I’ve been really interested in essay collections (since I just finished writing what I hope is one) and have been making an effort to seek out collections by women. A few years ago I read some of Meaghan O’Connell‘s writing for The Cut and found myself laughing and nodding along. I’d been looking forward to her book for months.
Although I saw online that the description of getting the epidural in “Birth Story” made at least two (!) readers faint on the subway, I actually found myself feeling overwhelmed with the tender vulnerability of how closely life and death brush together during labor and delivery. Not nauseated, but actually baby-fever-ish. O’Connell is funny, but she’s honest, too. Her honesty, though, isn’t frightening and grim but intimate and a relief.
O’Connell explains that she started writing more seriously and with more focus after her son was born because she realized if she didn’t, he could become an excuse for any number of things she wanted to but did not do with her life. Although my early motherhood was different in so many ways than hers, this sentiment resonated so much that I wrote her my very first author fan email (!).
I started writing essays about motherhood and pregnancy because I felt like there was nothing out there like what I wanted to read–everything was either medical (potentially useful but not always what I was looking for), glib “aren’t kids jerks” (which is just not my vibe), or uncomfortably saccharine (I’m newly refusing to use the word “sentimental” as an artistic insult…more on that some other time maybe). This book was that. Along with Sarah Menkedick’s Homing Instincts, it begins to fill that void and I have been recommending these two books to every relatively-new mom I know.
I loved this book. I had read some of George Saunders’s short stories with a sort of academic interest (“oh, look what he’s doing here!”) but never really felt like his writing clicked with me. Then, I read “My Writing Education” in The New Yorker and loved it. I loved him–his kindness, thoughtfulness, carefulness.
When Lincoln in the Bardo was published, for some reason I thought it was really long and very historical. If only I’d realized it was about ghosts and the Tibetan concept akin to limbo, I would have read it right away.
As I guess everyone else already knew, it was not a traditional piece of historical fiction. I went through an intense Lincoln obsession in eighth grade and was thinking somehow that knowledge would taint the reading experience (either I’d be mad that I didn’t remember much from all those biographies I read in the mid-90s, or I’d remember so much that I’d be wondering when Secretary Seward was going to make an appearance).
The novel is, again as I guess everyone else already knew, smart and thoughtful and kind and strange and haunting. My mom and I spent some time talking about the minister in the Bardo–what had he done? why was he there?–and finally landed on the idea that he’d feared God, and taught others to fear God, in a way that had prevented him from finding peace with the end of his life (in the novel, and from what very limited understanding I have of Tibetan Buddhism, that acceptance is what allows people to leave the Bardo and begin their subsequent lives). It’s been a long time since I encountered a book that made me want to re-enter the world of the novel rather than do research as a means deciphering the points that confused me.
I’d avoided reading this book because I thought it might feel voyeuristic or sensationalist. It didn’t. The writing was good, a mix between honest personal reflection, sociological research, and careful, respectful piecing together the last months of Madison Holleran’s life. The book is also a lot less specific to running (I’d even imagined it would be relevant to an even more niche audience of high school distance runners and adults who are enmeshed in the world of national-class high school track). It’s not. It’s about the hollow relationships on social media and loneliness and depression and pressure and the impossible contradictions inherent in these struggles.
There are several different ways in which Fagan’s book acknowledges nuanced, paradoxical aspects of mental health struggles. Quitting is a sign of weakness. Except when it’s the harder thing to do. Social media is isolating, except that social media lead many struggling athletes to Fagan after she published an article about Maddy in ESPNW. Pushing kids harder makes them stronger, except when it breaks them down.
If I were still teaching, I’d find a way to read this book with my students. I’d give it to all the girls on my track team. I’m thinking a lot about the times I made the call to tell someone to toughen up (academically or athletically, and in either case usually in more subtle terms), about when I tell my kids to toughen up.
I’m working on a longer piece about Marilynne Robinson and faith and my love of Housekeeping that I hope will be out soon! In the meantime, some thoughts on Robinson’s essay collection due out February 20:
Robinson’s essays are less concerned with religious community or any particular theology (though they are densely theological) and more with the ways in which ignoring the sacred, reducing what she calls Being to misapplied maxims of economics or evolution denies us of an, or she would say the, essential humanity. She refers to reductive interpretations of Freudian psychology, Eugenics, and moral capitalism as “horrible children of half-baked science.” One of the central ideas running throughout Robinson’s essays is that we’ve foolishly allowed a belief in markets to replace morality. Referring to the popular references to “cost-benefit analysis,” in the collection’s first essay, she writes that “[w]e accept the legitimacy of economic theory that overrides our declared values,” and that by this measure the Left and the Right are equally to blame in our collective move away from a moral society. “The left does not understand the thinking of the right because it is standing too close to have a clear view of it,” she writes in the preface.
It’s hard to admit that I was afraid to read Between the World and Me. When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay was published in 2015 I’d heard Coates on Where We Live that spring and by the time a friend in my bookclub suggested we read Between the World and Me that fall, I stiffened at the possibility of feeling responsible for the racism, violence, and oppression I’d been so horrified to watch unfolding in the news all summer. One of the things that made me feel nervous and scared was Coates’s claim that trying to become “a little bit more enlightened” was not enough. If that wasn’t enough then what could I do?
On a personal level, the biggest change since 2015 is that I have a son. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a mother to a son, what it means to raise a young man in America in 2018, and part of that means confronting questions about race. (To be clear, this is part of being a citizen of the United States in 2018, not just a mother or a mother of a son.)
Anyway, I listened to Coates read the book. The writing is beautiful, the argument at times uncomfortable (at least for well-intentioned white women like me), That’s the a point of reading, though. I’m trying to read more things that make me uncomfortable because that’s something it’s easy to stop doing once you’re reading in the wild and have the freedom to engage selectively.
I pre-ordered Fire Sermon after reading Nick Ripatrazone’s interview with Jamie Quatro at LitHub. I’d read Quatro’s short stories after meeting her at Sewanee several years ago and loved her intensely honest writing about running, love, and faith.
The writing in Fire Sermon is similarly intense, but because it’s a novel (even though it’s non-linear and narrated through journal entries, letters, sermons) I felt a little claustrophobic with the intimacy of the language and the story itself. I loved the structure, though, and felt English-teacher-affirmation when I saw the acknowledgement of Virginia Woolf’s influence. There are chapters that describe Maggie and Thomas’s house aging in a way that reminded me so much of To the Lighthouse.
The concept of passion (even adulterous passion) being spiritual was fascinating, strange, and uncomfortable to consider, but I’m trying to read more things that make me uncomfortable (intellectually, emotionally, maybe even politically).
I didn’t know anything about Jesmyn Ward’s novel except that it won the National Book Award. I’d heard her read parts of Salvage the Bones (which also won the National Book Award) on NPR and really liked both the writing and the interview with her that preceded it.
If I were still teaching, I’d be asking for a class set of Sing, Unburied, Sing and trying to figure a way to pair it with As I Lay Dying and/or Beloved. The writing was so, so good. I find haunting and ghosts endlessly fascinating both metaphorically in literature and in a more literal way. I’m trying to read fiction with a mind toward revising my own novel (which, like Ward’s novel is told through multiple perspectives). I read ravenously and urgently because there was something at stake (I was really worried about a toddler girl’s health, but there are also other long-term disasters looming on the horizon). I read so fast that I know I missed some of what Ward was doing with allusion, song, history, and language.