I’m writing this from a basement room in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where I’m spending New Year’s Eve alone because I wanted quiet and solitude and time to read and write. It seemed like a fitting end to a year where I felt very alone indeed.
Spurred by some motivational article I read, I made a list of my 2016 accomplishments and memorable events a few weeks ago–it included a publication of another essay, riding rollercoasters at Disneyland, taking another writing class, two writing retreat weekends with two of my best friends, starting therapy again, being maid of honor in another best friend’s wedding, seeing my brother get married, and the first first-edition book I worked on at my job being published (on time!). 2016 was extremely difficult in terms of politics, but for me, personally, the word that most embodies the year 2016 is “stagnancy.” Even in my reading life, usually so rewarding and vibrant, I felt stuck, bored, uninspired. In trying to read what I felt like I “should” read, I often ended up reading books that left me unsatisfied.
I started reading Infinite Jest in March. Because it’s gigantic, I decided that I would only read it on weekends, with the idea that a couple of hours of dedicated reading time would be better than trying to read it in 15-minute increments on the train to and from work. There were some weekends where I was good about it and others that I was just too busy. Even on weekends when I sat down for an hour with it, though, I would only manage 20-30 pages at a time. By September, I’d made it to page 470–less than halfway. And then, I just…stopped. I liked reading it, mostly, but I wondered if the payoff was really worth all the time. I’m still on the fence about whether I should finish or not.
I read books I hated (The Nightingale, Lovers at the Chameleon Club Paris 1932–both for my book club) but mostly I read books that I was just totally lukewarm about, books I ended up abandoning. It feels like I read more books I resented reading than books I enjoyed reading this year. Out of the 48 books Goodreads said I read this year, I didn’t finish 9, and actively disliked 7. I didn’t love the books I wanted to love (The Sellout, Pond, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Sweetbitter).
There were books I loved, though–mostly surprises, which in a way, is even better than loving a book you expect. I read a series of books I knew nothing about that I ended up loving: Goodnight Beautiful Women, Here Comes the Sun, and Black Wings Has My Angel were standouts. Here are my top 5 favorites of 2016:
Euphoria is a lovely story of curiosity and love and bravery–a quick but beautiful book.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I loved the last Neopolitan novel–the ending was wrenching but shocking and satisfying.
Spinster was my favorite of the “single ladies” genre (I also read All the Single Ladies, Lonely City, and Future Sex...there was a theme) that I indulged in this year–it gave me hope and inspiration in ways I desperately needed.
And last but not least, Michael Chabon’s latest, Moonglow, really got me out of my reading rut and reminded me what a pleasure it is to just get lost in a beautifully told story.
So in 2017, I hope to seek out books that enthrall me and keep me guessing, wanting to turn the page rather than put the book down forever. I will do less of reading because I feel like I should–I admit that the well-intentioned but abandoned Bookshelf Project of 2016 added a sense of dread and obligation I didn’t need to my reading life this year–and more of picking up books because I genuinely want to. I know this isn’t necessarily a recipe for a 100% 5-star 2017 (there were plenty of books I picked up eagerly in 2016 that didn’t fulfill my expectations), but it’s a start.
It remains to be seen whether this will include Infinite Jest. Tune in next year to find out.
Happy New Year, wherever you are–may you find peace and wonder in the stories you read and live in the coming year.
Coincidentally, both books in this post are centered in New York. The first, Paul Auster’s series of 3 novellas, The New York Trilogy, I didn’t actually finish. I read the first two stories in the book and just wasn’t blown away. They were too similar, too empty. In each, there are characters so jaded and desolate that they give up their lives in search of some weird mystery that ends up forcing them to reckon with their own emptiness. It’s bleak. And bleak is not what I need right now.
I bought my copy of the book at Freebird Books, a dusty used book shop on the waterfront near my apartment in Brooklyn. They had an apocalypse-themed book club and the books were shelved according to quirky categories I can no longer recall, but that made me chuckle when I saw them. They kept weird hours, but I loved to visit when they were open and I happened to be passing by. The receipt, which I found wedged in the last page, is dated 6/22/13. I remember that day, actually–we were on our way to dinner at Pok Pok, one of our favorite restaurants, with a friend who was visiting from Boston, and we stopped at Freebird along the way. I must have bought more than one book because the total reads $19 and the Auster was probably more like $4…but I don’t remember. My brain can only hold so many memories, and then only in fragments, so many things not sticky enough to hold on to. I remember walking down Columbia Street, holding my breath past the poultry plant where you could hear the chickens squawking inside and the smell was something gutteral, avoiding the patch on the waterfront side where some homeless men had set up a tiny ad-hoc living room with a rolling desk chair and a milk crate table, and that view of the Manhattan skyline across the water, with shipping containers and cranes silhouetted in the foreground.
Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is part memoir, part study of loneliness and art. I treated myself one afternoon at my new favorite tiny local bookstore, Papercuts J.P., so I wonder if it even should count as part of the Bookshelf Project, since it wasn’t on my bookshelves when I started, but I want to write about it and it’s my blog and my project so IT COUNTS. I was compelled to buy the book because of its subtitle: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. This was a new concept to me: loneliness as art, as an adventure.
Of course, being single means you deal with loneliness. I think being divorced carries its own special weight of loneliness, though, something I won’t get into right now because it’s far too early, but it’s an idea that I’ve been wanting to explore lately, this kind of loneliness. I have many friends and a good job and I live in a great city that I enjoy exploring and I know how to keep myself busy. But the loneliness creeps in at the edges, always, sometimes when you’re not even alone.
Laing’s book excavates not only the nature of this kind of innate loneliness, the kind that doesn’t go away just because friends are around or you’re busy at work, but how it manifests, and how it can both inspire amazing art and tear you apart from the inside out. She does this by profiling several prominent “outsider artists”: Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, the photographer David Wojnarowicz, Harvey Darger, and disco-era proto-Bowie Klaus Nomi. I knew very little about these artists before I read the book and I found myself Googling images of their work as I read, trying to understand the very specific kinds of statements they were trying to make. I don’t know much about art, especially contemporary art and photography, but Laing does a really admirable job of making these artists people and their art meaningful.
She also weaves anecdotes of her own specific kind of loneliness, recounting her life after moving to New York City as a single woman, knowing no one. It’s a literal kind of loneliness, one rooted in solitude, but Laing describes it in a way that makes it universal.
I loved reading this book, but I wish there had been more women profiled, and I wish that there had been a little bit more about Laing herself. She was curiously absent, despite it being ostensibly a chronicle of her own loneliness. On the other hand, that distance lent itself to the overall feeling of loneliness she’s trying to explore, so maybe it was a conscious choice?
Regardless, what I liked best about the book is its underlying message that loneliness is not bad. It’s not to be avoided at all costs. Rather, it can produce a kind of sublime awareness and inspiration, causes us to “consider some of the larger questions of what it is to be alive.” And that’s pretty special, if you think about it.
Here are some of my favorite passages:
- “…the belief that our whole purpose is as coupled creatures, or that happiness can or should be a permanent possession. But not everyone shares that fate. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and value of some kind.”
- “Loneliness is be no means a wholly worthless experience, but rather one that cuts right to the heart of what we value and what we need.”
- “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”
- “The revelation of loneliness, the omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack, that I didn’t have what people were supposed to, and that this was down to some grave and no doubt externally unmistakable failing in my person: all this had quickened lately, the unwelcome consequence of being so summarily dismissed.”
- “…what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure.”
- “There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure. Sometimes as I walked, roaming under the stanchions of the Williamsburg Bridge or following the East River all the way to the silvery hulk of the U.N., I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist, pleasurably adrift on the currents of the city.”
- “…the spectacle of a woman being forced to participate in the perpetual, harrowing, non-consensual beauty pageant of femininity.”
- “Loneliness as a desire for closeness, for joining up, joining in, joining together, for gathering what has otherwise been sundered, abandoned, broken or left in isolation. Loneliness as a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole.”
- “Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”
And here, one of the best distillations of why we spend so many hours of our lives scrolling blankly through Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, ad nauseum:
“What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there, hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded by superfluity. I wanted to hypnotize myself with data, with colored pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping anxious sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings. At the same time I wanted to wake up, to be politically and socially engaged. And then again I wanted to declare my presence, to list my interests and objections, to notify the world that I was still there, thinking with my fingers, even if I’d almost lost the art of speech. I wanted to look and I wanted to be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen.”
The New Yorks of both Laing and Auster’s books are cold, hard, isolating cities, full of strangers and skepticism. They are not the New York I knew, not exactly. But that’s the thing with cities, especially New York–everyone has their own version. I’m glad mine is peopled with dusty used bookstores and gregarious friends and whiskey/grilled cheese bars and sublime Pok Pok chicken wings and hazy skylines and rusty fire escapes–or at least the memories of these things.
Before I finally took this book off of the shelf, I thought it was nonfiction, like The Second Sex. But it turns out that The Woman Destroyed is a actually a series of three novellas: The Age of Discretion, The Monologue, and The Woman Destroyed. Each story centers around a different woman. The second story was too stream-of-consciousness and disjointed for me, so I skipped it, but I really enjoyed the other two stories.
The first, The Age of Discretion, tells the story of a mother struggling with the loss of her son to his new wife, a woman she doesn’t respect, and the feeling that her husband no longer loves her. It’s a poignant story about aging, about marriage, about motherhood, and about how the stories we tell ourselves are often tragically wrong.
The Woman Destroyed was my favorite story–the most sharply-rendered telling of infidelity that I’ve read. It’s the diary of Monique as she struggles to reconcile herself to the fact that her husband Maurice is having an affair. Monique’s twisted logic is heartbreaking–she tells Maurice she is okay with his affair, wanting desperately to believe that he will soon grow tired of the other woman and come back to her with renewed love because she was so calm and self-sacrificing. But, predictably, he only spends more and more time with his mistress, driving Monique slowly mad with jealousy and doubt and sorrow.
It’s the immediacy of her thoughts, the real-time feeling of the diary, that makes Monique’s suffering so relatable and terrible. Of course, I did not stick around after my own husband cheated on me, but I experienced a kind of accelerated version of her feelings of shock and loss and bargaining and self-deception. At times, the story was painful to read in its insight, almost as though I was reading my own thoughts. But it’s this kind of writing that I long for, the kind that inspires such a feeling of connection it’s as though the writer and the narrator and me are all one person. Ironically, Joe himself came home with this book one day because he got a copy at the office and thought I would like the cover.
Here are some of my favorite lines:
“All women think they are different; they all think there are some things that will never happen to them; and they are all wrong.”
“I believe that with that splendid male illogicality he holds me responsible for the remorse he feels–holds it against me.”
“He has manufactured grievances to excuse himself for deceiving me–he is less guilty if I am at fault.”
“I am in a dilemma. If Maurice is a swine, then I have wrecked my life, loving him. But perhaps he had reasons for not being able to bear me any more. In that case I must look upon myself as hateful and contemptible, without even knowing why. Both suppositions are appalling.”
“When this happens to other people it seems to be a limited, bounded event, easy to ring around and to overcome. And then you find yourself absolutely alone, in a hallucinating experience that your imagination had not even begun to approach.”
“Every night I call him: not him–the other one, the one who loved me. And I wonder whether I should not prefer it if he were dead.”
“The whole of my past life has collapsed behind me, as the land does in those earthquakes where the ground consumes and destroys itself–is swallowed up behind you as you flee. There is no going back. The house has vanished, and the village and the whole of the valley. Even if you survive, there is nothing left, not even what had been your living space on earth.”
“There was a time when I could go to the cinema and even to the theater all by myself. For I was not alone. His presence was there in me and all around me. Now when I am by myself I say to myself, I am alone. And I am afraid.”
It’s difficult for me to even quote these lines because they feel so personal, as though they came from my own thoughts. And it’s been over two years and there’s this pervasive feeling of guilt because I should be “over it” but I’m still haunted by dreams and flashes of memory and remnants of that old life. It’s not just one event, though, “a limited, bounded event, easy to ring around.” There are repercussions everywhere, in everything, reverberations and echoes in books and songs and pieces of jewelry and photos and intersections and movies. There is no end, no neat wrapping up of loose ends. It’s just a piece of life, real and unreal as anything else.
Somehow 2016 is half over. How did that happen? Do any of you know? Things remain pretty static for me–same job, same apartment, same people in my life, for the most part. There’s a certain restlessness because of this status quo state, but I’m also taking advantage of the quiet time–sitting on my porch a lot, taking walks, writing, just trying to be more mindful. And isn’t that what summer is for?
Here are a few things that have made me happy over the last month:
- Did I mention how much I love my porch? I find myself having coffee out there, having a post-work beer, reading for hours on weekends. It’s shady and my roommate has planted flowers, and you can hear life going on just beyond the porch on the busy main street I live on. But you’re also apart from it, somehow protected. It’s my own little piece of vacation, right outside my front door.
- All Songs Considered: The Worst Songs of All Time. This is an old episode, from 2014, but they replayed it recently, so I listened during the times I normally listen to podcasts–on walks and while I wash the dishes or cook dinner. This particular episode made me laugh out loud several times–and Carrie Brownstein returns, and it’s wonderful, although I did disagree with several of the hosts’ judgments. (I have a weird fondness for Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry.” Don’t ask me to explain it, for I cannot.)
- Temeraire. I don’t “do” fantasy, as a rule. I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I’ve never seen Lord of the Rings, and I’m not a Harry Potter fan. The ladies in my book club, however, LOVE dragons, and were determined that we read a book about them, so I went along with it, fully expecting to hate it. I’m happy to report that I was totally wrong. We read His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novick, a fascinating blend of historical fiction and fantasy where dragons are commissioned to fight in the war against Napoleon. Temeraire, whose egg is seized from a French ship by a British vessel, turns out to be a very rare and highly prized Chinese breed of dragon, fiercely intelligent and loyal and, frankly, adorable. There were points (like the battle scenes) where I got bored, but Temeraire and the other dragons totally charmed me–so much so that I actually found myself CRYING, IN PUBLIC, during a particularly heart-wrenching scene involving one of my favorite dragons. Who even am I? Anyway, it’s nice to read outside your comfort zone and surprise yourself sometimes.
- The off-leash sections of Boston Common. Many evenings after work, I find myself cutting through Boston Common on my way to meet friends, and one of my favorite parts of these walks are seeing dogs playing in the off-leash areas. One particular Friday when I had some time to kill, I just stood and watched the dogs playing for about fifteen minutes–not creepy at all.
- Lady Dynamite. THIS SHOW. If you haven’t seen it yet, please drop everything and go watch it (it’s on Netflix). It stars Maria Bamford as herself, telling the story of her breakdown and diagnosis of bipolar disorder and attempt to rebound and find balance in her life. Though it sounds dark, it really isn’t–but it’s not all puppies and rainbows either (although there are plenty of those). Bamford tells her story with a rare mix of grace and humor and self-awareness and honesty–and talking pugs. That’s right–in addition to being a laugh-out-loud hilarious and touching show, it also features adorable pugs who dispense wisdom in German accents. Seriously, what are you waiting for? It doesn’t get any better than this.
- As many of you know, my mom was in and out of the hospital throughout May and June with a mix of ailments, but I’m happy to report that she’s home now, and has been for almost two weeks, so we’re optimistic that this time, it’s going to stick! She’s feeling better and moving up and around on her own, which is encouraging. Thanks for all your good thoughts!
- The Senate filibuster and House sit-in for gun control. After the tragedy in Orlando, it was heartening to see at least some of our government representatives fighting to make a difference in gun control legislation. It’s a small step, but it gives me hope that they will continue to fight against the NRA and corruption in Congress, protecting the rights of gun makers, sellers, and owners at the expense of the vast majority of Americans who support universal background checks and public safety research around gun safety. The state of politics and violence in America has really been getting me down lately, so the sit-in an filibuster were at least temporary balms.
- Narragansett/George’s of Galilee. Last weekend, I went to the beach for the first time this summer. I went with my sister and her husband, and after laying out in the sun for a few hours, we drove to George’s, a waterfront seafood restaurant in Narragansett. I sat in the backseat and enjoyed all the scenery as we drove with the windows down through Southern Rhode Island, scenery that makes me happy that I grew up in a really beautiful state. George’s (and Aunt Carrie’s and Iggy’s and other places like them) makes me nostalgic for childhood in a weird way–not that we went down to the beach all that frequently, but when we did, it was something special, something that symbolized summer. And I get that feeling back every time I’m down there, eating clam cakes and chowder, smelling the salty air.
- My new H&M jumpsuit. I was very, very skeptical of jumpsuits and rompers. Sure, they looked cute on other people (most of the time) but they just weren’t me, I told myself. And then, one day, I went to H&M on my lunch break, as I’m wont to do on especially stressful days when I need some retail therapy, and decided I was going to try something new. So I picked up a blue patterned jumpsuit and never looked back. It’s one of the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn. I wore it to work the very next day and it was perfect–I felt confident and comfortable and cool all day. So next time you find yourself saying “Oh, I could never wear that,” tell yourself to shut up and try it anyway. You just might pick up a new favorite item for your closet.