A student stopped by my office this week and asked if I’d print copies of his short story to distribute to the class. It's a policy I’ve just implemented -- offering the department copier to those students who either don’t have the money to make their own copies or don’t have the time or maybe just lack the willpower. Two years ago, even two quarters ago, I was a hard liner with things like the copier. My standing policy had always been, “I don’t ask you to buy textbooks for this class. All I ask is that you make copies. It’s your one expense.” Lately, though, I’ve gotten soft, and as a result, a young man stopped by and asked for the favor of copies. “Sure,” I said. The student lingered. They do that sometimes -- stand in the doorway waiting. Waiting for what? I don’t know. An invitation maybe or for words to come. But I’ve found it’s best to let them sort out that moment of “in between” for themselves. I looked down at my computer and pushed print. The student continued to linger; I did my best to ignore him. “Professor?” he said. I was sitting at my desk. He was still in the doorway. He probably wanted me to ask him to sit, but I didn’t want to. I wanted him to leave so I could finish making the copies and then have a cup of coffee with my husband, whose office is down the hall. “You should know something,” he said. I didn’t make eye contact -- not because I’m shy but because I was hoping to indicate benevolent annoyance. “What’s that?” I said. “People are talking,” he said. “People are talking?” “About your favorites.” “My favorites?” “Who your favorite students are.” I still wanted my cup of coffee. I still wanted him to leave, but I also obviously needed to know more. I looked up. “In what context is this conversation occurring?” I asked. He stepped more fully into my office. I’d messed up and shown interest. He took a seat. That's something else they do from time to time -- take a seat without being asked. “When you missed class last week--” “I didn’t miss class,” I said. “I was on an airplane that didn’t take off.” “Right, well, everyone said that the four kids you emailed and asked to lead discussion in your place were obviously your favorites.” Side note: the young man in my office was among those four. We’d started the quarter off badly -- he and I. Or so I thought. He’d made it a habit to quote the sayings of other professors. I’d made it a habit to contradict him. I’d asked him to help lead discussion, in part, because I thought it would make subsequent classes easier on me: if I convinced him he had my respect, then perhaps he’d stop being so antagonistic in class, etc., etc. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. The young man said nothing and I took that moment of silence to think about the plane and the snow and the pink mist of de-ice that sprayed down from the vents just prior to a mandatory evacuation. “Listen,” I said. “Part of what makes me such a compelling professor is that I have a way of making every student think he’s my favorite.” He nodded. “I’m good at my job.” “It’s true,” he said. He stood up. I was relieved. I was thinking again about my coffee. “I mean, I think I’m your favorite.” “But you’re not,” I said. “I really don’t have favorites.” He smiled. “Sure,” he said. “Sure. Sure. I get it.” I could tell he didn’t believe me. “Thanks again for making those copies,” he said, and then he was gone. When I was five or six, my parents divorced. According to my memory, the divorce itself was swift. The custody battle -- which spanned most of a decade -- was not. And during those years, there were therapists, psychiatrists, new houses, new schools, new clothes, new animals, one new stepfather, countless new girlfriends (for my father), and eventually one new stepmother (for us). I bring all this up because of Diane (name changed). I was so young then that I couldn’t see the absurdity of her age. Now, looking back, I understand how ridiculous my father must have seemed to anyone who was watching when he started dating a 20-year-old used-car saleswoman. My older brother was a senior in high school. My sister wasn’t much younger. But here was Diane, often tasked with the job of babysitting me. I adored Diane. I know I wasn’t supposed to. Technically, she was the enemy. Technically, she was the “other mother” figure, and I knew -- in that tacit way that all daughters of Minnesota mothers know anything -- that I was not supposed to like her. But! But she took me to the mall! She bought me clothes! She picked out dangling earrings! She told me racy stories! It helped, also, that she was beautiful. The other thing she was -- and again, I can now easily chalk all this up to her youth, though I couldn’t at the time -- was moody. At the drop of a hat, she could go from attentive (Hannah, tell us a story, tell us a story...) to bored (Hannah, stop talking. Everything you’re saying is so monotonous). Likewise she alternated between sweet (Hannah, come and play Truth or Dare with us. You’ll be so much fun!...) to pissy (Hannah, I dare you to go wash your feet because they smell like armpits.) Here’s why I took the abuse -- why, like a fly, I returned again and again to her lashing horse tale of a personality -- because every night I spent at my dad’s place, without fail, no matter how cruel she’d been earlier, no matter how ugly or small or how much fun she’d made of me, she would always tuck me in and she would always end the day by whispering in my ear, “You’re my favorite.” Being Diane’s favorite was powerful stuff. I coveted her nightly admission. It was the one palpable advantage I had over my brother and sister, who -- because of their ages, their skill sets, their popularity -- had every other advantage. But I had Diane. Until I didn’t. I lost Diane when my father lost Diane. There were stories and rumors, but the only thing that was certain to us, to the kids, was that she was no longer around. Greta and Noah -- my brother and sister -- turned on her immediately. Rather, they turned on the memory of her. This is, I think, the natural order of things. They made fun of her ear tuck, which at the time we’d all agreed was edgy. But now the ear tuck was vain. They made fun of her Ferrari, which at time we’d all agreed (quite easily) was nothing less than badass. But now the Ferrari was a sham. Now the Ferrari was a way she’d hustled my father out of money; something she’d apparently been doing all along. There were more stories, more rumors, and I listened to them attentively in the way I knew my siblings wanted me to listen. But mostly my heart ached. I missed her. I was sorry she was gone. It’s embarrassing that my attachment to (and by attachment, perhaps I really just mean my inability to think ill of) Diane lasted as long as it did. But it wasn’t until high school that I finally let her go. Greta, home from college, admitted that she’d run into Diane at the mall. She was working now at a men’s clothing store; she’d been married, divorced, and -- recently -- diagnosed with lupus. Out of nowhere, I said, “Did you know I was her favorite? Isn’t that funny? She used to tell me every night before bed.” My sister turned to me -- we were driving; we’d come to a red light -- she put her hand on my knee. “Everyone was her favorite. That was her shtick. You didn’t know?” No, I didn’t know. I’m four years younger than my sister, and at the time of Diane, that meant I was very young -- eight or nine or 10. When a word like favorite got used, it was supposed to mean something. Anyway, that’s what I’d always believed. As far as revelations go, it was a small one. And, in fiction, it might be the point at which the young woman -- having realized she was so sorely deceived in youth -- decides never to open her heart again or never to trust another human being again or always to question the true value of the word. But it wasn’t fiction. It was my life. And the minor take-away for me that day was twofold: one, I had a tendency to be gullible and I should probably start working to correct that issue, and two, favorites -- either being them or having them -- were for suckers. Favorites were out. In fact, the idea of favoritism (especially with regard to any type of authority figure) was so well removed from my consideration that, two years ago, safely in my 30s, I was surprised to hear my brother and sister broach the subject, and in regard to our parents. We were in town for our paternal grandfather’s funeral. A few days earlier he’d walked onto his back porch and shot himself. Now he was dead and now we were all together again for a short and impromptu visit. At some point -- I blame an errand for our father or maybe just the desire to escape our distant grieving relatives -- Noah and Greta and I ended up at a little barbeque place a few blocks from the funeral home. It was just the three of us. In general, we are not a maudlin crew. In general, we do not sit around and lament our childhoods, the divorce, the epic custody battle, etc. But we were back in the city where we’d all been born. Even our mother, who’s been divorced from our father for close to three decades, had flown in for the funeral. And so talk turned, inevitably, to family and family dynamics. I stayed quiet for much of the conversation, mostly because I was still stuck on the comment that had gotten it all started. My brother, apropos seemingly of nothing, looked at my sister and said, “You’re Dad’s favorite. It’s so obvious.” Greta nodded. “I know. I am. It’s true.” They laughed. Greta said -- to Noah -- “You’re Mom’s.” He nodded, too. “Yep. Totally.” They looked at me. What they were saying was nuts. What they were saying suggested this was something they’d thought about, cared about, and possibly -- on more than just this occasion -- discussed. “Whose favorite is Hannah?” It was Greta asking. Her mouth was full of barbeque, or that’s the way I want to remember it now. “No one’s,” Noah said and the two of them proceeded to lose themselves entirely to laughter, doubling over and -- one of them -- even spilling a glass of iced tea. I shook my head. “Look,” said Noah. “Look at her. She’s mad.” “I’m not mad.” “She is. She’s mad.” Maybe I was mad, but it wasn’t because of what they’d said, (though it might have been in part because of how they were behaving). Definitely, though, it had something to do with this word, with this idea of favorite. My baby epiphany of that moment was that the reason I was “mad” was because they were wrong. If anything, I was everybody’s favorite. I was my mother’s favorite and my father’s favorite. And, they wouldn’t admit it then and perhaps not even now, but I am Noah’s favorite and I am Greta’s favorite. I’m the little sister. I’m the baby. I am the best. That was my logic at the time anyway, which led almost immediately to the discovery that I’d never fully divorced myself from the idea of favoritism; instead I’d adopted a policy of assumption without confirmation. Being someone’s favorite -- the desire for, the fear of not -- was as powerful to me then as ever. This summer, my oldest niece, Olivia came to stay with me for a weekend. It was a sort of belated birthday present. It was the first time she was visiting without her little sister, Georgia. My nieces fascinate me. Yes, because they are my nieces. But also because they are sisters who are about as many years apart in age as I am from Greta. I like to try to capture these two little girls in my fiction sometimes. They’re bit players, always, peripheral characters, but it’s a temptation I’m constantly indulging. (In my first novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, there’s a little girl who can climb a doorway and hang from the top molding like a monkey. That’s Georgia. In Reunion, there’s a throw-away mention of a teenager with red hair who’s a complete knock out. That’s Olivia.) At any rate, Olivia was visiting my husband and me, and we’d had a terrific weekend eating out, looking at public art, and cooking at home. On her last night, I was tucking her in to bed. She’d been texting with a boy all afternoon. I think I was trying -- poorly -- to stress the benefits of patience when it came to young love. Somehow we started talking about Noah and Greta. She wanted to know when they’d started dating, when they’d been allowed. I told her I wasn’t quite sure of their exact numbers but that I was definitely a late bloomer. I was in college before I ever got to say I had a boyfriend. She was amused by this fact. (I am constantly amusing her). As I turned out the light and prepared to leave her bedroom, she said, “Hannah, I’m really glad I’m your favorite.” I turned the light back on. The next few minutes were ugly. Olivia started crying. I could have shut the door and just let her believe she was my favorite. But I couldn’t. I thought back to Diane, to the sadness I’d felt when I learned that “favorite” was, to her, a word with no real meaning. If Diane had never told me I was her favorite, I’d have never known to want it. Somehow, Olivia had gotten the idea she was mine. Bully that I am, I explained to her that she wasn’t but -- on the plus side! -- Georgia wasn’t either. They’re as different as night and day, my nieces, and I adore them both for precisely that reason. By the time I left Olivia’s room that night, she wasn’t crying. We were friends again, in part -- and here’s where we return to my students, to the young man in my office doorway -- because she didn’t believe me. Yesterday, before I began workshop, I made a small announcement. “It’s come to my attention,” I said, “that some of you believe I have favorites.” There was murmuring, a general giggling. “But I do not. I chose those four students because I’d either had them in class before and they were therefore known commodities or because I know them to be attached at the hip to their computers and therefore able to respond to my request in a timely manner.” I waited for this to sink in. I looked around the room, made eye contact with every single one of them. “The fact is,” I said, “I have one favorite -- my husband.” Giggles. “And after that, there’s my dog.” More giggles. “And after my dog, there’s my nieces. But sometimes they’re overwhelming, so then there’s Faulkner, Nabokov, Barthelme, et cetera.” More and more happy giggling. “The point is,” I said, “either you’re all my favorites or none of you is. The choice is yours.” And then we had class. Image Credit: Wikipedia
This spring, in Chicago, Powell’s Book Store closed its Lincoln Avenue location. For local book lovers, it was sad news. But it was also (admittedly selfishly) somewhat happy news in that all prices were slashed by 50 precent. I was in the market to shake up my reading list. I wanted to encounter authors with whom I was entirely unfamiliar -- not necessarily new to the world, but new to me. So when I found a small collection of NYRB Classics, I bought the entire shelf. There are too many good books from that pile to mention in this short space -- though I can’t resist a swift shout-out to Stephen Benatar’s beautiful portrait of delirium, Wish Her Safe at Home – but the real show-stealer was Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek. It is a somersault through time and space. Taylor brings to vivid life more than a dozen characters -- though the story truly belongs to Harriet and Vesey, would-be childhood sweethearts -- then swiftly breaks the hearts of them all. Another book I am compelled to mention -- not from the NYRB collection -- is one that came out just this year, Howard Norman’s Next Life Might Be Kinder, which I picked up on the recommendation of a good friend. This novel is quiet and loud, funny and sad. It’s a story that both fetishizes grief and convicts it. I fell in love with Norman and I fell in love with his narrator, Sam, who was dubbed -- in one New York Times review -- as “churlish, impatient, uncharitable and rude.” I found this description both annoying (in its dismissal) and apt: One of my favorite sections of John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist is his account of the storyteller’s several qualities. (Sam, like his creator Howard Norman, is a storyteller.) Gardner says storytellers are prone to, among other things, “obstinacy and a tendency towards churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true)...,” which is Next Life’s very premise. It’s not me who’s reading Gardner currently; it’s my husband. But when he showed me the passage, I delighted in the exquisite rightness of the word -- churlish. The reviewer hadn’t intended it as a compliment, but on Sam’s behalf, I’ve since taken it as one. Like Taylor, Norman is a temporal acrobat. 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.
I’m lucky that I get to choose the curriculum I teach, and so why wouldn’t I choose the books that have, year after year, continued to blow my mind? Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams is a heartbreaking and hilarious look at what it means to be a woman – to be a human being, really – trying to survive this world. Without fail, each quarter, when I read the last chapter aloud to my students (it’s only two pages), I end up either laughing or crying hysterically, which, in some ways, is the point of the book: At the end of the day, what’s the difference? This year I introduced a book to my students that I hadn’t read in over a decade. I took it on a prayer that it would live up to the novel I remembered it being. But I was wrong. It was better. Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods is a book that forces its readers to stare directly into the eyes of a tormented man (and possible killer) and wonder, Are we really any different? It’s a book that plays with narrative (so is Moore’s book, by the way), and it's a book that suggests that just being born – just being alive – is the problem with life. 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.