13 Oct 2018

what I’ve been reading lately

Disaster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky: I just finished this wry, sharp, and smart memoir and YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. Whether you’re a kid of the 70s/80s aching for a deluge of cultural nostalgia or you want to feel connected to someone else who navigates the world without a first aid kit, you will find a story in Havrilesky’s book that will shift the ground beneath your feet. If you thought we were living in end times now (I certainly do), you will remember a time of alien invasions, plummeting airplanes, shuttle disasters, satanic cult rituals, and earthquakes that threatened to swallow us whole. Many of us Gen-Xers were reared in the wake of Boomer anxieties and paranoia and Havrilesky was no exception. What started as a childhood plan–her siblings decided to create their own elaborate escape and survival plans–grew into the blueprint for how they navigated the real earthquakes of their lives: parental discord and divorce, death, sadistic schoolteachers, men frightened of commitment, mothering a screaming two-year-old, and cheerleaders.

Havrilesky’s observations about life are acerbic and funny and always honest. She lays herself out to bear and I cleave to memoirs where the narrators aren’t afraid to parade out their imperfections. I found myself at turns laughing out loud and connecting to the minor and major hurts that shaped her life.

Transit by Rachel Cusk: It’s hard to describe Rachel Cusk’s marriage/divorce trilogy because on paper they’re about one thing (in this second installment, Faye’s unmoored feelings about her divorce as she relocates her two sons to a ramshackle home in London to start over), but then they’re about many other things–gentrification, rejection, acute loneliness, change, abandonment–all told through the lens of Faye’s interactions with other characters in the book. Akin to Outline, we’re eavesdropping on the interactions Cusk deliberately chooses to share and Faye serves as a conduit to understanding all the things going on in her life that she perhaps can’t explain. Or doesn’t know.

For me, the second part of her trilogy was about the importance and impermanence of connection. Relationships–familial, friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers and lovers–are core to the story and central to Faye and how she navigates her life post-divorce.

You could say that this is a story about a woman rebuilding her life.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: I purchased this book a couple years ago and it sat on my bookshelf, half-read, ignored. However, over the past few months, I’ve been vigilant about keeping only what is useful, beloved, and functional in my home. So, I pulled out all the unread books and went to work. And I’m glad I did. Jansson’s tender novel, composed of 22 elegant vignettes, tells the story of a grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophie spending a summer on a small island off the Gulf of Finland, complete with ravaging storms, foreign interlopers, feral cats, and local bugs. The story takes place in the early 1970s after the granddaughter’s mother dies, leaving the remaining women of the house to meditate on love, death, God, and all of nature’s magic in between. The grandmother is acerbic and complacent. Sophie is curious, volatile, and passionate. They spar, squabble, and embark on adventures (from breaking into the house of a wealthy foreigner who has built what they consider a home that’s an obscene spectacle of wealth to weathering one of the island’s most ferocious storms). Their affection for one another is whole and complete, and while there isn’t a grand plot at play, you will come away with feeling that perhaps there’s still some magic left in the world–even if we’re forced to see it through the lens of a child.

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran: This book couldn’t be more relevant to the nightmare that is our socio-political climate. In this devastating story, you’ll see the lengths that two women will go to in pursuit of the love and mothering of a small boy. Soli is a nineteen-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant who leaves her small village on the outskirts of Oaxaca for the promise of the California landscape. After a harrowing journey across the border, she takes refuge with her cousin in Berkeley where she spends her days cleaning the homes of the monied and privileged. When she learns she’s pregnant, she keeps the child–much to the chagrin of her cousin–and you see Soli’s unwavering and intense devotion to her son. Soli’s story is juxtaposed with Kavya, an upper-middle-class Indian woman who is distraught over her inability to bear a child. Her desire is a constant, compounded by tradition, a demanding mother, and a frenemy best friend who seems to have it all. The two worlds converge when Soli is placed in immigrant detention, on the verge of deportation and her son, an American citizen, is handed over to foster care. Kavya has the son she’s always wanted and Soli aches his return and will stop at nothing to reunite with her son.

I’m not a mother and I’ve no intentions to have a child. I say this because I was surprised how parts of the novel made me feel…uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because the concept of unconditional love and fierce familial attachment are foreign to me. Obviously, I could empathize with both women but sometimes they bordered on the verge of …annoying. I had to take a step back and realize that Soli is barely an adult and her ambition to make a new life for herself clashes with the reality of the perception of Mexicans, which is pronounced by how she’s treated by the wealthy Berkeley moms and most profoundly by law enforcement. Stereotypes abound. I also had to take a step back and understand that when someone is blocked from their one true want, their decisions and behavior isn’t always rational.

I say all of this because fiction should challenge you. It should wrench you out of your comfort zone. The best books are transformative, and while I sometimes wanted to punch both of the women, I had to ask myself WHY I was feeling this discomfort. And I felt better for having questioned my norms and values after having read this astonishing book.

 

Full Disclosure: I have included Amazon affiliate links, which means I make like $1/month when you buy one of these books. 

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  • When I was in Cape Town, I was supposed to have been making headway with my new book—the first story since I started my last novel in 2013 that’s excited me. All my books have been about familial, specifically maternal, discord. A mother and daughter never made whole. And this is the first story where parents don’t play a role. At the heart of the story is the friendship between two broken, flawed, and funny women who lean on one another to crawl out of darkness. It’s hard for me to write about love, but this, I think, is the closest I’ve come to it.
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I like these characters. I like imbuing my dark sense of humor into my work. I like leaning away from. The weight of language and literary fiction to tell a story as simply as possible. And believe me when I say that simplicity is fucking hard. Writing lean, impactful sentences are hard. Conveying so much in a small space feels, in a way, like poetry.
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I WAS supposed to have made headway, but that didn’t pan out and it’s okay because I was more focused in relaxing. I was more in awe of the landscape and people than I’d anticipated so all I wanted to do was be outside. Funny for someone who holes up in her Los Angeles apartment, but I digress.
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I’m back and the story is coming, albeit slowly, but it’s coming. There is a plot only I don’t know it completely yet. I know the ending—I can see it clearly—it’s just the path there is a little foggy.
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And this is the first book I’ve written that is more linear than anything I’ve written.
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I’m proud of this.
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And I’m trying not to think of the business of books. The chore of searching for a new agent after I fired my one of 20 years. The chore of overcoming my last book’s Bookscan numbers, the pitching and the selling. The fucking preening. I want none of it.
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So, for now, I just think about the work.
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  • So...apparently I’m writing a new book. It’s interesting (or odd, depending on your view) that new work comes in my darker moments. I started my last book after I had a breakdown from a job (and sociopathic boss) that was killing me. I was in Biarritz when I started what would become my second book, which is darker than my first book.
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This time, I’m toying with what happens when you climb out of the dark (my first two never got to that place). The book is titled The Only Possible and it centers on the close friendship between two broken women who are climbing out of their familial and person wreckage. This might be the first long work that ends with hope. I have this marker for myself, which is totally arbitrary. If I get to 50 good pages, the book is real.
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I’m at 52, so I suppose this thing is real. Light in the dark and like that.
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A brief thank you to the people who’ve been there for me these past few weeks. The ones who haven’t ignored or muted my posts—you are true friends and allies. Thank you for your friendship and kindness. I don’t give my heart and trust to many people for these obvious reasons, but I’m grateful to those that have it.
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I think it’s important to learn from the experiences we’re desperate to forget. Some of my greatest teachings come from working with terrible clients and sociopathic bosses. I wrote about this on medium (@felsull) and I’d love for to check it out, clap, and share.
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But remember this. Don’t let anyone define your worth. Only you have the right to that math. No one deserves to be yelled at. No one deserves verbal abuse. No one deserves to hear that they’re worthless, stupid, or an idiot. You are the guardian of your worth.
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Constructive feedback is a valuable tool, but it doesn’t define you as a person. We will fail. We’ll botch a job or make mistakes. Value comes from learning from the missteps, in creating systems and processes for yourself that reduces the likeliness of that mistake from happening again. Your worth is not the measure of your failures, but how you’ve rebounded from them. How you’ve grown professionally AND personally. It’s about you standing up in the wreckage and saying, okay, let’s keep going.
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Your worth is not bound to your work product — it’s defined by all the things that make you, you.
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  • This morning, I finished all my deliverables for two of my biggest projects this year. I can’t believe I got it all done!!! Save for two client calls today, I plan to spend the day supine and watching horror movies. #yassssss #brandstrategist #marketingstrategy
  • I used to be this intense person and I assure you this is not a compliment. I went at everything so hard. I worked through pain and exhaustion. I cleaved to velocity — a body in motion stays in motion and like that. Force = mass x acceleration and like that. I placed more value on outcomes than inputs. I cared about what people thought of me and wanted to please everyone at the expense of my well-being. I placed an unhealthy level of emphasis on amassing a large collection of people in my life more than cultivating richer relationships with a handful. I pursued things at the expense of the quiet nobility of living an honest, full life.
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My wake-up call was a phonebook packed with numbers but no one to call when I was breaking. What changed during that dark time was this: I began to live small and this is, I assure you, is a good thing.
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Small isn’t a pejorative. It’s about getting surgical about the people and things that inhabit your life. Cut the barnacles. Eliminate that which is extraneous and unnecessary. Don’t settle for common or this is how it’s always been done. Small is about the amount of noise you allow in. It’s about making the choices that won’t please the majority of people, but you end up pleasing yourself. It’s the difference between living in a mansion and creating a house that is a home. Fewer, better are words whose meaning has shifted for you. They are words of wealth. And more suddenly feels like a burden.
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For those who suffer from depression, meds and therapy simply level the playing field. They elevate you from negative integers to zero. It’s easier to build from zero than from mounting losses. Meds and therapy don’t create shiny, happy people. There are days that are dark and tough and what’s allowed me to function during that time is the concept of living simply and small.
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