In general, I do not like lists. Not of favorite things. Or most meaningful things. Or most awful things. Most lists lack the context that is far more interesting than an item’s location on that list. They attempt to apply a purportedly objective framework to their structure, which is bound not to be objective and whose missing context is generally the cause. Far more interesting to me than a list of books you love or hate is why you love or hate them.
I haven’t used Facebook in years, but at least when it began — when it was still The Facebook — this tendency to try and sum yourself up in lists drove me up the wall. The assumption is that everyone will know things about you based on your list of favorite things, when in fact, without context, the conclusions drawn from those lists are going to be necessarily, radically different from person to person. Convincing yourself of some universal language by which everyone will suddenly connect with you based on your list of top ten films is ridiculous. It doesn’t work. If you want to test this, tell people your list of top ten books includes Infinite Jest. Watch their expressions.
But! Of course there is a but. There have been several books I’ve been thinking about lots lately, over the months, and most of them I’ve mentioned here on some level. But while I ascribe no particular “objective” rubric to them, they keep cropping up in my head. So I thought I’d note down why, to the best of my ability. Why things remain is so much more interesting than a bland roll call of such things, in numerical order.
This means spoilers. I’ll put a nice big image of the books up there to warn you, but I’ll warn you now too. This isn’t a tidy little summary of plots and people. Most of these books stick in my mind due to specific scenes therein — so please have a care if you mind spoilers (which, I mean, you should, in all honesty).
Book: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Why: The shooting of the horse.
Far and away. I read it in a coffee shop and sure, I cry easily at books, ever since I was 15 and thought my dad died in 9/11 until I could get to a phone. But all before that and long after I detest being seen to cry, and I read this scene in a coffee shop and was torn to ribbons. I undid my hair to try to hide my face. I couldn’t just stop reading; it was horrific and poleaxing. What should have been an act of mercy. Of kindness. What was only ever intended to be such. Instead, turning to ruin. Horror that could not be explained to the trusting animal now screaming, because of the lack of language. Horror that would be the last thing that animal took to its grave — because there was no time for explanations, for sobbing apologies while clutching a bloodied face (which happened, which happened), for desperate snot-filled attempts to please understand, no money, no time, you’re dying, I didn’t mean to, it should have been peaceful, this worst thing that ever happened to you has now happened at my hands and I can’t erase it, it’s the last thing you’ll remember and it’s the worst thing I could have possibly done to you — that undid me. Eventually I packed up my things, went into the dingy bathroom and just sobbed for a good five minutes. Long hair to hide my face. The unhelpful fury of shutting down questions from people later — I’m fine, it was a book, just read it, I’m not going back into it right now. But even though I connect to that book on so many levels, that is the scene that comes back to me most often. Especially now, with an aging animal in my care, one ear always turned her way in case she collapses again. Trying to read that bland animal face for pain or trust or peace. Knowing it won’t be found. Wanting at least to avoid this worst thing.
Book: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Why: The model city, and the jewel in the wall at the edge of the sea.
Again, context: I read this as my mother was dying. I physically had it in my hand when she “passed” (foolish word, there’s nothing gentle or graceful or purposeful about it; do not throw the word over the misery like a polite white sheet), though I did not know it at the time. But it isn’t misery that sticks this book back in my head. It’s the exacting care with which the father studied the world around him and recreated it in miniature form, so his blind daughter could navigate that world. And it saved her. From trapped rooms, from a life spent as confined as girls two hundred years before her time. From rape. From Nazis. From things the father couldn’t even imagine he’d have to protect his daughter from, he saved her, by making a world accessible with his hands. My father, too, builds whole model worlds. If he could have protected me from anything he would have buried the house in tiny lifelike trees made from dried lichen, and grass powdered down from a salt shaker.
That, then, but also that last scene: the unfurling of the location of the jewel. It is so beautifully done, so delicately, the explanation of the current location of the object that drew everyone through the story from the beginning. It ran — not that this is in any way an important or meaningful comparison — just as the credits epilogue to Inherit the Earth did: and here, gentle viewer, after you’ve seen all the fates bestowed upon your characters, here in this muddy tidepool is the final resting place of the object which drove our story. Even though I know such scenes are constructed to be precisely what they are — for closure, for a sly little smirk at all the fuss made over such objects, all the human toil that went into the caring for what are, in the end, just objects — I still value them. Compare these scenes to other object-driven storylines, like Lord of the Rings or The Wizard of Oz. The objects get close-ups, full crescendos of soundtrack, the works. The stories reward the characters for obsessing over these things; even if that “reward” is a permanent inability to function without them. Neither a character nor a scene in these tales ever says, in its essence, “it’s just a thing, get over it.” But it goes beyond that, what I like to hear — not just some high-horse moralizing about materialism but an earnest assertion that people matter more than what they convince themselves matters most. Feelings being dangerously mockable to have, it’s nice to see them brought to the fore in such scenes, even if disguised as snark or smugness. So yes, I love that last scene, and think of it often.
Book: Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Why: Who he thinks will be standing behind him as he faces away from the door, and who is.
Another last scene. At the time it stuck with me for the endgame reasons: elation over who survived, both physically and mentally; people rejoined who stories tell you don’t get to; whom this very story was telling you from the beginning didn’t get to join up. Who wouldn’t. Who were too different for that ever to work out. The social and cultural barriers torn down to make that happen; the joyous assertion that such things don’t matter and that it would be fine…this is what I reveled, in, at first. Something exultant after all that loss.
But as time passes it sticks with me less for Crispin’s sake or even for their union’s sake but for the courage it took Alixana to even appear. Worse, to remain, to stick out the end of that scene when after losing everything she loved most in such a disastrous way, the assumption based on the part of the last person who knew her as she was, or as she knew herself to once be, was that she’d be someone else. No calculated hauteur can hide you from the terror of not mattering to the last person who really knows you. Of not knowing if you matter, and of showing up across miles and miles and miles of dangerous countryside just to determine whether that is, in fact, the case. Whether you were not just known but loved. The courage, to stand there in that doorway and summon a quip when, within, you’re ravaged as a flash-flooded canyon. I think — I haven’t reread just this scene, and won’t; not until I reread both books, and not enough years have passed yet for me to do that — it’s even mentioned, that shadow in her eyes, her inability to entirely hide it anymore. Crispin bothers to see it, too. If he didn’t, fuck him — but he does. He ought to; he’s a details guy. And he does and thus is allowed (by me!) to have her. She deserves no less. And would survive with no less.
Book: Malafrena, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Why: “Is it so easy? You set out…to make yourself. To make the world…”
This quote. At least once a month it bubbles up to my surface, when something in the world you thought would be different, isn’t. I’m sure if I had kids, or if I just said it aloud to friends whenever it occurs to me, it would be dismissed as that annoying block quote I always refer back to. But it comes up a lot. That one professor who always whipped out Proust as a way to remind us all how much older and more jaded he was than us? This is mine. Here it is in full, again, because we all grow up thinking we’ll be Itale, and we all turn into Estenskar:
“Is it so easy?” he said after so long that Itale, befogged with exercise, fresh air, beer, and well-being, was not sure what he was talking about. “You set out…you set out to make yourself. To make the world. All the things you must do, and see, and learn, and be, you must go through it all. You leave home, come to the city, travel, miss nothing, experience it all, you make yourself, you fill the world with yourself and your purposes, your ambitions, your desires. Until there’s no room left. No room to turn around.”
“There is, here,” Itale put in. “I told you. I’m as empty as that beer-jug. Air, sunlight, silence, space.”
“That won’t last.”
“It will. It’s we who don’t last.”
Estenskar leaned against the doorway, gazing out into the country darkness.
“Now that I know that I can’t choose,” he said, “now that I’ve finally learned that there are no choices, that I can’t make my way and never could, that it was all deceit and conceit and waste–now that I’ve given up trying to make my way, I can’t find it, I can’t hear the voice. I’m lost. I went too far and there’s no way home.”
I know there’s no way to put it here in full and have it not sound terribly morbid and sad. But I don’t always retreat to that quote in moments of despondency. I think it is reassuring. Most of the people old and close enough to me to tell me of such things are dead, so books are where I turn. And it is reassuring to know that the…tarnishing of what you thought life would be is not endemic to you. I mean, I say this, having extricated myself from a variety of bad situations, in the fullness of summer surrounded by crickets at the beginning of what will be another beautiful day spent reading in a hammock. This quote is far beneath my surface, at the moment. But when the next new disaster oozes out of the news and into our lives? Yeah, it’s there. The fullness of summer gives way, always, and in the same way that you can relax in the doldrums of a grim and gritty November, knowing that it will come back — because that’s how nature works — Estenskar is there to be voice of wisdom I don’t have access to anymore. You set out to make yourself. But you don’t make what you planned, and there’s no room left, and you have to deal with that. Or not.
I was 14 or 15 when I first read this, and I’ve reread it since, and it is still meaningful. Maybe I care more about Piera than I did the first time around. Maybe I roll my eyes more at Itale swaggering around thinking of himself as part of a group of Important College Kids who Have Ideas. But it’s still powerful. And Estenskar only becomes more relatable, with time. I gather that though LeGuin started this book in the 50s, it wasn’t published until 1979. I’d be very curious to know how Estenskar evolved over that time. Did he even exist, in the beginning? Did the prose treat him with condescension, at first? At first, did he deserve it?
These are books which stick with me long after I’ve read them. There may be some overlap with those I’d read again in a heartbeat — like Malafrena, like the Sarantine Mosaic (of which Lord of Emperors is the second half) — but not always. Books I love dearly don’t appear here: Lions of al-Rassan; The Name of the Rose. I want to wrap myself up in those and disappear into them, like Skyrim. But the ones here, these are scenes I keep returning to in my head, years later. That’s a more meaningful thing to share, I think, than “according to my arbitrary rubric, this are the best books ever, hurr. I will spend the next 45 minutes telling you less about what moved me and more about why my rubric isn’t arbitrary but is, in fact, Utterly Objective.” Uh huh. Don’t waste my time. If you have the balls to be moved by something, tell me why. Otherwise, gtfo.
There are these occasional stabs in Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift, that are just beautiful. They are why I decided to buy the book, not entirely sober and tilting through the stacks in the last few minutes before the bookshop closed.
“…because there was anyway such an intensity and strange gravity to their experimentation, such a consciousness at least that they were doing something wrong (the whole world was in mourning all around them), it had needed some compensating element of levity: giggling.”
And I bought it.
It is absolutely unforgivable and unpitiable, this ownership I feel for sorrow, national sorrow even; this dogged refusal to account for others’ lack of understanding of how it feels. (In the midwest and even more so on the west coast, they do not know, it was a show for them, not and never a loss or a real fear.) This attraction to books, songs, people who do know. I who am no veteran’s widow; who do not wake in the night wracked with PTSD dreams. I am the last person who should counsel anyone on loss; when I found myself in the necessary position of doing so, I panicked at how utterly unequipped I was in the face of a woman who’d lost her daughter, who desperately hoped I could make social media stop rubbing her daughter’s death in her face.
But that’s why I bought this book. All the empty rooms. The strange neighborliness that results, the boundaries that are erased, by such vast and shared understanding of a vicious, echoing absence.
And I bought it because they giggled.
“Yes, it was tragic,” she said, with a voice like flint. And didn’t say, as she might have done–at eighty she could be oracular: We are all fuel. We are born, and we burn, some of us more quickly than others. There are different kinds of combustion. But not to burn, never to catch fire at all, that would be the sad life, wouldn’t it?”
“And if you had yourself been comprehensively bereaved at birth–and that was her situation, wasn’t it?–how could you share in all that stuff, how could you have anything left over for it? The war wasn’t her fault, was it?”
You could hardly allow her to borrow books and then not allow her at least some time to read them. And the house was not any more, let’s face it, as in the old days, a firmly governed, a strictly regimented house. Look where regimentation had got the world.
This from the otherwise self-possessed and entirely unsentimental lord of a house. Seemingly on top of and in control of himself despite the loss of his sons (and everyone else’s sons) years, years ago, in the First World War. And from the mind of one presented to us as so contained, so in control, just that little unfurling of grief, that baring of a stark distrust, disillusionment in what he was in all likelihood brought up putting his faith in without question: order, command, the way of doing things. Regimentation. And it took his sons from him, and revealed itself not to be the keeper or restorer of anything. And he allows it to slacken and fall away.
That’s painful, but important. Agony to go through but important to see.
I’m always curious about songs speaking supposedly from a woman’s point of view, addressing dead or dying menfolk. Typically because it wasn’t women writing these songs. So I always want to know if this is the way the men writing the songs want to be remembered? Or is it how they remembered their dead friends, and culturally they aren’t allowed to mourn properly, so they had to frame the song from a mourning widow or girlfriend’s point of view?
“Bonny Light Horseman” is one of these. Dating back, indeed, to the Napoleonic Wars it sings of, the song was distributed on broadsheets (which itself begs the question — was the whole damn ballad propaganda? was there, even in the 1790s, an office devoted to inflaming the nationalistic fervor of the people via song? was there a Napoleonic Wag the Dog situation going on?) published in London, Birmingham and Prestons. (Source.)
This version, done as a collaboration between Natalie Merchant — yes, the Natalie Merchant that filled the radio stations in high school — and Lunasa, is very much not the mournful drinking ballad. (It also makes me wonder if enough time has passed since Titanic for the general public to accept hornpipes again. I like hornpipes.) It’s too slow, for one. For another, it’s…oh, I don’t know. Do people even sing sad songs together anymore, drunk or otherwise? Do you keep needing to stand us up as vehicles for your sorrow? Surely not.
The idea that loss just flows in you like syrup and you can tap into it purely and fill a bucket with it, just loss, without having to filter out anger or flecks of yourself or something is terribly anachronistic. These songs that just have women wondering the moors in mourning are silly. We don’t just cry. We rage. At the ones who went off and died. At the people who sent them there. At everyone who didn’t care, or care enough, or cared too late.
As a resurrection of a historial piece, though, it’s pretty enough. These lyrics are the ones modified by Tony Rose in 1982. Interestingly, he changes the eagle of the earlier lyrics to simply “small bird.” I kind of want to ask him why. A small bird’s nest won’t hold the dead horseman’s heart, man, let alone his long cold body. Did you take our wide wings and pinions from us because you thought it too dangerous? Too unladlylike? Or too nationalistic? Mourning women have already been written into the national narrative; don’t try to make us clean again.
You could have at least let us keep our claws.
I am a terrible visitor.
I don’t mean in the hotel room trasher sense. I mean I am terrible at being a visitor. At passing through. I can’t spend two days in a place without trying to fantastize how it would feel to live there forever. Where could I work, what would the seasons feel like, would I need a car. What are the ties that would bind me there.
Maybe it sounds harmless on the surface, but it’s not a particularly bright move. Because it means I can’t go anywhere and be content with merely being a tourist. I want to belong. I want to be recognized and to stop having to introduce myself or explain what brought me to this point. I want people simply to know and to treat me accordingly. This is foolish. The world is too large, and our places in it too fluid, to want this kind of anchoring. But I want it, everywhere I go.
I read this article for example, and think: “Ah yes! my ancestors were from that part of the world! Perhaps it would feel good. Perhaps I’m related to some people in the area still.” Unlikely to discover, and impossible to ascertain, within the constraints of an outsider. But I want to. For as long as that article lingers in my memory, I want to buy a boat and head north and disappear into the wilderness — and likely drown doing it; I have no boat knowledge.
I know that this is terribly predictable. I know that this is conceivably why I prefer MMOs and vast open-world games as opposed to narrowly-scoped vignette games: they offer places you spend so long in you feel a part of them. I know how shallowly, predictably American it is to want to belong somewhere and to, in all likelihood, not belong anywhere particularly meaningful. Just as I can’t reinvent these sentiments into something unique and moving, I can’t reinvent myself into someone who belongs anywhere other than some suburb somewhere.
I know that what we gain from uprootedness makes up, more often than not, for what we lose. No mob with pitchforks is going to come to my house for violating some social norm; there are few norms left and no one knows enough about each other to notice a violation. No community will shun me for some petty misunderstanding or personal political tiff, if I am part of no community. Uprootedness means, in a very personal, day-to-day sense, freedom. Less judgment.
But it also means less support. My parents lived the way I do, and no one gave a shit when my mom got sick and died. Their friends ebbed away. Friends were all they had — no family nearby, no domineering religious group rewarding a lifetime of penitence with assistance at the end — so they were alone at the end. I take the measures I can to try and make sure life will be easier for my husband when that time comes — a house paid off, in a location where he likes the people and the climate — but I’m not dumb enough to convince myself it will be much easier. It isn’t, ever. I know that.
And when I visit or read about far-off places; about putting down roots there, it isn’t just the quaint stone cottages or the rugged mountain vistas or wide-armed seascapes I fantasize about — it’s about people actually feeling a social responsibility to look in on those in need, and following through on that impulse. It’s community I fantasize about, even when I know perfectly well that so many communities are built upon the idea of “us” and “them,” where you only get to be part of “us” by birth. Communities define themselves as much now as they always have by exclusion. It sucks. I know that.
So I have little patience with myself when encountering stories of place; with how much I want to be a part of whatever place is in question. I know what I gain from being a part of nowhere. But I greedily want to be part of somewhere.
It’s stupid. I don’t note it as such hoping to be told I’m wrong — I know it for what it is. But it’s stupid all the same. The sort of thing you hope you’ll discard with age, and which you realize too late you’re saddled with for eternity. It’s disappointing.
See, this though, this is bad. I hate when people do this. Don’t try to be cute. Be honest or hurt or defiantly sardonic but for god sake stop trying to be cute.
Over the weekend I went to The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. On the train on the way there I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour — on my Kindle, for easy transport. It was grim. He write the way he talks, but of course, now, what came off before as a cynicism if not conjured from the ether than certainly heavily enhanced for entertainment purposes. The darkness hinted at therein (and then, in chapter three, the darkness described in detail) lurked, more, now, than anyone would have been willing to see before, I suppose. In chapter three he and his brother took off on the fool’s quest of resurrecting the joy of their youth in the place of their youth, in the winter cold and without their loved ones, many of whom had since died. Again and again, that “you can’t go back” thread that was the whole reason I went to graduate school shows up…but here it wasn’t even beautiful. Just sad.
Carrying that with me, though, carefully tucked away in my purse into a self-described last bastion of physical book commerce, I found myself a reading an oddly uplifting counterpoint, there amongst so many discarded volumes bearing inscriptions for people who’d long since gotten rid of them. (I would be a terrible estate sale thrifter; the gifts given in love and now long abandoned never fail to bring me down.)
I felt sick; the store ran no AC and I’d not had enough to eat or drink; if you weren’t standing in front of a fan you were sweating. I prowled the shelves and prowled them again and felt like I was in a loop; I’d loved doing this for decades but now everything I picked up felt like the wrong person telling the wrong story. A man talking about women in love. A man talking about women in pain. A woman, at last, but telling that same tired old story of a bunch of women of different generations stuck together in one place where they have to Deal With Things. I hate that story. It’s made for TV.
At last I found the stairs up out of the broiling cesspool of People I Used To Be (see: the philosophy and film and literary critique sections, populated by various versions of my college cohort, surly and judgy to a T) and breathed a sigh of relief so heavy I got a pair of raised eyebrows from the person reading at the top of the stairs. Fantasy — at last! But I still felt sick, and — barring staff recommendations, which I always like to read but which were strangely lacking in that section — I took the obligatory picture of the book tunnel and fled with a book whose title and cover I liked to a flaking leather chair and sweet, sweet fan proximity.
The book was The End of the Day, by Claire North. And this was the counterpoint I hadn’t realized I’d been looking for, to Bourdain. To Bourdain viewed through the lens of his loss. It began with a level of self-conscious quirkiness that would have made me put it down immediately if it had been written by, say, Neil Gaiman. I don’t know how to explain my sudden refusal to listen to yet another man tell me a story, except that again, typically that’s all I read, and here I’d been reading Bourdain, whom I admired and missed and who had seemed like he had overcome the darkness that lurks even at the corners of people who don’t ever engage with it directly, but he hadn’t and he’d died and I didn’t want to hear any other old man’s reassurances that he understood anything anymore, when a year or two later it would turn out he was wrong and he’d kill himself instead of figuring it out.
Whatever it was, I flipped to the flyleaf immediately to see the author. A thing I never do. Would it be another Vanna White look-alike, who might as well have her carefully-coiffed picture on every ball of yarn I’ve ever bought? No. Claire North is a pseudonym, but it still stands for a women, younger than me, unmade-up in a flannel shirt and hair short enough to encourage cautious flirting. Ahhhh. Not someone trying to tell me how it is, then. Or to tell themselves. Someone trying to be magical. And largely succeeding, if the flyleaf extolling her first book at 14 years old held true. I wasn’t even jealous of this — I would not want to be in the headspace, I now realized, for that to have been possible. I flipped back to the front and read on.
Bourdain on the train pulled me down because it was now, of course in hindsight, so obvious, the wild swings from elation to despair. No good thing could simply be observed as such, no bad thing could simply be bad: they were either devastatingly bad and devastatingly good, as exhausting to read about as it is to hear, in person. No equilibrium, no “okay.” And “okay” is everything the Harbinger of Death, Charlie, is, in The End of the Day. And that should — would have, I’m sure, to my teenage through my college self — have sounded self-explanatory, equilibrium, the median and anything in between extremes being pedestrian, and worthy of avoidance, dismissal. (I am hardly alone in this. For better or worse — mostly worse — the same people telling you art, literature and music matter are also telling you, in those years in particular, that only the extremes are worthy of artistic expression, and so what you understand is that you must reject all the in-betweens, and be either all this or all that, or else not be worth bothering with. It’s stupid and negligent and maybe unavoiable, given the artistic landscape of the world. But people should still think before they light these fires in others’ hearts.) Charlie, though, isn’t just some mediocre humdrum office zombie, a fixture of the 20th century pitying glance. He is no Walter Mitty.
From his job interview:
“Associations. I say a word, You say the first thing that comes to your mind.”
“Really? Isn’t that a little–”
“…People. Sorry, that’s just the first thing that…”
That’s when I decided to buy the book.
Charlie lapses into ellipses a lot. When he becomes the narrator the dots sprinkle across the page like rain. Maybe that bothers some people, I don’t know. It might. But he’s a fictional character travelling the world and seeing difficult things, and maybe the ellipses make that possible for him in a way that it wasn’t, for Bourdain, a real person with declarative sentences and exclamation marks. Single periods. Finished thoughts. Maybe the need to put a cap on each thought doomed it to that darkness, that cynicism that everyone learns is to some extent desired of us, but which can, like a scab you pick at too much, start to bleed you out if you’re not careful. The highest highs: tie them off, cement them in place on paper with an exclamation mark. The lowest lows: anchor them there, down at the bottom, moored by period after period after period. He never lapses into the possibility of the ellipse. That forgiving uncertainty.
A comfort with uncertainty is surely required, for any kind of equilibrium. The bitterest people I know are full of certainties. They don’t allow for the possibility of any but their darkest truths. (And here my boss chided me for refusing to take the test to see whether or not I had the gene that gives you Alzheimer’s.) Maybe it feels anchoring at first, these certainties, your conviction that you know what shape the world, your life, will take, and that it’s the worst one. But such convictions weigh you down after a time, I would think. At which point you can’t even undo the knots anymore; you’re anchored down in the darkness as surely as are your sentences.
I bought the book: large, hardback, expensive and uncomfortable to carry. I wanted to support the physicality of the bookstore, its self-described labyrinth, even though its maze bristled with people I didn’t want to be anymore. Even though the terse signage and unapologetic classifications advertised, very much, a mode of being that no longer synced with me. Even though I carried hidden in my purse a Kindle, one of so many devices set to make physical places like The Last Bookstore live up to their names. I didn’t and don’t want to be certain of such things. Books were supposed to be gone a decade ago anyway, right? And yet here I was among them.
Far be it from me to pronounce their end.