The most extraordinary book I read this year is Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929. A peculiar fantasia on the nearly impenetrable and certainly alien world of childhood, the novel is at once highly lyrical and poetic fable and an implicit critique of pat moral systems and the blindnesses of colonialism. It functions almost as a trompe l’oeil, inviting you to see the landscape around you one way, then another. In his excavations of the subterranean shifts in perspective that are so much of anyone’s childhood, Hughes also reminds us of the virtues of whimsy: One of the best passages consists of the author’s attempt to differentiate the inner life of a baby from the inner life of a child – and involves a fabulous encounter with an octopus. What isn’t here is the explanatory language of psychology; what is here is an eccentric vision of humanity so particularized as to be really convincing – almost a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups who didn’t like the original all that much.
For those of us who read incessantly — books often serving as a kind of muzzy hideyhole from the world, our lives — our reading memories of 2016 may be forever tied to the presidential campaign. Pre-nomination, post-conventions, pre-Access Hollywood, post-James Comey, pre-November 8th, and The After. So it is for me and the three books I want to talk about, each one tentacled to the election, but far more for the intensity of feeling the election induced:
In the middle of May (Ted Cruz withdraws, Donald Trump secures the needed number of delegates), which feels like a lifetime ago, I read The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky a humming wonder of a novel about Leah, a writer, stifled in her current life and marriage, who travels to San Francisco when a coworker from a decade ago suddenly dies.
In late October, a tense and hopeful time, the ground shifting every day beneath one’s feet, I sunk into The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. A luminous non-fiction meditation on loneliness and its “potential beauty,” Laing considers the way it “drive[s] creativity of all kinds,” as explored through the lives of artists including Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz.
The dire week after the election, when every day seems to wrench and pull at so many of us, I read without stopping an advance copy of All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg (out in March 2017), a funny, startling, melancholy stunner of a novel about Andrea, an artist no longer doing her art, a sister and daughter and friend and colleague and New Yorker trying to find her way and figure out what it means to be an adult.
These are books of aloneness — women alone, artists alone, women artists alone, doing or not doing art. And they are books of connecting — painfully, tentatively, transcendently, warily, fleetingly, bravely. Reading them as the nation seemed to jolt and bob and weave and hurtle, I felt my nerve endings exposed, every feeling a soft suffusion in the chest.
“What does it feel like to be lonely?” Laing asks in The Lonely City. “It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” Leah and Andrea, Dermansky and Attenberg’s heroines, are both hungry, and their hunger is rendered painful, consuming, transformational. It enables them to see the hunger in loved ones, strangers, celebrities, servicepeople, everyone — even, or especially, when it’s hurtful to do so.
“What is it about the pain of others?” Laing asks. “Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of colored pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.”
Reading these words before November 8th and after is the same, yet different. All three books remind us how painful it is to feel so much and how critical it is, maybe now more than ever, to feel so much. How challenging it can be to connect to others — especially when we feel pushed out or when we are the ones doing the pushing — and how important it is to keep on trying, through art or friendship or activism or simple empathy. These are all books that reach their hand out and say: This is hard, all of it, but we have to. We have to.
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I’ve always hesitated to call myself a writer. As a child of fiction-loving parents, I was convinced you were only a “Writer” (with a capital “W”) if you wrote from your imagination. I told myself this even as my bylines piled up at various school newspapers; I was writing a lot, yes, but that wasn’t real writing. It wasn’t until this November, when I wrote eight articles for one upcoming issue of the magazine I work at — a feat I will never attempt again — that I realized I am a writer, damn it! Although I think my revelation had something to do with the books I found myself drawn to this year: tales of strong creative women who didn’t give a damn about what other people thought.
I read Amanda Palmer’s unapologetically honest The Art of Asking early in 2015. Her memoir chronicles her career from working as a living statue in Cambridge to crowdfunding her newest album, musing throughout on just what it means to call yourself creative. But this is not one of those polished self-help books for artists that are becoming trendy; it’s authentic and unflinching about how hard it can be to unleash your work and hope it will be understood, mistakes and all. It gave me permission to write, yes, but also to fail. The book is littered with Palmer’s failures, which is what makes it such a triumph.
This theme of owning up to your failures and false starts continued in Amelia Morris’s cooking memoir, Bon Appetempt. Cooking memoir doesn’t do the book justice because it’s a coming-of-age tale of finally finding the woman you always needed to be, with some great recipes included. Morris is good-humored but real even throughout family troubles, poor career choices, and bad dinners, but these “failures” make for a rich story. She taught me it can all work out, just keep writing and cooking, and that you can make pasta sauce out of an entire wheel of Brie and some cooking water.
With these two books on creativity and cooking influencing my mindset so early on in the year, it shouldn’t be a surprise that my favorite book of 2015 — the one I’ve recommended to five people and will recommend to you now — was J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Billed as a novel, each chapter is really a short story that could stand on its own thanks to opinionated protagonists with unique voices, but they all connect to a larger-than-life Minnesota chef, Eva Thorvald. She’s the type of culinary wunderkind you’d expect on an episode of Chef’s Table, but one of very humble origins. And this book is less about a genius than the people who influenced her, the same down-home Minnesotans I grew up with. I’ve lived in Atlanta for almost two years now and have embraced the pimento cheese and bourbon, but Stradal’s world made me homesick for the best indie radio station, 89.3 The Current; the St. Paul farmers market; and even the somewhat petty Lutheran moms of my classmates and their peanut butter bars. I’ve never had much of a Minnesota accent, but I recognized myself and the community I grew up with in this book, just like I recognize it in FX’s Fargo, which I binged around the same time. We all have to start somewhere, and maybe that’s the key to creative success.
Palmer, Morris, and the fictional Thorvald go back to their origin stories in their tales of creative fulfillment, and maybe that’s what I’ll have to do when I finally pen the humor essays I’ve talked about writing for years — now that I’m a “Writer” after all. Consider that my 2016 New Year’s resolution: fully embracing my creativity, and I have three strong women as guides.
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