I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Sixpence House by Paul Collins
A History of God by Karen Armstrong
Conundrum by Jan Morris
The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Caribou Island by David Vann
To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
Here’s a quick look back at a baker’s dozen of 2018 releases that have stood out most for me so far. I’ve linked to books that I’ve already reviewed in full on the blog or elsewhere.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes: A familiar story: a May–December romance fizzles out. A sad story: an idealistic young man who swears he’ll never be old and boring has to face that this romance isn’t all he wanted it to be. A love story nonetheless. Paul met 48-year-old Susan, a married mother of two, at the local tennis club when he was 19. The narrative is partly the older Paul’s way of salvaging what happy memories he can, but also partly an extended self-defense. Barnes takes what could have been a dreary and repetitive story line and makes it an exquisitely plangent progression: first-person into second-person into third-person. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die. In the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype. Imagine the fun Benjamin had researching four distinct worlds: Daniel, a military doctor, examines Iraq War recruits; Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas; Varya researches aging via primate studies; and Simon is a dancer in San Francisco. The settings, time periods, and career paths are so diverse that you get four novels’ worth of interesting background.
Florida by Lauren Groff: Two major, connected threads in this superb story collection are ambivalence about Florida, and ambivalence about motherhood. There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout, with environmental catastrophe an underlying threat. Set-ups vary in scope from almost the whole span of a life to one scene. A dearth of named characters emphasizes just how universal the scenarios and emotions are. Groff’s style is like a cross between Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and her unexpected turns of phrase jump off the page. A favorite was “Above and Below,” in which a woman slips into homelessness. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant. Any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Should one have children? Should I have children? No matter who’s asking the questions or in what context, you’re going to get the whole gamut of replies. Heti’s unnamed heroine consults a fortune teller and psychics, tosses coins and interprets her dreams as The Decision looms. Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. I marked out dozens of quotes that could have been downloaded directly from my head or copied from my e-mails and journal pages. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children. Heti has captured brilliantly what it’s like to be in this situation in this moment in time.
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: The action spans about nine years: a politically turbulent decade that opens with the Iraq War protests and closes with the Occupy movement in New York City. Gael Foess, our lovable antiheroine, is a trickster. She’s learned well her banker father’s lesson that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life, so she’s going to do what she can to ensure that her loved ones succeed. Art, music, religion and health are major interlocking themes. The author is wonderfully adept at voices, and the book’s frenetic pace is well matched by the virtuosic use of language – wordplay, neologisms, and metaphors drawn from the arts and nature. Hughes is an exciting writer who has rightfully attracted a lot of buzz for her debut.
The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is just an Italian teacher, though as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he would follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts. We follow Pinch through the rest of his life, a sad one of estrangement, loss and misunderstandings – but ultimately there’s a sly triumph in store for the boy who was told that he’d never make it as an artist. Rachman jets between lots of different places – Rome, New York City, Toronto, rural France, London – and ropes in quirky characters in the search for an identity and a place to belong. This is a rewarding story about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents, and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent for four years in Arizona and Texas. Impressionistic rather than journalistic, his book is a loosely thematic scrapbook. He inserts snippets of U.S.–Mexico history, including the establishment of the border, and quotes from other primary and secondary texts. He also adds in fragments of his family’s history: His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants. The final third of the book makes things personal when his friend is detained in Mexico. Giving faces to an abstract struggle, this work passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.
The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Some of the best medical writing from a layman’s perspective I’ve ever read. Donlan, a Brighton-area video games journalist, was diagnosed with (relapsing, remitting) multiple sclerosis in 2014. “I think sometimes that early MS is a sort of tasting menu of neurological disease,” Donlan wryly offers. He approaches his disease with good humor and curiosity, using metaphors of maps to depict himself as an explorer into uncharted territory. The accounts of going in for an MRI and a round of chemotherapy are excellent. Short interludes also give snippets from the history of MS and the science of neurology in general. What’s especially nice is how he sets up parallels with his daughter’s early years. My frontrunner for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize so far.
Free Woman by Lara Feigel: Doris Lessing lived by ideals of free love and Communism, but it came at the price of abandoning her children. Lara Feigel could identify with Lessing in some ways, and as she entered a rocky time in her mid-thirties – a miscarriage followed by IVF, which was a strain on her marriage; the death of a close friend; ongoing worry over how motherhood might affect her academic career – she set out to find what Lessing could teach her about how to be free. A familiarity with the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. The Golden Notebook is about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well.
Implosion by Elizabeth W. Garber: The author grew up in a glass house designed by her father, Modernist architect Woodie Garber, outside Cincinnati in the 1960s to 70s. This and Woodie’s other most notable design, Sander Hall, a controversial tower-style dorm at the University of Cincinnati that was later destroyed in a controlled explosion, serve as powerful metaphors for her dysfunctional family life. Woodie is such a fascinating, flawed figure. Garber endured sexual and psychological abuse yet likens him to Odysseus, the tragic hero of his own life. She connected with him over Le Corbusier’s designs, but it was impossible for a man born in the 1910s to understand his daughter’s generation. This definitely is not a boring tome just for architecture buffs. It’s a masterful memoir for everyone.
Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing death with dignity. For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider was her way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky. She discovered a particular love for flying alongside birds: red kites in Wales, and vultures in Nepal. The most remarkable passages of the book are the exhilarating descriptions of being thousands of feet up in the air and the reflections on why humans are drawn to flight and what it does for our bodies and spirits. Loncraine had virtually finished this manuscript when her cancer returned; she underwent another 14 grueling months of treatment before her death in September 2016.
Bookworm by Lucy Mangan: Mangan takes us along on a nostalgic chronological tour through the books she loved most as a child and adolescent. No matter how much or how little of your early reading overlaps with hers, you’ll appreciate her picture of the intensity of children’s relationship with books – they can completely shut out the world and devour their favorite stories over and over, almost living inside them, they love and believe in them so much – and her tongue-in-cheek responses to them upon rereading them decades later. There are so many witty lines that it doesn’t really matter whether you give a fig about the particular titles she discusses or not. A delightful paean to the joys of being a lifelong reader; recommended to bibliophiles and parents trying to make bookworms out of their children.
Educated by Tara Westover: This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read. It tells of a young woman’s off-grid upbringing in Idaho and the hard work that took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. Westover’s is an incredible story about testing the limits of perseverance and sanity. Her father may have been a survivalist, but her psychic survival is the most impressive outcome here. What takes this astonishing life story to the next level, making it a classic to sit alongside memoirs by Alexandra Fuller, Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls, is the writing. Westover writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education.
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2018 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
Theology rarely appears on this blog, though I have a dual degree in English and Religion and read a fair number of books with religious themes. Never fear: it’s not your average pie-in-the-sky Christian talk in Waiting for the Last Bus, Richard Holloway’s brand-new book about old age and death. Holloway was a career priest and has written nearly 30 theological works, but he comes at things from a refreshingly different angle. In Leaving Alexandria (2012), one of my all-time favorite memoirs, he recorded his drift away from orthodoxy – even as he rose through the ranks of the Church of Scotland to become Bishop of Edinburgh. He recognizes morality as provisional (like in another of his books I’ve read, Godless Morality (1999)) – the Church has changed its mind about women and gay people, for instance – and doesn’t waste time pondering the supernatural or the chance of eternal life, but he still thinks religion has lessons to teach us about how we can approach death with dignity.
The thematic scaffolding of this short book, which grew out of a Radio 4 series that aired in 2016, is acceptance versus denial. For Holloway, going prematurely bald was like a preview of ageing, and the futility of the quack hair restoration pills he ordered from a magazine was his first lesson in accepting what you cannot change about yourself. Seeing ourselves as we really are is a lifelong struggle, Holloway acknowledges; some only grasp their identity right at the end, as death approaches. Predestination is a doctrine common to Christianity and Islam, but he is more inclined to mix free will and fate. His recurring metaphor is of a deck of cards: life is a hand that you are dealt, but you get to choose exactly how to play it.
This is a richly allusive book, full of snatches of literature (especially poetry), as well as excerpts from obituaries and from funeral addresses Holloway has given. He also discusses the fear of death, the dystopian possibilities of cryogenic freezing, countering regrets with forgiveness, and how the way we face death could redeem a disappointing life. Holloway’s is a voice of wisdom worth heeding, and he is honest and humble instead of giving pat answers to life’s enormous questions. I would be particularly likely to recommend this to readers of Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of who want a contrasting perspective.
A couple of favorite passages:
“I have ministered [Last Rites] myself and seen the peace they can bring at the end. I have sent good friends into the arms of a merciful God I was no longer sure I believed in. And I was convinced not only of the efficacy but of the honesty of what I was doing. I was not there to ventilate my doubts but to help the dying find the strength to cast off and take the tide that was pulling them out.”
“Religion is at its most compelling when it restrains the urge to explain death away and contents itself with voicing our sorrow and defiance that [death] keeps beating us into the ground. It feels most authentic when it stops preaching and becomes, instead, our song, our protest, the handkerchief waved against the immense tank looming at the corner of the street.”
Waiting for the Last Bus is published in the UK today, March 1st. With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
My classic for September was one of those books that are so ingrained in the canon you most likely know the basic story line even if you’ve never read a word Gustave Flaubert wrote. I’d happened to read a fair bit about Madame Bovary (1857), mostly via Julian Barnes, and had also encountered some modern novels that might be said to be updates (Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum and perhaps even George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl), but never picked up the book itself until earlier this month. While the essential turns of the plot were indeed familiar to me, there was also plenty that surprised me in terms of the details and the mechanics. I’ve set this out in nine points below; if you’re determined to avoid anything that seems like spoilers, I’d suggest skipping over #6–8.
#1. We open with Charles Bovary.
And in the first-person plural: “We were studying when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy”. I suppose I assumed the book would open immediately on Emma Bovary, already married to Charles. Instead, we get a quick tour through Charles’s adolescent schooling and independent medical studies.
#2. There are two “Madame Bovarys” before the one we’re interested in.
The original Madame Bovary, and the only one to survive the book, is Charles’s mother. Charles also has a brief first marriage to Heloise, an older widow. Conveniently, she dies by the end of the second chapter, in which Charles met Emma when he went to set her farmer father’s broken leg.
#3. There’s a lovely Hardyesque flavor to the novel.
Flaubert’s original subtitle was “Provincial Morals,” and the scenes set among country folk – especially Emma and Charles’s wedding procession and reception and the later agricultural fair – reminded me of Far from the Madding Crowd.
#4. Emma has a child.
Despite all I’d absorbed about the book, I never knew Emma had a baby girl, Berthe. They lodge the infant with a wet nurse and servants do most of the hard work of raising her, so Berthe has only a tiny role. The scene in which Emma violently pushes the little girl away from her is meant, I think, to reflect her fundamental unfitness for motherhood.
#5. In the world of the novel, literature is a danger and religion is no balm.
On the advice of Charles’s mother, he cancels Emma’s lending library subscription lest novels exacerbate her discontent. Manual labor is what Emma needs, Old Madame Bovary proclaims. When Emma goes to the parish priest for advice about her angst, he tells her she must be ill if she benefits from all the physical comforts she could need yet cannot be happy. (An excellent and wrenching scene.)
#6. There’s a strong medical theme.
Charles is a doctor, of course, but I didn’t know his profession would enter into the plot. There’s a crucial sequence in which he performs a groundbreaking operation on a stable boy with a clubfoot, but gangrene sets in and the leg has to be amputated. (Emma guiltily buys the boy a false leg.) Emma’s somewhat prolonged death by poisoning, and the appearance of her corpse, are also described in recognizable medical detail.
#7. Emma’s death isn’t the end.
There’s still two more chapters to go, and things only get worse. It’s as if Emma is still a negative influence after her death: pushing Charles on to extravagances he can’t afford, and sending him deeper into despair when he finds undeniable evidence of her two affairs.
#8. Homais, the arrogant pharmacist, is triumphant.
Monsieur Homais is one of the key secondary characters in Yonville, this small town near Rouen. He’s a middling community member who’s gotten above himself, yet he succeeds whereas Emma is crushed. The very last line of the novel goes to him: “He has just received the Legion of Honor.” In the introduction to my Signet Classic edition, Mary McCarthy suggests that Homais is “not just Emma’s foil; he is her alter ego.”
#9. Madame Bovary went on trial.
Appended to my copy is a 78-page transcript of the novel’s trial. As I skimmed it, I was reminded of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity case, which took place just over 100 years later (1959–60). Flaubert and his publisher were accused of “offenses against public morality and religion,” specifically of portraying Emma as lascivious and making adultery appealing compared to the banality of marriage. The defense countered that Charles receives all the reader’s sympathy and Emma all the reader’s revulsion. Flaubert was acquitted (as was Lady Chatterley), but the judge’s ruling was essentially “Naughty boy, don’t you know literature has a mission to exalt the spirit, not to hold up vice as an object of horror?”
Now for what doesn’t surprise me about Madame Bovary: the beautiful writing and the enduring power of what is ultimately a rather commonplace story line. The percentage of novels with an adultery subplot must be very high nowadays, but Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina were two of the first to consider the female experience.
Flaubert famously declared “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”), and I think every reader must see something of him-/herself in this character: the lure of a romantic and luxurious life, the boredom of the day to day, the longing to make something more out of existence, and an increasing desperation to cover up one’s mistakes. A book that has had meaning for generations, Madame Bovary is a true classic.
Some favorite lines:
“But her life was as cold as an attic with northern exposure, and boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in all the dark corners of her heart.”
“Mealtime was the worst of all in that tiny room on the ground floor, with the smoking oven, the creaking door, the damp walls, and the moist flagstones; all the bitterness of her existence seemed to be served up to her on her plate, and the steam from the boiled beef brought up waves of nausea from the depths of her soul.”
“No one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, or conceptions, or sorrows. The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars.”
(Isn’t that last sentence incredible?!)
I read a Signet Classic edition of Mildred Marmur’s 1964 translation.
See also Susan’s review of Sophie Divry’s recent update, Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, at A life in books.
We’re off to continental Europe again on Monday. This isn’t a major trip like last summer’s; it’s just a one-week break to take advantage of my husband presenting a paper at a landscape ecology conference in Ghent, Belgium. Though we’ve been to Ghent before, it’s a lovely town, so in between keeping up with a normal editing workload I’ll enjoy being a flâneuse on the streets and seeing the few sights we missed last time. Afterwards we head to Amsterdam for several days; it’ll be my first time there and I’m excited to take it all in.
Coincidentally, I recently read Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break for a BookBrowse review. It’s about a retired couple, Stella and Gerry, facing up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. They visit a number of the city’s most famous tourist destinations: from the art treasures of the Rijksmuseum to a drink taken in the dubious red light district. It was fun to take a virtual tour with them. We’ll see how much of our itinerary overlaps with theirs – the Anne Frank House, certainly; maybe I should also stop by the Begijnhof since it means so much to Stella.
When possible I like to do some geographically appropriate reading, so I’ve saved up a couple of Dutch-themed novels to take along on the trip:
The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker [published as Ten White Geese in the USA]: By a Dutch novelist, with a plot split between Amsterdam and rural Wales.
Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach: Set in 17th-century Amsterdam and with an art theme (there are some full-color plates of works by Dutch masters); this was recommended by Annie Spence.
I’m mostly focusing on short fiction in September – short stories, novellas, and novels that are perhaps too long to technically be called novellas but still significantly under 200 pages – so may also pack the following:
Before She Met Me by Julian Barnes: I don’t know much about it (adultery + film?) but it’s one of just a few of his books I haven’t read yet.
Dangling Man by Saul Bellow: I recently read The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas, about becoming a biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow. It’s stellar, quite possibly my book of the year, and whetted my appetite to try some Bellow. I imagine The Adventures of Augie March would be the better place to start, but I picked this up in Oxfam Books the other day.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita is the only Nabokov I’ve read thus far; I liked the sound of this comic novel set on a college campus.
I also have to decide whether to take any of the books I currently have on the go, including my Classic (Madame Bovary) and Doorstopper (The Nix) for the month. Luckily we’re going by train, so space and weight limitations aren’t really an issue, though it would probably be prudent not to pack too many print books. I’ll probably at least take the Etgar Keret short stories: they’re flash fictions perfect for reading two or three at a time in a short sitting.
At any rate, I’ll be continuing my two e-books in progress: Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, about the crazy world of wine obsessives and would-be top sommeliers; and Honeydew, short stories by Edith Pearlman. If I get bored, my Kindle has another 330 titles to choose from. (Isn’t it amazing? – a nearly weightless library!)
We’re back late on the 18th; I’ll be scheduling a couple of posts for while we’re away.
I keep a long list of books that I’d love to read but know are only currently available in the USA. Occasionally I manage to chip away at it through my public library borrowing during trips back to visit my family, but I’m adding more titles all the time. I was pleased, then, to learn that The Folded Clock, a book I’ve wanted to get hold of ever since it was first released in the States in 2015, was recently published in the UK.
Heidi Julavits is a founding editor of The Believer magazine as well as a novelist and an associate professor of writing at Columbia University. She lives in New York City during the academic year and spends the rest of the time in Maine, where she was born and raised. The Folded Clock is a diary of two fairly average years in her life, but its dated entries (month and day only) are not in order; they’ve been rearranged into what at times feels like an arbitrary sequence. Yet this is in keeping with the overall theme of time’s fluidity.
The title comes from her daughter’s mishearing of “folded cloth” but is apt in that it suggests time stretching and collapsing back on itself. Indeed, one reason for starting the journal was that Julavits felt time had started to pass differently from how it did in her childhood. Whereas she once thought in terms of days, she realized in her forties that she now worked in weeks and months. She was also inspired by digging out her adolescent diary – though it was not nearly as profound or revelatory about her future writing career as she might have hoped.
Every single entry begins with “Today,” reflecting a determination to live in the present. But of course, that format still offers a broad scope for memory, with certain activities and objects provoking flashbacks. For instance, she finds her ten-year-old marriage vows in the pocket of an old coat, and rereads a biography of Edie Sedgwick (from Andy Warhol’s circle, she died of a drug overdose at 28), as she periodically does to gauge how her response changes as she ages.
Julavits also situates her writing in the context of other famous diarists, such as the Goncourt brothers and Henry David Thoreau. As the latter did in Walden, she’s seeking to live deliberately, though within her regular life and without venturing into nature all that much; “I am an outdoorsman of the indoors,” she quips.
There’s a huge variety of topics here. She writes about being afraid of sharks, stealing names to use for characters in her novels, entering her small Maine town’s Fourth of July parade float competition, visiting E.B. White’s grave, mourning a tree half-lost to a hurricane, her insistence on dwelling in west-facing rooms, and regretting never telling her doctor how much she appreciated him before he died in a cycling accident. Travel features heavily, too, what with accompanying her husband to a fellowship in Germany and spending time at an art colony in Italy. Often it’s the tiny encounters and incidents that remain in her mind, though, like accidentally buying bitter apricot kernels instead of almonds at a German market and worrying that her husband might have given himself cyanide poisoning by eating 14 at once.
Some of these pieces would function well as stand-alone essays, like the one about her obsession with The Bachelor, an American reality television franchise, which leads into her belief that crushes are fostered by small spaces – she fell for her second husband (author Ben Marcus) at an arts colony even though they were both attached to other people at the time.
I was delighted to see Julavits quote the Julian Barnes passage on episodicism versus narrativism that inspired my post on that topic back in January. Unsurprisingly, Julavits sees herself as a narrativist, drawing connections between different points in her life. She’s always pondering what small incidents reveal about her character. We learn that she’s so averse to inconveniencing others that she continued a phone call while nursing a wasp sting and once planned to pee in an airsickness bag rather than wake the two sleepers between her and the aisle on a flight. She avoids yard sales because she’s so cutthroat, and she’s been known to romanticize her daily life when e-mailing a friend in London: “I probably didn’t tell the truthiest truths. I never made stuff up. But I did strive to be entertaining. Such embellishments do not constitute lies. They constitute your personality.”
In one of the pieces that stood out most for me, Julavits feels typecast as a woman of a certain age when she attends a Virginia Woolf reading. “I am of that age now where I am looking for the next age I will be. How will I dress? How will I act?” It’s a good example of how she uses these mini-essays to negotiate the stages of life and contemplate her changing roles. Elsewhere she sums up her composite identity and what she seeks from her writing:
I am a jack-of-all-trades. I edit and teach and at times desire to be a clothing designer or an artist … and I write everything but poetry and I am a mother and a social maniac and a misanthrope and a burgeoning self-help guru and a girl who wants to look pretty and a girl who wants to look sexy and a girl who wants to look girly and a woman in her middle forties who wishes not to look like anything at all, who wishes sometimes to vanish.
I sometimes think this is why I became a writer. Here was a way to regularly exercise my desire. I could desire to do this thing that no one does perfectly, and by doing it and doing it I could learn how to desire more, and better. Here was an activity that would always leave me wanting … not youth exactly, but the opposite of death. That to me is a way to always feel like I am nowhere near the end.
Inevitably, some entries are more interesting than others, and Julavits’ neuroticism may grate for some readers, but I found this book to be chock-full of quotable lines and insights into what it means to be a time-bound human being. Like one of May Sarton’s journals, I read it slowly, just a few pieces at a time over the course of weeks, and I’ll be keeping it on the shelf to flick through if I ever need an example of how to write a piercing, bite-sized fragment of autobiography. I highly recommend it.
I discovered two opposing approaches to life and the self in a chapter on Lucian Freud in Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art by Julian Barnes. (For increased readability I’ve divided the following passage into short paragraphs and added my own emphasis.)
In one version of the philosophy of the self, we all operate at some point on a line between the twin poles of episodicism and narrativism. The distinction is existential, not moral.
Episodicists feel and see little connection between the different, unfolding parts of their life, have a more fragmentary sense of self, and tend not to believe in the concept of free will.
Narrativists feel and see constant connectivity, an enduring self, and acknowledge free will as the instrument that forges their self and their connectedness.
Narrativists feel responsibility for their actions and guilt over their failures; episodicists think that one thing happens and then another thing happens.
Freud is Barnes’s example of a typical episodicist: someone who sees life as a series of random events. I’ve always been the opposite. Maybe it’s because I read so many novels, memoirs and biographies, but I like to think of life as having a shape and a meaning, of one thing leading to another or prefiguring something else and so on.
However, when I look back, so many aspects of my recent life – a Master’s degree that never led to related work, six years of working at entry level in libraries without being able to advance, and living in 10 different places over the past 10 years – seem meaningless. I didn’t become an academic or a librarian, and my husband’s and my (usually) enforced nomadism was at odds with my desire to feel I was settled somewhere and truly belonged. It all looks like false starts, missteps and failures.
I encountered a Cormac McCarthy quote some years back (but now can’t find it again for the life of me), something to the effect of: we tell ourselves that life is a coherent story so as to trick ourselves into believing it means something. That’s overly depressing and nihilistic, I think (well, it is McCarthy!), as the urge to make a meaningful story out of life is surely a fundamentally human one. But would I be better off thinking of life as random?
Another quote that really challenges me is this one from Eckhart Tolle: “When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” Uncertainty feels threatening to me. I like to know where things are going and why. Yet if I could just turn my thinking around and welcome all that randomness could offer, would life feel more open-ended and exciting?