The Folded Clock: A Diary

New Price: $26.95
Used Price: $1.05

Mentioned in:

A Year in Reading: Karolina Waclawiak

I had the good fortune to have a lot of excellent books come across my desk. Some standouts from this year have been celebrated by many: Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, Joshua Mohr’s All This Life, Alex Mar’s Witches of America…The list goes on and on.

At some point in the year I began seeing a theme arise in the books I was chasing down. Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, David Shields’s That Thing You Do with Your Mouth and Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife all tackled mothers or motherhood in an interesting way. Each function as a memoir, some testing the boundaries of the form, all while looking at the peculiarities and constraints of being a mother. (Or perhaps, that’s what stood out to me.) Although all three books are vastly different, each made me consider what we inherit from our mothers, through psychology and physiology. There’s a refreshing grimness to David Shields’s riveting conversation with his cousin Samantha Matthews in That Thing You Do With Your Mouth. The narrative asks the question whether or not we can get over early traumas, but the book evolves into a mediation on performative femininity and debasement, with Matthews’s candid account of a life where “My body was everyone else’s but mine.” Matthews, a voice-over actress who also dubs porn in Spain, offers a frank account of the struggles she’s inherited from her mother, with incisive observations about her mother (and herself), “She’s just lost and trying to pretend she’s not. I’m lost and trying to admit I am.” Shields’s slim book takes a fascinating look at Matthews’s own mother who harbors a sort of dual personality in Carol, “a repressed post-1950s mother,” and Kitty, a woman with a deep need to be desired by men. I thought a lot about this sort of inheritance and the inheritance of traumas from our mothers while I read Shields’s book. It came at a time when scientists discovered trauma can literally be passed along to our children through our DNA.

Antrim’s much lauded memoir, The Afterlife, explores his relationship with his creative, though troubled, alcoholic mother through her death. I had to read it in bits because the writing is so visceral and painful that I often felt overwhelmed by the intimacy of his grief. I read it while going through my own grief, or anticipated grief, as it were, and it felt necessary and comforting. In one section, Antrim writes about purchasing an expensive mattress after his mother’s death. One that felt like an albatross in his house in the absence of her. Antrim has the incredible ability to infuse even the most oppressive grief with a sense of humor. The frenzy in which Antrim navigates the purchase and return of this mattress was both crushing and hilarious. He had imbued it with his grief and he would have no rest until it was returned. “The bed was alive. It was alive with my mother,” he writes. In this book, it feels like Antrim is searching for himself, by way of looking at the evolution of his mother, and coming to understand her. The relationship he had with his mother, rueful and anxiety-inducing, felt so familiar to me.

In Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, Julavits navigates being an artist and a mother, and a woman and an artist, and a human being in this world who is filled with a familiar sense of longing. She ascribes importance to inanimate objects that hold mysterious power for her and I can so relate. “When things are going badly, I scan my life for the cause. Often that cause can be sourced to an object,” she writes. I laughed out loud because I understood this on such a profound level. Recently, my husband and I purchased a sofa from a couple divorcing. It was a great deal. After three days of having the sofa in the house, I felt agitated and angry. My husband kept calling it the divorce couch. I laughed at first but then it made me feel sad. The sofa had been purchased by the divorcing couple just six months before and was barely used. I began to feel as though the sofa was bringing us bad luck. It had been privy to other people’s unraveling. We argued over stupid things, inconsequential things. It was the sofa’s fault, I decided. I called my husband from work and demanded he sage it. Amused, he did. It worked. Besides the moments of superstition that made me relate to Julavits’s diary, I found her struggles and questions about how to be a woman, an artist, a wife, and a mother — as well as her fight for her own autonomy — deeply absorbing. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts looked at similar themes and is another book I highly recommend. I found myself underlining on nearly every page of both books. Perhaps the books I chose are not so much about mothers as they are a search for self through investigations of where we come from and what we inherit from those who came before us. All in all, a great year for books.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 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.

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

This year I didn’t read anything obscure and I didn’t read any beloved classics either (Sorry, David Copperfield, let’s try for 2016). I read what everyone else was reading or had recently read because I kept getting seduced by everyone else’s enthusiasm. Not that I minded. I don’t care about your Hamilton (that’s a musical, right?), or your Gilmore Girls reboot (that’s a TV show, right?), but I can get down with some passionate book-love.

At the beginning of the year I read The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which was a 2013 National Book Award winner. It’s a big, serious nonfiction book, and I try to read at least one big, serious nonfiction book a year so that I can perform better at dinner parties and also win arguments with people’s dads. I’ve always enjoyed Packer’s writing for The New Yorker, but I wasn’t prepared for how moving and informative his book would be. It follows a diverse cross-section of Americans, from a lobbyist in Washington D.C. to a community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio, to crazy-ass Peter Thiel of Twitter (guys, he wants to live forever and is seriously researching his options!) Packer synthesizes these personal, particular narratives into a larger story about our changing, wounded country in the wake of the 2008 recession, and traces how we got here, beholden to lobbyists, big money, and Wall Street. This book slew me. Despite that fact that it’s nearly all narrative, with little analysis, for a few weeks after finishing it, I had a hard time returning to fiction — oh silly dialogue! oh fake people! (I remember the same thing happened after I finished Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo a couple of years earlier.)

And then I got pregnant, which brought me back to the indelible fact of my body: its hormones, its capacity to feel nauseated and tired and to cry through every interview on Fresh Air. I needed certain books (specifically novels) for this state of affairs. Such as: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This wasn’t my favorite book of the year, but it did me in like no other. It made me sob next to my husband and son on a cross country flight until I had a headache, and it reminded me that fiction devastates in a way that nonfiction does not, because it’s only the imagined world that’s able to get inside an inner life. And burrow there.

A Little Life is also the only novel in recent memory that I both loved and hated; I agree with everyone who calls it a masterpiece, and I also agree with fellow staff writer Lydia Kiesling, who in her review calls it a “self-important sort of melodrama.” Regarding the novel’s structure, Lydia remarks: “Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.” I concur. And yet. A novel that puzzles me this much is truly worthy.

In my second trimester, I read and reviewed Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling.

In my third trimester, I read and loved The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, the last (and, in my mind, the strongest) of her Neopolitan novels. Midway through the book, I thought, These books are so…female. I feel like…I’m sucking on a tampon. I realize this probably isn’t the most enticing endorsement, but it’s true: never before have I read a series of books that captures so vividly the lived experience of being a woman. Ferrante writes fiction that feels as real as the body I’m in, as real as my family who needs me, as real as my ambitions and my failures. It’s passionate and messy and necessary.

In the final days of my pregnancy, I struggled to find books that complemented my scattered state of mind. The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits’s deceptively artful diary, the entries of which are rearranged so as not to be chronological, reflected and validated my days of anticipation and boredom. The diary’s breezy tone belies the craft of each entry; a few reminded me of Lydia Davis’s best stories, where the profundity sneaks up on you in the final line, having secretly gathered energy by a series of previous associations and matter-of-fact details. One entry, for instance, ends with Julavits recounting what she calls an “irksome” situation where she had to soothe her crying son when she’d rather be doing something else:

I must remember to do this when I am seventy. I must remember to find a rock that feels exactly like my son’s four-year-old back. I must remember to close my eyes and imagine that I am me again, a tired mother trying to teach herself how to miss what is not gone.

My son is also four. I’ve had this same thought. I was so grateful to have it articulated here, by a talented writer. Sometimes that’s all we require: to see ourselves reflected on the page.

The day after I finished this book, I gave birth to my daughter. May my next year bring as many gifts as this year has.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 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.

A Year in Reading: Meaghan O’Connell

The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.

I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.

When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.

If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.

On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.

After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.

I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.

All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.

As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 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.

Dear World

Heidi Julavits credits her habit of keeping a diary with convincing her that writing might be a viable career path. In her new book, The Folded Clock, she returns to the format of her childhood, crafting a lengthy diary meant to stand on its own as a narrative. In the Times, Eula Biss reads the book and reflects on our notions of the self. Related: Rachel Signer on the Julavits/Sheila Heti/Leanne Shapton project Women in Clothes.

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR