurotic, as jealous, as scared, as anxious, as bat-shit crazy. But I haven't run my own life as perilously close to running off the rails. Yet. So is it just a waiting game?

Memoirs have power over me, because if I read patiently and carefully enough, if I wait and let the words all sink into my soul one by one like pasta softening in boiling water, I can immerse myself into the story. And escape. And see the warning signs. And laugh because otherwise I'd cry.

So read a memoir. Learn something new about yourself by looking into that literary funhouse mirror.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Challenge: Day 4

A book that reminds me of home? That is really, really hard. The small town I come from is fairly conservative, and a combination of town kids and wilderness kids. But no one every cared about that. My friends came from all walks of life even then. We'd either set a bunch of wooden pallets on fire (which boys would inevitably try to walk on- oh, high school), or get coffee at the mall, depending on who I chose to spend my weekend with.

BUT. I do remember a book from my childhood (amazon says 1998) about a girl who was so shy that she retreated into the walls of her family home and lived there, reading and sewing, distancing herself from the outside world.

The premise was always VERY appealing to me, and I remember thinking of ways to slip behind the walls of the century home I grew up in as a child, finding a squishy armchair and a lamp to make a little hidey-hole for me to sit and read and write in peace.

Instead I had a little brother and a VERY hands-on mom, so we crafted, and baked things that tasted SO good, and got glitter on everything sometimes if we weren't careful, and climbed trees outside, and built snowmen, and played dress-up, and caught fireflies, and dug holes in the backyard where Dad said we could, and made friends with the neighbors, and forgot to close the gate in the backyard if we were in a hurry, and played the "don't touch the floor because it's lava" game in the living room, and used our imaginations that way. Until bedtime, when I could read some more.

I had a magical childhood.

My first friends were my neighbors. I was incredibly fortunate to grow up sandwiched between two houses who had girls exactly my age, and a boy across the backyard and down the street a ways as well. The two girls who were my "backyard neighbors" were older, but were part of that circle. And the girls and boy my age had siblings, too. Older and younger. So there were boys and girls for me to look up to, built in best friends, and younger children to mentor (torment).

Most magical of all (to tell it now, anyway- then it was second nature and unremarkable), was the tiny creek that ran through my backyard right at the property line. We had a gate that latched, and separated my yard from my backyard neighbors' yard. Jewel weed grew back there, which we would rub on mosquito bites (although the jury is still our if it worked), along with mint leaves (spearmint?) that my mother showed me how to steep to make tea. But instead of crossing the creek, if you turned left after going through the gate, and walked along the bank of the creek for three or four houses, you came to a bridge. 

This is not even Terabithia nonsense (no harm meant, it was a great YA book. Bu this bridge was very real, and existed long before I knew of such places as Terabithia and Narnia). The bridge crossed the creek, and led to a neighbor's house. The boy was my age, with a younger sister and an older brother (who would later become a football star every girl in my grade idolized in high school), and if we weren't playing in my yard on a summer day, we were playing in theirs.

Baseball ("Mom!" my younger brother would announce upon coming home, "They let me be all-time catcher!"), football, all kinds of tag and hide and go seek. The yard was huge, with a red barn-like shed (red with white trim in a small X across the door) to hide behind and long-needled pine trees in the side yard to breathe in deeply when you wanted to think, and chives growing in the garden next to the flowers (once my neighbor's mother showed me you could eat them, my breath was never fresh again). In my own backyard, we'd play tagging bases (which I couldn't explain to you now if you wanted me to), more baseball, simple catch, and versions of Red Light, Green Light (something to do with a Mr. Fox, a game called Easter Eggs which seemed to have no object but to make my brother lose, other number-and-color-based games) in the front yard with the rough stone porch steps as "home base."

Often times, truly great writers have troubled childhoods: broken homes; adversity at school or in the community; illicit love affairs; sexual or emotional abuse as a small child. My childhood was magical, untouched by trouble beyond the fact that one of my neighbor friends wasn't allowed out to play, or the time someone's grandmother made us drink the ENTIRE glasses of chocolate milk that we had mixed ourselves, greedy with the sneaky freedom to use as much Nesquik (or maybe Ovaltine?) as we wished with no parents present (believe me... it was gross. Well beyond the saturation point of extra-chocolately chocolate milk).

My first friends occupy a very treasured and until now, secret, place in my heart. We truly had halcyon days of love and laughter, which I think is so rare, and a kind of magic. We recently had a meet-up to watch one of the older boy's bands perform locally. He is an immensely talented guitar player (which I do not say very often given my college experience), and the band is SO CLOSE to really making it big. It's another reason I have a lot of hometown pride (and boy, do I have a lot of reasons). But one thing I noticed, as we watched him perform, one of my first big brothers, was that we all acted reverently toward one another. It was immensely touching. 

My very first best friend, who grew up next door, whose mother made us matching outfits, who my mother used to babysit, whose brother was killing it onstage with his guitar and his band, moved to New Mexico after college. I hadn't seen her in probably six years. We saw each other across the room. We waved hello. We met halfway and hugged. Then, as I stepped back, I paused, to drink in everything about her physical appearance and spirit. It sounds so silly, but for a prolonged moment, we just stared at each other with silly grins on our faces. She was like my sister from the time we were toddlers, and something from that upbringing keeps the stuff we are made of similar enough that I believe we are always connected. It was much the same with the rest of the "kids from the block." 

I believe writers can come from all backgrounds, and that happy childhoods can make for good stories.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Challenge: Day 3

Day three, you ask? Here's the thing. Day 2 asked about my least favorite book. What's the point of blasting Twilight again and again? And books put breath into me; I dislike having to come up with reasons to dislike and discourage reading. I think there is enough of that. Furthermore, I think the Twilight series was addicting, much as I call it my least favorite. I just found absolutely no literary merit to it. Which is fine for people who want a teen romance. I half-heartedly expected more, and it didn't deliver.

Day Three of the challenge asked about a book that surprised me, good or bad. And here is where I feel I commit a cardinal literary sin. There's also a good chance I'll go to English Library American Literature Writer hell for this. I didn't like Gatsby. Cat's out of the bag.

It simply has never been a book that held such wonder for me as I know it has for many of my contemporaries.

I've never found myself fully engaged with the story for some reason. I revere it as a literary work because I feel it should be respected as a great American classic... but can't give myself any good reasons why it *is* an American classic.

I have a sneaking suspicion that part of this is because I was never required to read this in high school. I had fantastic teachers who made me love a lot of books that I might otherwise have skipped (hello, Lonesome Dove, Les Miserables, Once and Future King), but The Great Gatsby never made the list, so I've never attempted to read it while really looking for literary devices and themes, only for my own enjoyment.

I love the cover art, I love the 8 bit computer game, I love the idea of it, and I love the party scenes. I just could never sink into the story, either bit by bit or headfirst immersion(two main tacks when reading- the author either engrosses you a bit at a time, so you love a character's personality or sensibility, or actions and words, one after another like dominos some portion of the book wins you over until you realize you're thoroughly engrossed and in love; OR from the very first sentence, you are completely ready to buy into whatever the author tells you and absolutely in love and invested in the characters, world, and literary tone you are plunked down into). 

It always felt like a shortcoming, a failure to me as a reader and even as a writer, to admit this(even to myself). I have a very close friend who LOVES Gatsby, and I think a good portion of that is because she teaches it. When she speaks about it, I get insanely jealous. She has a handle on something I can't comprehend. She has a deep, passionate literary love for a book I can't get 50 pages into without losing the thread of the story and feeling lost.

Gatsby is a book where I feel downright DUMB as a reader because I never get the magic out of it that everyone else seems to. Part of me should relish that, challenge it, and overcome it. I've been reading at a college level since middle school. Books have been my life. 

In seventh grade, I would read at the lunch table, and the girls I sat with would pilfer pieces of my lunch from under the book I had my nose in to see if I'd notice. It became a party trick of mine, peripheral vision. I can still see the Ziploc baggie of carrots sliding out of my field of vision as I tried to concentrate on whatever Mary Higgins Clark's protagonist was figuring out in the murder of her husband. I will never forget the last few Chips Ahoy cookies from the package, still on the plastic sleeve of the container, slowly being helped from my brown lunch bag to the other side of the table while I tried to get a grasp on The Color Purple, which my librarian mother had to sign a permission slip to allow me to read. As if anyone could have stopped me.  

So while I have spent plenty of time feeling isolated from my peers socially, I have never felt an outsider in the classroom (unless you count calculus. Ugh). I have never failed to grasp the wonder that was either dangled in front of me or spoon-fed to me as a student or an independent reader. Until Gatsby. Only Gatsby. And I don't have a solution for this one. Unless my favorite high school English teachers who love Fitzgerald and Gatsby's world want to sit me down and spoon-feed me themes and give me homework until it clicks and I understand.

Talk about white whales...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Challenge: Day 1

I neglected blogging. Since SEPTEMBER. I need to remember that I started this to get back into writing and that I owe it to myself. 

I owe at least the act of sitting and writing  and doing nothing else but thinking and calming myself and feeding the writer who wants to evolve, feeding the narrator in my head who is begging to be let out and play. So here's my new plan. 

I unofficially stared posting a book a day on my facebook account, and I figured what better way to produce content for my blog? Ugh, a blogger talking about her blog. BORING. Books, please!

Day 1: Favorite book: This is hard for me. You see, books consume a LARGE portion of who I am. Reading is who I am. It's the one sure-fire proven, tried and true way to calm my jangled nerves and make me focus. I take a lunch break every day at work so I can go for a short walk and sit and read in the sunshine.

If I had to pick a favorite book of the moment (because I maybe read close to a hundred a year- I must start keeping track), it would probably be Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente. 

Here's the thing. Deathless is everything I loved in Candide and The Alchemist, but based on a Russian folktale, where the girls are always named Yelena, Death and Life are always in a war, and a girl named Marya Morevna, who sees men as birds before they change into men, will break tradition, live amongst fantastic creatures, experience love and loss in a changing Russia.

I am not good at summarizing, but reading Deathless- the love story within the complicated sentence structure and beautiful language, with Russian folklore folded in so carefully with a heavy hand- it reminded me of the great love stories of my own life. It awakened my own imagination, and was the most unique book that I read last year. Hands down.

So Deathless is my favorite book of the moment. It has everything I subconsciously look for in a modern classic, with a touch of the magic that my inner child is sure exists.

So a few days behind my Facebook journey, I will start my blog again. Because I am worth it. And I have to make myself believe it before anyone else will.