An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Available for purchase here.

So much of who we are as people is based on the social contract. We give non-committal answers to questions like “How was your day?”, we close the door when we relieve ourselves, then spray Febreze when we’re through. Even concerning the people with whom we are most intimate, there are some niceties that we all observe, a surface level veneer of politeness.

There are brief epochs of time when we suspend our superficiality and expose our most raw, primal selves. Extreme youth and advanced age, extreme illness and grief, childbirth. Know someone in those circumstances, and you truly know them.

Stealing that kind of intimacy is the cruelest act one can perpetuate, which is the circumstance Mirielle, the protagonist of Gay’s An Untamed State, finds herself. Mirielle is an American woman visiting her re-patriated parents in Port-au-Prince when she’s kidnapped in a smoothly orchestrated event outside the gates of her parents’ palatial home. She manages to remain calm at first–kidnapping is a common problem for wealthy families in an impoverished country. Mirielle can offhandedly think of five friends and family members who’ve experienced it.
Mirielle’s father is a man unmoved by sentiment and designed to play hardball. He refuses to meet the ransom demands, and the gang of kidnappers vent their frustrations and cruelties on Mirielle. She is beaten, raped, and starved. They withhold the bathroom, and her breasts, from which she’s still nursing her toddler son, run painfully dry.

In the aftermath of Mirielle’s kidnapping and eventual return, the true complexities of her trauma emerge. Her body has been destroyed, her brain is racked with PTSD, and upon her return to the United States, her casually racist mother-in-law becomes her port in the storm of her ordeal.

Mirielle is used as a pawn so frequently in her story–ignored by her father, abused by the ringleader of the kidnappers, beset by a husband who ignorantly tries to compare his fears to her trauma–but always she, and her native Haiti, are the crown jewels of the novel. Exposed at their ugliest, most primitive selves, Mirielle and Haiti could easily be dismissed as a tragedy, but both are so much more.

Neither Mirielle nor Haiti can be healed in one fell swoop. Only by peeling back the layers of what they’ve survived and exploring the root causes of their pain can anyone hope to be the port in the storm. But both woman and country have so much more to unveil to a world willing to offer support.

Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Available for purchase here.

This is not a book. This is a fucking floatation device.

If booklust is real (and it is), I’ve had it hardcore for Laura Jane Grace’s memoir since she first announced its inception. I structured this entire blog with reading it as my ultimate end goal, long before the US went through a political mindfuck of an election that has shaped every facet of this year’s art and pop culture.

I don’t mean to take away from TRANNY as its own animal. Grace is a gifted storyteller with a compelling story to tell. It’s hard to reconcile the demure, articulate, warm person Grace is in interviews with the younger self she unveils in her pages. The charisma is there, and the keen intelligence, but closeted Grace is achingly angry, depressed, dysphoric, and reactionary. Her story of combatting her internalized fear and shame with punk rock, anarchist politics, and an almost absurd amount of drugs is heartbreaking and eloquently rendered. Her choice to be honest about her struggles post-coming out, being a newly single parent still figuring out her own shit, neatly avoids the fairy tale ending and the narrative is all the better for it.

TRANNY would be a great story at any time, but being released exactly one week after half the country decided to hit the reset button on civil rights feels like finding port in a storm. The president-elect is a clueless bigot, his chief strategist is a blatant white supremacist, and his VP would rather electrocute kids than have them grow up to be like me or my friends.

I can’t claim that Grace’s struggle with her gender is the same as mine with my sexuality–that’s kind of the point of closets. They are all specific to the individual, but all marked by shame and isolation. If it was a shared space where we had the benefit of each others’ love and wisdom, no one would ever feel the drive to come out.

Every time Grace tries to commit to the masculinity foisted on her at birth, I’m reminded of every time I tried to force myself to be straight–and the utter self-loathing I felt when I failed. Every out and open LGBTQ+ person who provides a platform for these conversations gets us closer to a generation that won’t grow up without community or support.

It would be easy (idiotic, but easy) to dismiss Grace’s memoir as one in a series of rock BTS stories, but it’s so much more. It’s 306 pages of forward momentum. Grace isn’t going backwards, and neither am I. And so long as we stay loud, and focused, neither is society.

 

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.

Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer

Available for purchase here.

When Meg Wolitzer released The Interestings (pick up that pilot, Amazon!), I fell instantly in love. She’s one of the authors I can actually list when I’m asked what my favorite book is (although why people use the singular is beyond me), and I stumbled upon this rerelease of one of her earliest novels while spending a perfect rainy day wandering the aisles of Barnes and Noble (bliss).

Swarthmore College is home to gifted intellectuals, old buildings, beautiful trees and the three notorious “death girls”, young women who are each fascinated by a gifted but troubled poet–Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Lucy Asher, the latter of whom is as fictional as Claire Danziger, the primary death girl of the narrative, who finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the the brief life of her idol, pulling her away from her friends and her schoolwork, as well as a blossoming new relationship.

To be honest, Claire’s boyfriend is the least interesting thing about her, and could be lifted right out of the book without damaging the story at all–it might even improve. He has shades of the dreaded Nice Guy syndrome: Claire treats him pretty horribly, but he in turn keeps imposing upon her the normal girl behavior he’d like her to display, while she’s been upfront that she’s gloomy, quiet, and reserved.

More compelling is the symbiosis between Claire and Lucy Asher,  too young to be a contemporary of Plath or Sexton, but just as darkly brilliant, just as tragically gone. Claire’s obsession with her leads to finding a job with the Asher family under false pretenses, but Claire is just the logical extreme of a society that implicitly loves it when our stars burn too brightly. We romanticize the tragic loss of a brilliant life cut short, imposing a beauty that doesn’t exist.

In her time with the Ashers, Claire begins to see both herself and Lucy for who they really are–women confronted with the reality of life and the bleakness inside them, both trying so very hard to cope with the darkness they face. Lucy, unable to articulate her fears and needs, was ultimately beyond help, but Claire’s time with her family proves healing not only for Claire, but for Lucy’s parents. It’s the greatest lesson we can learn from the tragic loss of suicide–how to prevent it from happening again.

 

 

The Girls by Emma Cline

Available for purchase here.

Some books are hidden gems, and some are beacons flashing from the shelves, suggested reading lists, and entertainment review pages for an entire summer. Guess into which category Emma Cline’s debut falls? No reader, no matter how casual, could resist the allure Cline’s fictionalized account based off Charles Manson and the Helter Skelter murders. It’s got all the ingredients of a delicious and scandalous summer read–young girls, teenage lawlessness, cults, the drug soaked days of the sixties, seduction, violence, murder.

The most compelling figure at the center of Evie Boyd’s first person account of being lured into the ranch dwelling cult in the wilds of California is, shockingly, not Russell, the Manson figure leading wayward youth into debauchery and rebellion, but one of his acolytes, Suzanne, the diffident free spirit who initially recruits Evie from her stifled life of upper class neglect.

Evie, who narrates both as a teen and adult, has been condemned to an ordinary existence by the divorce between her self-absorbed parents, and is drawn in by the feral freedom of Suzanne and her friends. But while she straddles the worlds of the commune and the suburbs, Evie never quite loses her fascination with Suzanne. It’s a combination of longing and lust that feels very much like love, but hurts far more than the affection and sex she receives for her efforts. Even those of us unmarked by manipulative egomaniacs and the worlds they create for themselves will recognize how very human and universal Evie’s plight is.

While the novel hurtles toward the inevitable conclusion, Suzanne uses the last flicker of her own independence to spare Evie her participation in the brutal murders that would come to define both Russell and the summer in the cultural consciousness. Neither Evie nor the reader truly knows why–it’s possible Suzanne herself doesn’t know.

Modern Evie’s life is quiet and unremarkable. There’s a sense of longing for the freedom of her misspent youth, tinged with guilt that she even misses it. But she remains fixated on Suzanne and the other girls, the innocent waifs whose fragile beauty is at odds with the brutality of their crimes. It’s a compelling reminder of how we underestimate those we perceive to be innocents–modern Evie, who should know better than anyone, finds the presence of a young woman reassuring when her quiet evening is disrupted by teen strangers. Luckily it’s a better outcome than the Sharon Tate expy of her youth.

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Available for purchase here.

There is nothing more profound than the bond between parent and child. It’s one we hope lasts beyond time, place, and even death.

It’s the premise of Sharon Guskin’s novel The Forgetting Time, the story of four-year-old Noah and his bizarre phobias and violent memories. It’s at once a spiritual saga and compelling soft science fiction, but above all, it’s the story of mothers, loss, and healing.

Much of the story is wrapped in an elegant spoiler, and I can’t go too far into the review without ruining the story for readers. Suffice it to say that Noah, the child at the center of the novel, is not only his mother’s son, but his very existence is a balm for the grief and guilt of another mother, forced into her circumstance of loss by the carelessness of someone else.

Guskin’s novel touches on topical points of interest–race, class, single parenting, gun violence, toxic masculinity. I don’t know if it could ever truly be written in any other time, and it could easily become preachy and self-effacing, but the themes lying underneath are timeless and universal, and Guskin’s words are nuanced and delicate.

We come from a very binary thinking place, and as such we are quick to take a position, defend it, and cast the naysayers as our enemies. I’m as guilty as anyone else of this phenomenon, and probably guiltier than some. It all results in sound and fury, the problem increasingly challenged but never changed. There’s a solution hidden in the nebulous place occupied by empathy and thoughtfulness, but it takes a great deal of setting aside our own egos to arrive there.

Shelter by Jung Yun

Available for purchase here.

Wealth covers a multitude of sins. We resent the wealthy, both angered and frightened by their ability to control our fates with a flick of the wrist, but they pit us (we and us being the 99% of the population whose bank accounts are more concerned with rent and food than with transferring cash to Zurich) against each other in our open bid to join their ranks.

That’s the nature of American capitalism. John Steinbeck said it best: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Kyung Cho, the protagonist of Shelter has spent his adult life living on credit in an attempt to emulate the lifestyle of his parents, Jin, an unpopular but brilliant professor who rakes in millions with his patents, and Mae, Kyung’s mother who devotes herself totally to Jin even in the periods when she’s the object of his abuse.

The novel opens with Mae, naked and bloody, staggering onto her estranged son’s property, nearly catatonic with fear and grief, sobbing about how Jin is even more badly hurt. What follows is a saga of violence, from the brutal beating suffered by the Chos and their housekeeper, to Jin’s history of abuse and monetary manipulation, to the quieter emotional violences enacted across lines of race, class, and family–Kyung’s wife Gillian is totally in the dark about her husband’s history with his parents and wonders why they can’t turn to his parents for help with their astronomical debt, or as grandparents for their young son. Gillian’s father and brother don’t like Kyung, Mae adores Jin at the expense of her relationship with her son (alluded but never named as Stockholm Syndrome), and the poor, undocumented housekeeper is first victimized by home invaders and then by the bureaucratic process that dehumanizes both her and her experiences.

All throughout, material goods and favors are used as a panacea for emotional connection, and as compensation for emotional abuse. And because the characters crave them, the wheels of change are never fully set in motion, which portends a truly compelling end.

 

Real Artists Have Day Jobs by Sara Benincasa

Available for purchase here.

If you are a patient type of person, you can pace yourself by reading one of Benincasa’s essays every week. 52 essays–a year of quality, no-nonsense examination of life as an artist.

I read this book in a day and a half. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one I’m sorely lacking, if only because Benincasa is an incredible writer, and if there is such a thing as fate, her book came into my life at a good time. Writer friends of mine are seeing greater and more visible success with their work, while I feel stalled and blocked on mine. Artists are supposed to be collaborative, not competitive, but there’s a greater, human compulsion to compare ourselves with our compatriots, and it’s a struggle when you find yourself lacking.

Which is why Benincasa’s latest venture is a prescription strength cure for Imposter Syndrome, that insistent little voice in the head of everyone who dares to call themselves an artist (maybe other professions, too, I don’t know. I do know I never felt this way claiming myself as a teacher.) Real Artists Have Day Jobs is a reminder that creating art makes you an artist. Not supporting yourself with art, not having it recognized as such, not your first gallery show, publication, record/role/whatever. Most creators of art are working crap jobs with crap hours, living in tiny apartments or with family, and they are no less valid than artists who show at MoMA or write really excellent books.

Benincasa also gets personal, detailing her struggles with mental health and her experiences as being a part of what I call the invisible queer–queer identified people who “read” as straight, and come out over and over again throughout their lives, who have their identities invalidated when they enter certain relationships.

It’s also important to recognize that Benincasa needed to be her age and have her experiences in order to write this book. I felt a keen sense of failure when I turned thirty having not published a book or otherwise made a name for myself as a writer. After 29, nothing we do is really considered precocious or impressive for our ages. Young as I am, I no longer have the benefit of youth.

What I do have, thanks to my widening perspective due to this yearlong sojourn into the world of women writers, is the knowledge that I am ten years more accomplished and interesting than I was at twenty. I can cave under the weight of my lack of accomplishment now, or I can work steadily, knowing that my best is still ahead of me. I choose the latter.