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It may be Super Bowl Weekend, but this year I’d rather stick my face in a book. I’m weary of hearing about Deflategate and other non-stories, so I’m stacking up my defense with books. Here are the books I intend to tackle this weekend; what’s on your list?

*The Ten Thousand Things, Maria Dermout
*Consider the Lobster, DFW
*Granta 124: The Travel Issue (summer 2013)
*No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin (I’m about 100 pages in)


I first tried to read Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar twenty years ago, while I was in college.  But I got about fifty pages in, just to the mass food poisoning scene, and I quit.  And I didn’t pick up the novel again until this past weekend.

I wish I’d finished the book twenty years ago;  I also wish that I hadn’t had a serious case of OCD and depression, both of which are what stopped me from finishing the book.  I had such fear of food poisoning that I couldn’t even read about it. How’s that for neurosis?

Esther’s descent into depression is one I’m well familiar with, and Plath is able to nail it with poetic language and startling imagery.  Esther seemingly has it all:  she’s smart, driven, focused.  She wins a scholarship and travels to NYC.  But during this trip, as in everywhere else in her life, she fails to connect to others.  As she grows more and more depressed and realizes that she can’t envision her future, she starts planning her suicide.

Esther becomes very paranoid about others; as her own confidence fails, as her disinterest in her life grows, she begins to distance herself from others, and from her life.  This is classic depression:  losing interest and beating a quick retreat from everything.  If life is too painful, just quit.

After Esther makes a good attempt at suicide (modeled after the author’s own first attempt), she is sent from hospital to hospital, eventually ending up in a private country club sort of facility, the 60’s version of a psychiatric hospital.  She has shock treatments, first at one hospital, then the private hospital.  There aren’t many details about the treatment itself, but it was common at the time.  ECT is still in use today, but not as common as chemical treatments.

The other treatment Esther is given is Insulin Shock treatment, which makes her gain weight, but seems to have little other effect.  Talk therapy is ineffective as well, so what is it that changes so that she is freed from the hospital?  Is it time that makes her better? Is she really better?  Is she back to her ‘normal’ self?

In the throes of depression, this is a thought that often surfaces for me:  why can’t I just be myself again?  The problem with this line of thinking is that, most likely, I wasn’t really feeling like myself before the sudden onslaught of depression, and most likely was already feeling unlike myself.  Romanticizing the past (and thinking of what you’ve lost or given up) is detrimental to you, but it’s a self indulgence few can resist.  Esther is no exception:  she looks back at her life and wonders why she couldn’t enjoy her achievements.

Again, is she cured?  Has she improved?  In the last few pages of The Bell Jar, Esther’s thoughts:

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. 

I am, I am, I am.” 

Bragging over still beating, or bragging because she failed at her suicide attempts?  The ending can be seen as positive, with Esther returning to school and leaving the hospital.  But what has changed?  Is she cured, or will she return to a similar state in the future?

The answer depends on your view of mental health and psychiatry.  There are no known cures for depression or anxiety or bi-polar disorder; there are only ways to control the symptoms.  Every generation has its panacea for these ills:  electroshock therapy, lobotomy, life commitment.  Our generation has seen Prozac and other SSRI’s claim to battle our ills with little white pills.  Even further in our past, there were holes drilled in heads (trephining), blood let from our veins.

Mental illness doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s more of a spectrum.  It can also be episodic, with remissions lasting years, decades.  I don’t know what happens to Esther after she is discharged from the hospital, but i do know what happened to the author.

I’ve been thinking about women’s narratives today, and how they are often overlooked and discounted.  And that led me to the VIDA Women in Literary Arts count for 2013.  Here’s how women stack up against men in major literary journals.


The VIDA Count 2013 | VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

The first book I picked up this year is Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno.  This has never happened to me before, but as I read it, it began to seem very familiar to me.  Familiar in the style, mostly, not as much in story.  And then it hit me:  this novel reminds me strongly of my own non-fiction work.

The protagonist of Green Girl, Ruth, is a lost soul.  She is having an identity crisis, sparked by a break-up and a death.  It’s the intensity of this crisis, the harsh internal gaze, the inability to keep up even the most basic of hygienic rituals, the masking of the internal turmoil, that grabbed me.  Maybe this looks so familiar because I know that state so intimately myself:  this is depression at it’s worst.  You get so steeped in it, you can’t see anything else.

Another similarity that struck me:  the use of repetition.  This is a device I use often in my own writing and appreciate when it’s done well.  Here, I think use of repetition serves the novel and the character very well.  Repetition can show how mired a person can become, how stuck in destructive thoughts and habits.  Thoughts can become symbols of illness, foggy, unclear, the brain trying to work out the crisis.  Rumination is said to be the brain’s way of problem solving, trying to work things out.

We see Ruth through her own foggy gaze, speaking about herself in the third person, evaluating herself through the gaze of her lost lover, who is still in the States.  Ruth has run away, literally, from her problems, run to the gray streets of London.  We don’t know much about Ruth, really, aside from her status as ‘green girl’ and her habit of making bad choices.  She seems almost apathetic about her life, another sign of her depressive crisis.  She is ‘dead inside’ or makes the appearance of it, pretends that she is dead, numb.

Then, a life-saving transformation:  a haircut.  It seems trite, trivial, but if you are at the bottom of a crisis, even a simple act such as cutting off all of your hair and changing at least your outward appearance can be a life-saver.  This is temporary, though, and the effects of it wear thin, soon.

There is a sense that Ruth needs ‘saving,’ that all of the green girls need saving.  Ruth is impressionable, a trait which shows strongly in the end.   And as much as I usually hate the endings of novels (this one being no exception), I had to wonder in the end what did I expect to happen to Ruth?  What other ending could there be?

The crisis of identity is a familiar theme, but I like the way Zambreno really lets her character wallow in it, because that’s really the only way to get through it.

Three non-fiction books and one short story collection is not necessarily a great mix.  I think the proportions are a little off, though, in truth, the short story collection reads like actual stories taken directly my childhood.  I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and Lorrie Moore’s collection Self Help reads exactly as the title suggests:  a manual for your childhood and early adulthood.  I love it, painful and uncomfortable as it is.

I just finished reading Alan Cumming’s memoir  Not My Father’s Son.  The title suggests some paternal issues, but it’s so much more than that.  There are many revelations in this book (none of which I will spoil here) and to a sensitive soul such as Alan, they prove difficult to navigate.  Cumming’s journey begins with the TV show “Who do you think you are?” — a show that searches out your roots, your genealogical secrets.  There are dual stories running throughout the book, as well as dual timelines:  the present (2010, during which he is filming the TV show) and chapters of “Then” which flash back to his childhood.  Cumming’s father was a brute of a man, abusive to his family in multiple heartbreaking ways.

What sets this memoir apart, in a spate of celebrity memoirs, is that Cummings is incredibly insightful; he has a strong sense of self. He is articulate without being self serving. Yes, he is emotional, but who wouldn’t be in the midst of the family revelations and drama he weathers? At an early age, Alan decides he will not feel shame about himself; this, to me, is in large part why he stays so strong.

Cummings writes short, descriptive episodes, writing dual stories about the present (which was 2010) and his childhood (only titled Then). There are some delightful photos throughout, and candid revelations. A quick, interesting read.

Two other outstanding books I’ve read recently: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Both incredibly smart, talented writers who put together two brilliant essay collections. (See also what Cheryl Strayed had to say in the New York Times regarding the “golden age for women essayists– why do we need a qualifier?)

Next, a return to fiction.  Can’t decide between Tartt’s A Secret History or Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay.  Any thoughts?

This has been my life the past few weeks. I’m reading two books right now that I highly recommend: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming. Non-fiction is my genre of choice for reading and writing, though it can take a toll on me. Though light-hearted at times, both of these books touch on some difficult subjects.
I’ve also been submitting some non-fiction essays and hope to hear back soon. Or I’ll be wailing about rejection. Either way, I’ll report the results here!

It’s my favorite time of year:  Fall.   Nights are getting cooler, leaves are turning and falling.  Fall equinox is next week (Tuesday, September 23), and Halloween is just around the corner.  And, inevitably, pumpkins are appearing surreptitiously.

So it seems the perfect time to review a new book out from Dey Street Books:  the making of the classic TV show “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”  The TV show first debuted in 1966, about three years before I was born.  I grew up watching it, along with the Christmas special and about a dozen other Peanuts outings.  This one has remained a favorite, though, and I still watch each year.

Most Halloween television revolves around gory, nauseating fare, which may be one reason I still love the Great Pumpkin.  I still love it when Lucy snatches away the football from Charlie Brown at the last minute.  The Flying Ace gives me fits of laughter.  I identify strongly with Charlie Brown’s misshapen costume and his bad Halloween luck (all rocks, no candy).

You’ll get a nice behind-the-scenes look at the making of this classic, and you might even learn some interesting trivia too.  I did: when Sparky (aka Charles Schulz) talks about how he came up with the idea for the Great Pumpkin, he basically claimed it was “a kind of a satire on Santa Claus” (p 19).  A satire!  On Santa!  Linus writes to the Great Pumpkin, just as a kid would write to Santa, asking for gifts.  When he doesn’t get them, and the Great Pumpkin doesn’t show, he is disappointed, but he survives.

I’ve asked around to friends and family to get their take on The Great Pumpkin.  They still love it, and even my young nephews and niece watch it.  Another generation will grow up watching Peanuts, and that’s a great tradition.

If you’re a fan of Peanuts, this is definitely a great book to pick up.  There’s a lot of insider info and history, not to mention the gorgeous illustrated script.   Happy 48th, Great Pumpkin!  I can’t wait to see if Charlie Brown will actually kick the football again this year.

**The complete title is “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown:  The Making of a Television Classic” and is published by Dey Street Books, and imprint of Harper Collins.

I’ve just discovered the site Skillshare– a place where you can learn (or teach!) about any subject from photography to writing to cooking.  There are two levels of membership:  one is free, and you can choose to take free classes or pay a fee for classes that are not free.  The second is a 9.95 monthly fee and all the classes are free. 

I joined after seeing Susan Orlean tweet about a class she’s teaching on Creative Nonfiction.  Sold! As a staff writer at The New Yorker, and publisher of nonfiction titles such as The Orchid Thief, she is the perfect person to teach creative nonfiction.  This is probably my favorite genre, both as a reader and a writer.  

I just began the class but am super excited.  Squeee! 

When having a bad day, what narrative runs through your mind? What do you tell yourself to get through difficult times?

Joan Didion said that “We tell ourselves stories to survive.” What story do you tell?

Confession: I’ve only watched one single episode of The Bachelor. I don’t watch The Bachelorette either. It could be my relentless cynicism regarding romance. It could be that I’m teaching class on those nights that it graces the screen. Or, it could be that I simply do not care.

I don’t have anything against many of the various ways people look for love or companionship. If it’s arranged, if it’s online, if it’s on-screen — who cares? The means and ways don’t really matter in the end. If it makes you happy and fulfilled and doesn’t harm anyone, then go for it. But at the very least, be honest about your intentions and what you want.

Courtney Robertson fits none of the descriptions on the back cover of her book, “I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends.” She doesn’t come off as a villain, though she labels herself so. No, the words I’d use to describe her (based solely on this book–I never watched the show) would be vapid, shallow, materialistic. Nonchalant. Judgmental.

The purpose of this book seems to be that Robertson wants to show her real, true self. She wants everyone to know that she is not a bitch or man eater. She claims not to even know what the term means.

The problem comes when Robertson gets upset over the paparazzi talking about her sex tapes and drinking, which she is insulted by, while freely admitting to guzzling wine before show tapings and having made sex tapes. She doesn’t like that she is called manipulative, but also thinks she had Ben, the Bachelor, wrapped around her finger. So, while she isn’t a villain in the sense of a really evil person, she is sort of hypocritical.

As I said, I’m not a fan of the show. I’m not interested in back-biting or name calling. Courtney fits into a stereotype of what some folks think of when they think of LA: shallow, name-dropping, boring, money-obsessed.

This book reads like a dish-all tell-all rag. If you don’t watch the show, you’re not likely to get much from reading it. Though there are tips for wanna-be models and contestants for applying to the show.

I have a neighbor who might be going on the show; I’ll make sure to have her read this before she does, as a caveat.

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