Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

Available for purchase here.

As the name of this blog would imply, I’m a bookworm. I was a shy, quiet kid whose idea of an outdoor activity was taking whatever I happened to be reading out onto the patio. I slipped paperbacks into the pocket of my pink windbreaker (oh, 90’s fashion, how did we ever allow you to happen?) so that I could catch up on the exploits of Kristy and Mary Anne or Elizabeth and Jessica. So, in the lexicon of pop culture, there is perhaps no fictional figure I ever identified with as much as I did Matilda Wormwood.

I never owned my own copy of Roald Dahl’s childhood masterpiece, because, like his heroine, I had a deep and profound adoration for the mysticism and magic of the public library, but I did check out their copy so many times that between the years of 1994 and 1997 it’s possible no other child in Northeast Philadelphia got to read it. #SorryNotSorry.

Mara Wilson played Matilda in a film version so perfectly written, cast, and executed that I almost shy away from watching it as an adult for fear that my overly critical brain will pick apart this gem from my childhood. Wilson’s face is the face of 90’s nostalgia, playing the sweet, cute, curious kid we all empathized with in our favorite movies.

Wilson’s memoir touches on the years between her child star years and her re-emergence as an adult, working as a fresh and funny playwright, author, and storyteller. Her history is eminently relatable–she came from a sweetly stable life in suburban California where child acting was simply one option for after school activities, and she grew up with all of the awkward dithering of navigating the hierarchy of middle school friendships and the horror of first crushes, while she still manages to tell her story of growing up with OCD and the power of story in helping her realize that she had a treatable condition that didn’t have to consume her.

No memoir ever put to paper was written absent of tragedy, but Wilson’s was not the product of the excesses of fame or the indulgence Hollywood has for addiction, but simply from the loss of her mother at a tender age, due to breast cancer.

I can’t imagine my world without my mom now, so for Wilson to peel back the layers of her loss and share with the world how not having a mom right before the age a girl needs her mother the most is one of the most daring and empathetic aspects of her personal story. And the way her family and acting community extended their kindness towards her to help her through the loss is proof positive that all is not ever as dark as we perceive it.

Wilson is more clear-headed about her position in life than most people our age in general, even more so for someone who was processed through the fame machine. She’s been her own advocate for her mental health, survived great personal losses, and had to adjust her professional expectations all while balancing high school, and now, as an adult, she’s telling her story the same way she once consumed them. She is, in fact, much more like Matilda than anyone could’ve guessed twenty years ago.

Memoirs and Mental Health

Up until this past year, memoirs have never really been high on my to-read list. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to have stumbled upon that seemingly long-ago post on XOJane that inspired this endeavor. I’ve read the stories of fascinating women leading amazing lives. There’s a body positive mom who was tapped for a TED talk, a barrier breaking TV host and journalist, a descendant of a Nazi officer trying to make sense of her family’s past, an iconoclastic, world-traveling artist, and the Queen of the Geeks, to name just a few (full list here). And no matter what kind of lives these women are living, they all share common characteristics: they foster community, they inspire their readers, and they all have experience living with mental illness.

Artists across all media and genres seem to share a collective experience with mental illness: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Art has been therapeutic for people living with mental illness since long before we had words to define them, which explains the tendency to create as a method of coping. But as much as art is therapy for the artist, it’s a catharsis for the audience. Art is the light in the darkness, the words, pictures, and sounds of what lives inside our own minds, letting us know we are not alone at the moments we most need to feel a connection.

Mental illness, which is so unfairly stigmatized, is not like diabetes or cancer or high blood pressure, the physical ailments to which it is so often compared. The organ affected by mental illness is the one programmed to detect problems, but if someone lives long enough with depression, anxiety, etc. they become almost impossible to dissociate with reality. It makes de-stigmatization all the more important, so that those who suffer will know that living in pain and fear isn’t permanent, and that they can move beyond it. It is only by allowing us to speak our truths that we can relieve the burdens of others.

Healing is not linear. If you have mental illness, even if you are being treated and feel in control, you will have another valley. Do whatever you have to do to ride out the darkness safely. It has passed before and it will again. If someone you love is living with it, you will say or do the wrong thing. They will be unresponsive and emotionless and maybe even mean, but don’t stay away because of it. Everything passes, even the worst of times. And the stories shared by the wonderful, wise women I’ve read this past year are proof that life, ridiculous, funny, tragic, beautiful, strange life, is possible and rich in all its complexity. There is never a need to opt for a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but there is great need to join the chorus of people living with mental illness and their loved ones, stripping away the stigma and sorrows until we no longer suffer losses because of it.

Everyday Monsters by Ellie Robbins

Available for purchase here.

The fantastic racism of X-Men is perhaps the most famous modern example of superpowers-as-allegory regarding the way we exploit the marginalized members of our society while still relegating them to the sidelines. Everyday Monsters clearly draws inspiration from X-Men: the isolated school for the young and gifted, the murky and mythical explanations for “talent”. But there are roots of another story of a seemingly mundane child being thrust into a world of magic flexing its influence as well.

Assume that Harry Potter, instead of being a famous hero who had been bequeathed a fortune, was instead an ordinary orphan, without so much as a Dursley standing between him and homelessness. Imagine if instead of being resigned and snarky he was aloof and resourceful, because he’d had to parent himself on the streets. Imagine if he had to navigate Hogwarts without the benefit of his name, trying to suss out friend and foe without a guide. Imagine him as a 15 year old girl from Austin and you’ll have something approaching Taylor Brock, the protagonist of Everyday Monsters.

Taylor is a street kid earning cash from impromptu fight clubs to keep herself afloat when she’s hunted down, both by a recruiter for the school that can help her harness the powers she didn’t know she had and by creatures who see her as prey. She finds education and allies, if not actual safety, in the mountains of Colorado, where she learns how deep her talents run and discovers the cross section of dimensions, and the magic creatures that live in the hidden corners of the world.

Unfortunately, though, Taylor’s ultimate discovery is that even though she is sequestered away from the troubles that plagued her in Austin–uncertainty of shelter, the violence of the streets, being profiled for crimes because she’s young and dirty and transient, authorities doing more harm than good, all the other problems faced by real life American homeless people–human nature is what it is and her greatest tribulations come in the form of bullies and blowhards.

It’s twisty enough to keep readers engaged, but the best part of Everyday Monsters is how well it lives up to both its roots and its title. Power aside, the problems faced by Taylor are ones real young girls and teens in general face every day.

The Recital by Kyle V. Hiller

Available for purchase here.

Witchcraft, whether the clear dichotomy between Glinda and the named-by-another-author-a-century-later Elphaba, the rich spectacle of Harry Potter, or the cheesy lightness of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, has been one of fantasy fiction’s primary go-to’s to illustrate not only female power, but how it is perceived by society (Both the “good witch” and the “bad witch” are outranked by a fraudulent balloon man, the most impressive witch of her generation is the sidekick to the famous main character, and the pretty, bubbly blonde is somehow a social outcast).

Small surprise then, that the dawn of witchcraft in the life of a previously perceived “muggle” girl, so often coincides with puberty. For all I love YA, I would never relive my teenage years. Teens have the bodies of adults and are pressured to have their same wisdom, but are constantly told to occupy the same roles they held as children. It’s just like witches–all the power, minus the free will.

Kyle Hiller writes a stunning first person narrative of a girl caught in the worlds of young adolescence and witchcraft, with incredible insight. In The Recital, Edith Solstice is an ordinary girl, with a father who is revealed to be less and less extraordinary through her eyes as the story unfolds. She’s a middle child living a life so typical of Philadelphia Catholic girlhood I could’ve been reading about my own family. Hiller nails how even in a city as large and diverse as Philly, neighborhoods function, for both good and ill, as small towns. Edith is sheltered and occasionally innocently insensitive, and her problems are the problems of typical kids: an unrequited crush, a dramatic falling out between her parents, the gawkiness of being torn between childish needs and adult desires. And she’s a witch.

Edith has two mentors on her path to mastering magic: her best friend Lenore, and Lenore’s mother, Miss Karen. The crux of the conflict in Edith’s story is both magical and mundane–she hurt a classmate with her powers during an argument, and seeks to make amends. It’s a telling theme for the story–we are responsible for cleaning up our own messes, even the ones we didn’t intend to make. Edith relays a microaggression she once showed this classmate early on, by the end of the novel recognizing it as such and owing up to the fact that she was a bully, whether or not she intended to be.

There are many intriguing subplots to The Recital: what qualifies as “good”, what grief does to our mindset, especially when left unprocessed, the agony of first romance, the double agony of a first romance being a recognition of one’s own queerness. There’s a sequel hook, perhaps even a series hook, towards the end, and I am eager to delve deeper into Edith’s powers.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

Imagine for a moment that the Westboro Baptist Church had major political power. That the “divine fusion” of spirituality and capitalism that fuels the megachurches of men like Joel Osteen were the majority. Children are actively kept out of school for fear of exposing them to secular teachings, girls marry young and get pregnant within seconds of the vows. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are considered virtuous.

It’s not hard to imagine, because between rampant police shootings, permissive sentences for convicted rapists, and bigoted, bullying laws that prohibit people from using almost any service, up to and including public bathrooms, because of their sexuality or gender identity, Katie Coyle’s novel Vivian Apple at the End of the World feels like nothing so much as the extreme logical endpoint for where our society is headed.

There’s a lot to like about Vivian Apple. The title protagonist is partying away on “Rapture Eve” with her fellow skeptics, dancing with other teenagers and toasting the strike of midnight, assuming that when the new day dawns and the world remains as it was, her parents and the rest of the world will disavow their cultlike fanaticism with the fictional Church of America and she can slip back into a semblance of normalcy.

When she gets home, Vivian discovers that her parents are gone and there are holes in her ceiling. News begins to pour in–the Rapture has apparently happenedon a significantly smaller scale than the Church’s devotees had planned, and the rest of the country is left to pick up the pieces. Some hunker down with renewed zealotry, some philosophize, some plunge into a second coming of Caligula’s court, while a final few continue a strong strain of denial and disavowal that the world has changed.

Vivian, lifelong meek girl defined by her good grades and 10 star rating on the parental likability scale, is tired of the world gone mad. She pairs up with her recently acquired best friend, Harp, a character that smashes about a thousand and a half stereotypes, and a boy with the most beautiful blue eyes (this is a YA novel, after all) who has insider information about the upper echelon of the Church.

The ensuing road trip takes the trio on a literal quest through the US, and a philosophical one on the nature of love, mortality, morality, motherhood, and our place in the world. It sets up a real stunner of a sequel hook while being a fully contained story in and of itself. But in a world where a 70 year old toddler brags about not paying his billionaire business taxes to thunderous applause from working class supporters, a man who opposes the very existence of most Americans and pushes for the continued and extreme marginalization of the already marginalized, who could become our president, it reads a lot like horror.

 

I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro

Available for purchase here.

Sometimes I feel like a walking garbage heap of a human being. This feeling usually surfaces while I’m reading the memoir of a contemporary woman, one who has spent our equivalent time on earth seeing the world, creating art, and fighting for the rights of humanity while I’ve spent that same time acquiring massive student debt and failing to master parallel parking. Yes, I can also throw myself a mad pity party.

Then there are memoirs like Tig Notaro’s, which details not her accomplishments (star of comedy, podcast, film, and music, not to mention her recently released Amazon series One Mississippi, which I binged over the weekend, thankyouverymuch), but rather the brief period of her life when she was assaulted with personal tragedy every time she turned around.

To wit: she was diagnosed with Colistridium difficile, a bacterial intestinal infection that can range from uncomfortable to fatal (Notaro’s nearly killed her), breast cancer showed up to attack while her immune system was still compromised, and her relationship was falling apart. And then, the ultimate tragedy, from which no medical treatments could rescue her–a freak accident claimed her mother’s life.

Notaro deserves a medal and a standing ovation for still standing after all she managed to pack into her 200 plus page memoir, and she exhibits enormous kindness towards the important people in her life, even as she bares open and dissects her complicated relationships with them in order to make some semblance of sense of her life.

She’s also bracingly honest. She treats herself as a character in her own story, and bares open her own flaws–the beginning concerns a lot of her early childhood, where she ditched school and ultimately dropped out, while still caring for her hard-partying mom.

I was raised to believe that the airing of dirty laundry spoke poorly of the one shaking the sheets, but I grew up to be a writer. Words are powerful and important. When written down, they are meditative and long-lasting, giving a voice to lived experience and creating a community across space and time, a collection of letters that let us know we are not alone and others are hearing us, listening, empathizing. Notaro’s words will prove healing for generations to come, but it is her unique voice that saved her from succumbing to the tragedies she was surrounded by. It’s important to share a story for the sake of others, but it’s equally important to speak for your own sake.

“Embers” by K.B. Carle

Can be read here.

I’ve made the point before that my favorite storytelling medium is the short story. When well done, they have all the narrative strength of a novel, but their brevity packs a greater emotional punch. If that’s true, flash fiction is a bullet wound. And “Embers” is a powerful example of just that, detailing the rage, fear, dissociation, and hopelessness of a victim in the midst of an assault.

Carle’s victim is nameless, just as so many of real life victims are unknown, even as their attackers find themselves under the scrutiny of the spotlight. Brock Turner may be facing the righteous wrath of the social media masses, but where in all the public screes against his all-too-soon freedom, in the ring of protestors outside his house, is consideration for his victim? Out of both sight and mind.

What “Embers” does, in a story of few words but relentless image, is give a glimpse to the point of view of those who are glossed over and easily forgotten in pursuit of what we call justice. It serves as a reminder of what really matters in the face of violence.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker

Available for purchase here.

To date, while the film adaptation starring Tina Fey piqued my interest in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I haven’t actually seen it. I don’t know if the movie does justice to Barker’s real life experiences in the Middle East, but I do know that Barker, if anything, undersells the position she was in, working alongside her handlers and private citizens while interviewing Taliban leaders and rural warlords. It’s said that humans can get used to anything, and so it seems, while Barker recounts her time in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the same blasé tone as she recounts her trips back and forth to Chicago, home of the Tribune, which originally dispatched her.

I’m loathe to bemoan the state of media in Western society, but I will concede that the fast pace of news, the availability of multiple sources, the thinkpieces that read as articles, all combine to contribute to shortened attention spans. Barker’s time in Afghanistan, and later Pakistan, occurred at a time when American attention and sensibilities were focused on Iraq (which has been since displaced by Iran and Syria in our cultural consciousness).

Barker does better than to glamorize her chosen profession. For as much as she was in the center of a maelstrom of international affairs, her memoir is as full of waiting as her real life was, epochs marked by long stretches of questioning and self-doubt, even while she gloried in calling Afghanistan her home.

The latter half of the book, which focuses on her time in Pakistan, is less effusive. For all that Westerners lump the entire region into one amorphous culture, it’s clear Barker had a yen for Afghanistan that Pakistan couldn’t offer, but two of her most humanizing anecdotes occur in Islamabad.

The first is when Barker, tired of being groped in Pakistani crowds, an experience she describes as unremarkable and par for the course at the time, gets fed up and grabs and wrenches the wrist of one of her assailants, leaving him whimpering in pain and embarrassment. Perhaps it was an ugly American thing to do–she was warned off doing so numerous times by her handlers–but this ugly American whooped out loud after reading that passage.

The second is Barker’s sense of real, keening grief when she details the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto was as beloved by Barker as she was her native Pakistan, and reading the story of her death is less an exercise in journalism and more a beautifully detailed description of mourning, even as she highlights the political meaning behind the loss.

A book is not an article, and all the better for that. A book, while still a limited medium, can scratch the surface of the depth and breadth of a culture, and western readers should attempt to add more to their reading lists from the area that’s dominated our new cycle for so long. It’s much greater than mainstream media would want us to believe.

 

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

Available for purchase here.

Given what fondness–and that’s a conservative term for it–millenials have for the four fabulous ladies of the Golden Girls, logic would dictate that other forms of media would follow suit and showcase the lives of older women–we’re all gonna get there one day, hopefully, and we’d all like to believe that the back end of our lives holds more promise than Jell-O, Bingo, and other sad things that end in O.

Alas, Monica Wood’s latest novel, featuring 104 year old Ona Vitkus as the protagonist, is an exception rather than a rule. It’s also heartbreaking–Ona’s life is lonely and quiet, save for the attentions of one young boy trying to earn his scout badges. Into her life he slips, unassuming and a little strange, as all the best people are, and just as quietly slips out, victim of an unknown genetic condition that claims his life on an early spring day.

The boy–always unnamed, a specter across the pages–unifies in death the disparate people in his life–namely, Ona and his estranged parents. In his memory the three combine their efforts to see that Ona achieves as many “Oldest Living Person to…” goals in the Guinness Book of Records, a particular passion of the boy’s and tougher than it seems.

There’s a lot at stake–Ona feels deeply the loss of a boy only given eleven years of life when she’s had a higher than average number to hers, and the flashbacks to her past are heavier with loss than most of us will ever experience. But there’s beauty to her will to push and achieve beyond the scope of her losses. We don’t get to pick our tragedies, and sometimes we don’t even get to pick how we respond, contrary to popular opinion. Loss is loss, and losing someone we weren’t ready to say goodbye to will never be ok. But you can be spurred towards living in their honor, and shouldering your grief with their other loved ones. Immortality is a funny thing. It exists, just not the ways we expect.

Ona’s life before the boy, but after the hardships of her past, is the great fear of all the elderly today and those yet to come. She’s treated as less than a child, even though she’s seen the beginning and end of an entire century. She’s alone and dismissed because she’s no longer vivacious, and if we can’t get ourselves out of the mindset that this is simply the sum total of growing older, it’s our own fate, to our own detriment.