As a bookish only child who came of age in the ’90s, I got ideas about how I might become lovely—and as a result, I hoped, passionately loved—not from the style sites, beauty blogs, YouTube tutorials, Instagram videos, and Pinterest pages that are now ubiquitous, but from the novels and stories in which my nose was perpetually buried. My innate interest in beauty—spiritual, sartorial, skinwise, and otherwise—was stoked by 20th-century literature and the captivating female characters who populate it. Books I read between the spongy ages of 12 and 20 were especially potent. They inspired me to become a writer and invent fictional characters of my own, but I didn’t only long to write; I also longed to be written, like the heroines of these books—to be regarded with the kind of affection, interest, and attention to detail that infuses so many of the satisfying sentences their authors used to describe them. Inevitably, many of my choices and rituals concerning beauty and adornment, several of which persist, resulted from the images that bloomed in my imagination while I read.
In junior high, my hair—thanks to hormonal changes, no doubt—transformed of its own accord from fairly straight to extravagantly curly. I struggled to accept the sudden ringlets, which required an entirely new way of washing, combing, and styling. I also agonized over what I was sure was the near-fluorescent ruddiness of my cheeks; it betrayed, I thought, the awkward bashfulness with which I was often battling, and I tried to mask it with powder as soon as I was allowed to wear a bit of makeup. Then I met Ántonia Shimerda, the 14-year-old Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. She was a character whose vitality, spirit, and earthiness I admired. And she had curly hair. And red cheeks. Ántonia’s “curly and wild-looking” locks make an ideal if temporary dwelling for a grasshopper she brings home to show her father. She “carefully put the green insect in her hair,” Cather writes, “tying her big handkerchief down loosely over her curls…,” and her cheeks “had a glow of rich, dark color” that Cather likens to “red plums.” Because of Ántonia, who was a role model of mine due to the indomitable strength of her personality and warmth of her heart, I embraced my curls and put down the face powder.
Eschewing makeup, however, demands vigilant skin care, and I’m grateful for potions that lend the face a lit-up look. One of Leopold Bloom’s errands on the eventful day of June 16th in the first part of James Joyce’s Ulysses is to have the neighborhood chemist make up a batch of the face lotion favored by his lush wife, Molly. Bloom marvels at the quality of Molly’s skin, which he deems “so delicate, like white wax.” At the chemist’s, he recites most of the lotion’s ingredients—”Sweet almond oil and tincture of benzoin…and then orangeflower water…and white wax also”—so I’ve been able to concoct an approximation at home with supplies sourced from the local health food store. Playing apothecary is fun, and I share Bloom’s sentiment that “homely recipes are often the best: strawberries for the teeth: nettles and rainwater: oatmeal they say steeped in buttermilk. Skinfood.”
Of course fastidiousness is crucial to both inner and outer beauty, and the skin of one’s body must not be forgotten in the effort to maintain a luminous face. Following in the footprints of the ever-fresh Komako, the lonesome young woman living at a hot springs resort town in the mountains of Japan in Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, I take frequent baths. Komako always seems to be coming from or heading to the bath: “[T]he impression she gave was above all one of cleanliness,” Kawabata writes. “Every day she had a bath in the hot spring, famous for its lingering warmth.” While my own bathwater doesn’t spurt from a mineral-rich spring, it’s usually infused with what I hope are similarly healing salts, plus drops of pine oil to evoke the conifers of Kawabata’s icy landscape. Just as I imagine Komako does, I like to do plenty of scrubbing to detoxify and promote good circulation.
Nicole Diver, the charismatic blonde with a sad secret in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, also takes a bath before beginning a love affair that will shift the trajectory of her life. “She bathed and anointed herself and covered her body with a layer of powder, while her toes crunched another pile on a bath towel…She put on the first ankle-length day dress that she had owned for many years, and crossed herself reverently with Chanel Sixteen.” This passage not only impressed upon me the degree to which literature can provoke an exquisite sensory experience, but also the importance of perfume application as an everyday ceremonial rite. Fitzgerald invented Chanel Sixteen—there never was such a thing—but the first fragrance I bought for myself was a Chanel, the softly shimmering eau de toilette version of No. 5. Then I caught it: the perfume bug, an ongoing fascination with odor as a kind of olfactory language that both makes and unearths memories. My obsession has not only inspired me to write a book’s worth of as-yet unpublished perfume essays, each one devoted to a different scent, but has also driven me quite happily from costly bottles of obscure niche fragrances to tiny vials of cheap but pleasing oils and everywhere in between. I don’t discriminate. I just want to smell like someone about whom stories could be written.
After bathing comes dressing. In D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, the cooler of the two titular women, Gudrun, is an artist blessed with an enviable sang-froid that remains unruffled even when she is catcalled by local miners—”What price the stockings?”—while stepping out in her signature boldly-colored tights. She has them in a kaleidoscopic array of shades and fabrics: “…grass-green stockings…pink silk stockings…woolen yellow stockings…” Because of Gudrun, I went through a brightly-tinted-tights phase, partly because of the aesthetic pleasure it gave me, and partly because I wanted some of her blithe attitude to seep into mine, though in actuality I was much more like her hypersensitive sister, Ursula, who dons no stockings of remarkable color but instead has practically got her heart sewn onto her sleeve.
Little finishing touches that complete a look come in many forms, including nail polish—an adornment about which I’ve always had mixed feelings. I sometimes put it on, but invariably remove it within hours. I love it on others the same way I love other people’s tattoos, but on me it feels somehow wrong, artificial. Maybe it makes me uneasy because I can’t help but associate it with Muriel, the shallow wife of the brilliant and sensitive seer, Seymour Glass, who figures in J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and other stories. When Muriel first appears, she is in the process of “putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.” Growing up, I—like his younger siblings Franny and Zooey—was heavily influenced by and devoted to Seymour, and it was clear the hopelessly mainstream Muriel just didn’t get him. “With her little lacquer brush…she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon. She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left—the wet—hand back and forth through the air.” This insouciant gesture seemed to embody all the spiritual poverty and bourgeois materialism of which I was sure Muriel was guilty.
Other finishing touches, however, feel the opposite of artificial, but rather like external reflections of one’s inner self. I’m never without my two little gold bracelets—one on each wrist. There is something about adorning my wrists—the gateways to my hands—in this way that makes sense. I like to write and make jewelry; my hands accomplish the tasks at the heart of my life. But I first got the idea to do this while reading my favorite of Jack Kerouac’s novels, the autobiographical chronicle of once-in-a-lifetime adolescent love, Maggie Cassidy. The book’s title character accessorizes similarly. “Tonight,” Kerouac writes of Maggie, “she is more beautiful than ever, she has…little bracelets on both wrists; hands crossed, sweet white fingers I eye with immortal longing to hold in mine…”
I may feel complete with the bracelets, but there’s also sometimes a vaguely nagging sense of unfinished business: like many women, my thoughts often return to my hair, as they did in junior high. I may maintain its natural coiled texture, but what about the color? It’s a question over which I’m lately mulling, especially now that I’ve spotted and plucked a number of silvery strands. So far, though, I’ve done nothing about it. In Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, witchy Eustacia Vye, fondly dubbed “Queen of Night” by Hardy, is a loner desperate for adventures beyond the bleak heath where she lives. She has inky hair—as dark as her eventual mood. “To see her hair,” Hardy writes, “was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.” The romantic portrait is partly why in the era of ombré, “sombre,” “tortoiseshell,” lowlights, “babylights,” and all the other enticing iterations of highlights, I continue to choose, sometimes uneasily, to let my locks remain their natural nearly-black hue.
Consequently, not too long ago, an author of short stories and novels thrilled the bookish girl in me when he whispered that my hair was “so dark a seagull would love to die in it.” Oil-dark was what he meant. His statement, too, was dark—humorous, singularly strange and sweet, a compliment only a writer could give. For a few moments, I felt a little like a woman inside a novel. He answered the longing I’d felt when I first fell under the spell of fascinating feminine figures bound between pages and rendered only with words. I was no longer exclusively the reader or the writer; sometimes, I would be the one who is written, the one who is read.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
“Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row.” When I was sixteen, I think I would have been completely and sublimely happy if that were what a boy loved about me. After J.D. Salinger died a few months ago, I thought about this line from Catcher in the Rye, and began to feel the spectre of Holden Caulfield wandering through my life here in Windhoek, Namibia.
At the risk of sounding like a clueless college sophomore trying to piece together a pathetic seminar thesis, I saw an unlikely connection between Catcher in the Rye and a book I recently finished: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Complete with phonies, small things that men love about women, and the mid-1800s equivalent of bathroom graffiti, Middlemarch is a book that I think Holden would have grudgingly found acceptable. The book is about people who get it and people who don’t; about the tiny, grey decisions that become vast, dark parts of a person; and about people who do and do not fill out the image they have of themselves.
I loved the Brooke sisters: the naïve and lovely Dorothea, who dreams of building affordable housing for serfs and marrying a dour clergyman, along with the practical and pretty Celia, who doesn’t mind asking for her mother’s jewels and marrying her sister’s rejected suitor, Sir James Chettam. I am a sucker for sisters in classics: the Schlegels in Howard’s End, the Brangwens in Women in Love, Delphine and Anastasie in Le Père Goriot, and of course the Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice. But I digress.
Middlemarch bled in to my next book: A Trip to the Stars by Nicholas Christopher. These two books got me through an expat funk that was inevitable as the glow of being abroad has begun to fade. A crop of NGO workers have come and gone, I no longer marvel at the baboons playing with my house alarm, my clients don’t always tell me the truth, and I think I’m getting a beer gut. It’s times like this when books can twist me, turn me, hit me– even more than usual. I feel them deep inside and when I finish the last words on the last page, it feels tragic. I can’t get away from that terrible sadness of finishing a book.
“…sadness of domesticated birds; sadness of finishing a book; sadness of remembering…” — list of sadnesses (Jonathan Safran Foer)
In A Trip to the Stars, all the characters are striking. They are knowledgeable in grand subjects like Latin, spiders, horticulture, constellations, and Atlantis. Mala Revell, the heroine, is lost for years to her lover, Geza Cassiel, while she travels on quiet islands, performs as a telepath, and searches for her lost boy-nephew. Her journey begins when she is working for a New Orleans arachnologist who collects rare spiders. Mala entices one of the spiders to bite her finger after the arachnologist tells her its venom has the effect of “reducing the human soul to its rarest elements, stripping away all that is false, illusory, or fearful.” It is a sometimes corny, mostly lovely book that inspires a desire to be tall, honorable, and fearless.
Especially in Africa, I often long for just such a spider bite, to prompt those of us who don’t belong to engage in an occasional Holden-esque inquiry. To ask why we are here, to strip away all that is false, illusory, or fearful. What am I doing? Why did I come? What happens when I leave?