A Year in Reading: Emma Straub

For the past six years or so, I’ve kept a log of all the books I’ve read — usually about 50 per year. This year, however, the grand total (as of October 27) is 15. Fifteen books! For this paltry, pathetic sum, I would like to blame my otherwise perfect and blameless son, born in August 2013. Although, wait! If children’s books count, then I’ve easily read several hundred books this year. Phew. That makes me feel much better about the whole thing.

Four of my favorites this year were story collections, which I suppose makes sense, given that stories take less time to read and are therefore a less intimidating enterprise for a new mother operating on very little sleep. They were Lorrie Moore’s Bark, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, an ARC of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I suppose only half-counts as a story collection, and which I was re-reading, so maybe that only counts as a quarter of a book read, you tell me.

Other favorites were Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, which was just as wonderful as everyone said, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which I got to read before everyone else knew how wonderful it was, which felt like buying someone a really, really great Christmas present in July.

As for the pictures books, there are some truly phenomenal ones, books that I am delighted to read 17times a day. Here is a very short list of some books that my son and I both love, in no particular order: The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli, Little Blue Truck by Alice Shertle, I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Duck and Goose Find a Pumpkin by Tad Hills, and The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, all of which I know by heart. It is very reassuring to know that I am still capable of memorizing new information.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

My Happy, Hopeful News

My friends and family were more likely to hear about Beyonce’s miscarriage than mine. After all, Beyonce’s sad news was broadcast to the world (albeit much later, after the successful birth of their daughter Blue Ivy) in a Jay-Z song. Sure, Beyonce is one of the most famous women in the world, but it was still extremely private information made public. My miscarriage was kept quiet, so quiet that many people will only hear of it now, a rare feat in the age of social media. And yet, the facts: I sold my first novel on a Monday. That Friday, I found out that I was pregnant. My husband and I had only been trying for a couple of months, and we were shocked. The timing was hilarious, as if our good fortune knew no bounds. I took it as a sign from the universe — that the sentimental sentient being knew how long it had taken for me to sell a novel (almost 10 years) and was making up for it by giving me a baby in a flash.

The feeling of giddy overabundance didn’t last. Early in the pregnancy, I did a reading and wore a beautiful dress I was sure wouldn’t fit me for much longer, and when it was over, I noticed that I had begun to bleed. Over the course of a few days, when the bleeding and cramping increased, I knew it was over. My husband went to a 24-hour drugstore to buy me a heating pad at 3 in the morning, and listened to me moan through the bathroom door. A trip to the doctor confirmed the loss, the OB/GYN so cavalier about it that I too tried to play it off like it wasn’t a big deal. She asked me why I hadn’t taken any pain medication, and it sounded so stupid to tell her that I hadn’t taken any Aleve because you’re not supposed to take blood thinners while pregnant. My husband cried, because he is a crier, which is a very good quality in a husband.

No one talks about the physical pain of miscarriage. Not that people talk much about miscarriages at all, and certainly not in public, but if there is any acknowledgment, it is of the psychic pain, the emotional toll. That I saw coming. What I didn’t anticipate (for who would anticipate such horrors) was the actual pain. I panted, I groaned. I clutched that heating pad to my abdomen and wept.

And then I put on a dress and some lipstick and went to have my photo taken for a fashion magazine. I introduced my favorite author at the bookstore where I worked, claiming to have had a virulent stomach flu, or maybe food poisoning, I can’t remember. (Food poisoning is a very reliable go-to replacement for more personal problems, because everyone knows how awful it is, and how little you want to get into the details.) My husband and I cancelled all the plans we could cancel, but there were still things to be done. Those days immediately following the loss are fuzzy to me now, the way one remembers life as seen through a feverish haze. I operated as normally as I could, because I felt like it was expected of me. Not that there was pressure from the outside world, mind you. There wasn’t even a hint of it — because the outside world didn’t know. On a very small scale, it was my job to be Emma Straub, Author, Happy Person. I shudder at the thought of what Beyonce had to do in those days and weeks — shoot music videos? Go on talk shows? It was hard enough being a writer in Brooklyn, going from bookstore to bookstore, from reading to book party.

I spent the next two years trying desperately to get pregnant again. It took me a year and a half to find a good doctor, to find someone who could diagnose the problem (a colony of monstrous fibroids living inside my uterus) and offer a solution (two surgeries — two because there were so many fibroids that my doctor couldn’t remove them all during the first four-hour surgery.)  During this time, the novel I’d sold was edited, copy-edited, jacketed, and published. There were parties galore, with champagne cocktails. I went on a nearly three-month long book tour, my husband at my side the entire time. He would have come anyway, I know, but with everything we’d been through, there was no way he would have let me go alone. Not knowing what’s going wrong inside your own body is powerless, frustrating feeling, and for most of those two years, I smiled and had my picture taken and answered questions and climbed into bed exhausted every night, anemic and spent. Grief and disappointment rose and fell in my chest even as I was satisfying my lifelong dreams. As easily as one dream is satisfied, another one appears. My gratitude for the publication of my book did not lessen the blow of another period, another month lost, another year gone by.

At the time, I didn’t want everyone to know what I was going through. It was my sadness, my medical problem, my heartbreak. There are those who share sad feelings continuously online, complaining about things large and small, but I am not one of them. I prefer to keep a stiff upper lip in public, because, as I’ve learned over the last number of years, being friends on the Internet is not the same as being friends in real life, though the former can certainly lead to the latter. This stiff upper lip has caused people to think of me as a smiley face, a “Like” button. Never has the division between my public persona and my personal life been so clear — I’d been working so hard on my book’s behalf that I sometimes lost sight of that, but there it was, clear as day. I had a personal life and a public one, and they were not the same. Nevertheless, it’s hard to have a sad secret when everyone expects you to be happy all the time, and so my husband got more than his fair share of my melancholy. In response, he sang me songs about our cats, kissed me day and night, and yes, cried. This year — arguably the most difficult in our 11 together — has also been the best.

I knew I would write about my miscarriage, and my struggle to get pregnant. I just didn’t want to do it in tiny little bites, spread over status updates and tweets. And most of all, I wanted to hold off until it was behind me. Unlike in fiction, I didn’t get to decide where to end the story. I had to wait and see what would happen next. Even once I did get pregnant again, I didn’t want to share the news until I felt safe that it would stick. Some of my friends post ultrasounds early on, so thrilled that they can’t wait to share it with the world. My news felt too precarious for that, for all those clicks and comments. I waited five months before I let a photo slip through onto the Internet, and longer still before I said the words.

Many women struggle far longer than I did, and require more medical interventions, in order to get pregnant. Some aren’t able to get pregnant at all. I still think of myself as lucky, lucky to experience what is happening inside my body, and lucky to have had the trouble getting here, because now I appreciate it all the more. Part of me still wants to keep all of this private until after the baby is born, but at this point, with my belly big enough that strangers offer me their seats on the subway, my secret is no longer a secret. As of this writing, I am 35 weeks pregnant, almost 9 months. I don’t take a single day of those weeks for granted, or a single kick of my baby, now so active inside me. He’s due to be born a month after my book’s paperback publication date, two and a half years after my first positive pregnancy test. It feels good to be able to share my happy, hopeful news. The fact that I’m going to be a mother is enormously exciting, as thrilling as selling my first novel, a fact that will change all the facts to come.

I always wondered why pregnant women counted their time in weeks instead of months, but it makes sense to me now. My husband and I are both counting the days, treating my body like it is made of a substance rarer than gold and more fragile than glass. Life changes both quickly and slowly, sometimes simultaneously, and one needs to keep track as precisely as possible. Maybe that should be the lesson to me — that keeping track requires a chronicling of the bad as well as the good, whether or not that information is shared. It’s always good to know that you’re not alone. When our companion of the last nine months finally makes his way into the world, we’ll be sure to tell him that.

Image Credit: Flickr/Kables

A Year in Reading: Emma Straub

I am very bad at reading books at the right time — if a book is freshly published and sitting face out on a shelf, there is little to no chance that I will read it within the year. I buy it, of course (gotta support the authors and the local bookstores) and then I put it on the stack and make it wait its turn. This year was no exception — most of my favorite reads were either galleys of books that will come out in 2013 or older books that finally made it to the top of the bedside tower. The galleys were books that I blurbed or books that my friends wrote (or both), so perhaps it’s a bit gauche to name them here, but I will anyway. Early 2013 is going to be off the chain: Stuart Nadler’s epic American slam-dunk of a novel, Wise Men; Ariel Djanikian’s scientifically terrifying post-apocalyptic novel The Office of Mercy; Jessica Francis Kane’s crystalline and beautiful new story collection, This Close; Jennifer Gilmore’s achingly sad and moving novel about adoption, The Mothers. And that’s just the first few months of next year.

Then there were the books that everyone else had already read and loved: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, which made me swoon over descriptions of baseball, which I otherwise find excruciatingly boring; Tana French’s In the Woods, which made me want to read her entire catalog in a single sitting; Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant, which made me want to levitate; Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, which made me think twice about petting feral cats in Brooklyn.

I actually like waiting to read books, because then the hoopla has hooped down the street and the buzz has stopped buzzing and it’s just you and the page in front of you, and then the page after that. Still, even I am occasionally immune to my own rules, and accidentally read a book immediately after purchasing it. This year, I gulped down Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. Each one was precise, skilled, quick-witted, and warm-hearted. Well worth the price of (hardcover) admission and all of the (richly deserved) accolades. Sometimes all that buzz is there for a reason.

More from A Year in Reading 2012
Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Emma Straub

This was a sad year for my bookshelves. Most of my favorite books of 2011 were full-on sob-fests, stories that had me reaching for the tissue box as often as I turned the page. Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir The Long Goodbye, written about her mother’s death, is honest and vivid, written with a poet’s precise use of language. The observations of illness and grief are both exacting and heartwrenching, and I hiccuped so loudly while reading it that I’m surprised the neighbors didn’t call the police. Darrin Strauss’s Half A Life, a slip of a book about accidentally hitting (and killing) a high-school classmate with his car, was a meditation on guilt and sadness, and I think I read it in one sitting. Furious Love, Sam Kashner’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s extremely tortured love affair, made me simultaneously disappointed and relieved that my husband is not an alcoholic Welshman with a penchant for poetry.

Of course, fiction can be sad, too: Justin Torres’ We The Animals made me want to go grocery shopping, clean the house, and take better care of my imaginary children. Jessica Francis Kane’s novel The Report made me afraid to walk up or down subway stairs, for fear of being crushed to death. My favorite novel of the year, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, is one of the most melancholy books of all, following a writer’s legacy for decades after his death. That, my friends, will not only make you cry, but also question your entire existence, and everything you know about your favorite writers, and if that isn’t worth reading, then I don’t know what is.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.