July Superlatives

Only seven books this month, which is not bad given that I was socializing heavily every weekend bar the first (she says, trying to make herself feel better…) I was rubbish about reviewing them, unfortunately—only managing two, both at the beginning of the month, unsurprisingly—but I gave you a birthday books post and a Man Booker longlist post, so no complaining.

most unnerving: Kelly Link’s short story collection Magic for Beginners, which is nothing if not deeply, deeply weird. They sort of reminded me of episodes of The Simpsons, in that each one starts with what looks like the major plot, only for something to happen that creates another major plot, and then sometimes another. They’re also quite happy to be a tad incoherent; you can never really pin down a symbol or a message, the way you can even with other fantastical writers like Angela Carter. I liked that, how clearly they’re the product of a particular imagination, which you don’t have to understand.

most poignant: Just Kids, by Patti Smith. I wasn’t blown away by her prose style, but it was a sincere and, by the end, deeply sad and lovely memoir. You got an excellent sense of how insanely, effortlessly charismatic she and Robert Mapplethorpe both were, and it’s a pretty good period piece, too, describing the New York art scene of the 1970s which is now gone forever.

most disturbing: Knockemstiff, the second book I reviewed this month, a collection of linked short stories by Donald Ray Pollock. It’s like early Cormac McCarthy, or like Daniel Woodrell, in a category I’ve heard referred to as “grit lit”. There’s a lot of prescription drug abuse, alcoholism, and misery, and a tiny grain of what might be hope right at the very end.

most tidily plotted: There’s a bit of room for interpretation here, since several of the books I read in July had intricate or deeply thought out structures, but Will Cohu’s novel Nothing But Grass spans over a hundred years in the same corner of Lincolnshire countryside, and I loved how cleverly he shows the ramifications of events from generation to generation.

Prose Prize: Again, there’s wiggle room, but Light Years, James Salter’s best-known novel, is a really gorgeously written book. The effect is quite deliberate; he’s writing about people whose lives are beautiful and full of friends and love, but simultaneously empty and lacking in meaning. The sense of light and shadow, of color, of texture, and of luxury, that you get from reading the prose is palpable.

most utterly heartbreaking: I can’t remember now how I came across Patricia Smith’s collection of poetry Blood Dazzler, but I must have heard about it somewhere. It takes as its subject the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans, and it ventriloquizes such characters as a dog, an old woman, a drag queen, President Bush, the city, and the hurricane herself. It is the sort of book you have to put down every few pages so that you can look out the window and breathe deeply through your nose and not cry. It’s also a very, very significant testimony to the betrayal of the people of New Orleans by the US Government in the hurricane’s wake, and ought to be read for years to come.

my favorite: This isn’t exactly a category, but it’s the best way I can think of to describe Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, which is also about Hurricane Katrina and its effects on poor Gulf Coast residents. Ward’s protagonist, Esch, is a pregnant fifteen-year-old, and the story is told in the twelve days leading up to the hurricane, during which time Esch’s brother’s prized pit bull, China, gives birth to a litter of puppies, and Esch tells the father of her child. There’s a lot about family relationships, mother-love (Esch’s mother is dead; she’s obsessed with the story of Medea, whom she’s reading about for school) and the elemental—things you can’t fight, like a Category 5 hurricane, or loyalty to a family. It won the National Book Award a few years ago and entirely deserves it; it made an excellent companion read with Blood Dazzler.

up next: I’m currently reading Marlon James’s Booker-longlisted A Brief History of Seven Killings (I was in Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street on Sunday and could not resist). I also have to read The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber for Shiny—I thought I’d get to that last month, mais non…

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

That which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.

My US copy’s cover

Annie Dillard was twenty-nine years old when she wrote this book, a loosely structured account of a year exploring the woods, fields and waters around Tinker Creek, in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia. It isn’t precisely the landscape where I grew up—I was raised on the other side of the mountains, Charlottesville, in the Piedmont, the foothills, of the Blue Ridge—but it’s only an hour’s drive from my house, maybe less, and the basic topography is familiar. Less familiar is Dillard’s characteristic way of engaging with the world, an intoxicating combination of hard biology and religious or mystical awareness, the numinous and the natural in harmony.

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek is complicated by any attempt to work out where it sits, generically. Dillard’s voice is relentlessly first-person, which gives the whole endeavour the feeling of memoir. She starts off with an anecdote that embodies the full effect of her  dreamy but also highly sensual style:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest…Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses. It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice…I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… “Seem like we’re just set down here”, a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

We wake, if we wake at all, to mystery. Though it’s easy not to notice it in the onrush of Dillard’s words and the sweep of her wonder at discovery, what she’s writing about throughout the whole book is really that question of mystery. What kind of creator allows such wanton waste as we see in the natural world? She understands the principle of red-in-tooth-and-claw; she observes it daily. Insects in particular, she notes, are horrifying. Nearly every species has some behaviour that is revolting or appalling to humans in some way. Yet they need to live.

We wake, if we wake at all, to mystery. So take that sentence apart, phrase by phrase. We wake. She writes of the experience of living outside of yourself, observing outside of time. She writes of turning off your internal commentary—something particularly difficult, I think, for writers to do—and of simply existing. She stalks muskrats by doing this: sitting on a bridge and just waiting. They have bad eyesight. They will not notice you unless you move, but you cannot be still enough until you have slipped out of time, ceased to engage in human self-consciousness. You can see, I hope, why “mystic” and “transcendent” are words so frequently bandied about Pilgrim At Tinker Creek.

If we wake at all. And yet Dillard is absolutely not a sentimental New Age drip. She concedes, readily, that we inevitably miss a lot. This is not due entirely to our own inability to stop our inner commentaries; there are some things that the universe and physics are designed to prevent us from seeing. (There, again, another scientific concept that slyly also fits a religious model of thought. She’s not trying to trick us into accepting monotheism; dogma couldn’t be further from the point. But the coincidence is striking, she seems to say.) This saddens and alarms her:

In the great meteor shower of August, the Perseid, I wail all day for the shooting stars I miss. They’re out there showering down, committing hara-kiri in a flame of fatal attraction, and hissing perhaps at last into the ocean. But at dawn what looks like a blue dome clamps down over me like a lid on a pot. The stars and planets could smash and I’ll never know…Oh, it’s mysterious lamplit evenings, here in the galaxy, one after another. It’s one of those nights when I wander from window to window, looking for a sign. But I can’t see.

Mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… She speaks of Shadow Creek. Shadow Creek is the horror and the glory at the heart of the world. Shadow Creek is a metaphysical companion to the physical presence of Tinker Creek, running through it, under it, next to it, always. Shadow Creek is the story she tells of seeing a frog deflate before her eyes, its skin crumpling; it was being liquefied and sucked out of its own body by a predatory giant water bug. Shadow Creek is the fear and trembling we feel when we contemplate unknowable enormity: “I see dark, muscled forms curl out of water, with flapping gills and flattened eyes. I close my eyes and I see stars, deep stars giving way to deeper stars, deeper stars bowing to deepest stars at the crown of an infinite cone.”

It’s almost impossible not to quote heavily, because the writing is so incredibly beautiful. Perhaps a little overblown in places, but she writes with an almost biblical authority; the rhythms are sometimes those of Shakespeare, sometimes those of gospel tent preachers, sometimes those of the Pentateuch. At twenty-nine, Dillard had the steel-spined confidence of a born writer and a born naturalist, and this book shows it all. At the end, she writes, “And like Billy Bray I go my way, and my left foot says ‘Glory’, and my right foot says ‘Amen’.” Reading, you want to shout it out, too.

I wrote this when I was sixteen and it’s held up okay

In my junior year of high school, we had to write a different sort of essay every month. The categories of essay–process, descriptive, narrative, and so on–were determined by our textbook, which was so profoundly uninteresting that I have forgotten its name. The theory was that eventually we would have a set of personal essays, one or two of which might be used for our college applications the next year. (US college applications require at least one personal essay, which generally prompts a lot of adolescent soul-searching/panic.) This was one I wrote in November; it is optimistically saved, in my computer, as “college essay 2” (I didn’t capitalize the titles of computer files back then. I think I thought it made me somehow, obscurely, cooler.)

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since (The Great Gatsby)

I’m no F. Scott Fitzgerald (thank God). I’m no Nick Caraway either, but we do have something in common, Nick and I. He, of course, is well out of his “more vulnerable years” by the time he sets forth his father’s advice, and I have a feeling I’ve only just started in on mine. But both of us have listened to our fathers dispensing what paternal wisdom they would. Whether it is the best advice I have ever received remains in doubt; whether my father’s pronouncement even qualifies as advice, for that matter, is a question I will not attempt to answer. I do know that, like Nick Caraway, I have been “turning it over” ever since, and I may never stop.

At some point in everyone’s life, death makes a real and tangible appearance. It doesn’t necessarily happen the first time someone you know dies—dozens of great-aunts and second cousins were six feet under before I recognized death as a part of my world, the real, actual world—but make no mistake, it happens eventually. It happened to me the summer I turned sixteen, under circumstances that are irrelevant to the trajectory of this essay. Suffice to say that, at the time, I walked through the world as if everything had been turned one hundred and eighty degrees to the right. Such profound disorientation is as painful as it is sudden, and it does not go away, and there is no one—there is literally no one—to whom you can communicate all of this. Bits and pieces of it slip out, of course, but they constitute a mere twenty percent of the iceberg of grief and sorrow and rage and incomprehension that lies in your path, that you cannot get over, that you have to live on alone.

By this I am not asking for your sympathy; I am not asking for your pity. I am only trying to set up the story.

At the end of the summer my parents and I were talking about the death, which had defined the past three months of our lives. My father the atheist, who had had a couple of beers, was expounding upon his view of the afterlife. It sounded to me like something Emerson might say after partaking of magic mushrooms, and I told him so. He chuckled indulgently, which is what he does when I’m rude, then became very serious and leaned forward suddenly. “Eleanor Mary,” he said, “we live for other people. We do not live for ourselves.”

It has been nearly five months since he said this, and still I am trying to figure out what he meant by it.

To live for someone else.

There are many ways to take this. To live for someone else could mean to always put them first. To listen to them cry. To be, as a character from the excellent movie Waitress puts it, “whatever you need me to be.” But then what are you, except a repository for someone else’s needs and neuroses? What can you be when you leave yourself out of the equation? No. I am not convinced.

Other people; other people. Who do you live for? I wonder this sometimes. At my age it’s harder to tell. When you’re forty you can say, “I live for my wife, my husband, my daughter, my son. I live for my mother”; you can even say “I live for my dog,” if that’s what you’ve got. There’s nothing wrong with living for your dog. When you’re sixteen, what do you have? What belongs to you? Whom do you love? Who loves you?

Your parents, sure. The love of your parents is like a given in a geometry problem. It’s your base, your jumping-off point, but after the first few sentences, it doesn’t enter into your proof. You only use it as a place to start from.

You live for your friends, of course, if you have them. But your friends are young and selfish people, just like you, and they are fallible, just like you, and you will let each other down. It won’t be the end of the world when it happens, but it will happen.

Who are you living for? Who needs you here?

Somehow you know who needs you. I know who needs me. Family is a mathematical constant, friends are deeply flawed, but you prop each other up. You love each other. You live for each other.

If I die tomorrow, someone will suffer terribly. My death tomorrow would cause other people to go through days of such crushing grayness, such bleak internal landscapes, as no human being should be required to go through. The people who love me aren’t perfect, but I am good enough for them, and they are good enough for me, and in this way life goes on.

A few months after the death, a good friend and I were talking about it. We were in her car, it was late at night, and we couldn’t see each other’s faces. Finally she said, “You know one good thing now.”

“No,” I said. “What?”

“You know,” she said, “that you will never do this. You will never hurt anyone this way, because you know what it’s like. And I know that I will never do this to you, I will never hurt you this way, because this can’t happen twice.”

I am sixteen years old and selfish and I live to gratify my own wishes. This is all true. But if that were all, I wouldn’t make it, not for very long. I live for my mother, a part of whom would die if I did. I live for my father, despite—partly because of—his Emersonian declarations. I live for my brother, who is still young and utterly sincere in a way that hurts to witness. I live for my friends and their laughter and the darkening sky; I live for rural midnights on long dirt roads; I live for rooftops and rosemary and learning how to cook.

I live for the dead boy, because he cannot, anymore; and I live for myself, because, thank God, I can.

The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L'Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.
The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L’Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.

On owning books

When I moved, the unpacking of books was prioritized above the unpacking of clothes. Or bedsheets.
When I moved, the unpacking of books was prioritized above the unpacking of clothes. Or bedsheets.

In every book I buy, I write my name and street address. This is relatively new for me; I only started doing it as an undergraduate, when I was living close to a lot of other people who also had books–but it really had very little to do with the fear that our libraries would get confused. I have lost many things (including, once and in a manner no one has ever understood, a clarinet), but never a book. More likely, the reason lies in the fact that I also no longer lived in one stable and narrowly-defined place. Bouncing from a room in college to a house on the Cowley Road, and then St Clements, by way of various relatives’ houses scattered through the south of England, I started writing my name and new addresses in my books as a way of anchoring both myself and them. In space and time, this is where you were and when, the inscriptions on the inside of the front covers say. This is where you bought us (Hebden Bridge for Our Mutual Friend, One Tree Books in Petersfield for To the Lighthouse), this is who gave us to you (‘from Mum and Dad after Finals’, in David Sedaris’s new essay collection; ‘from N.’ in the Vintage copy of Grimm’s Tales), this is where and who you were when you picked us up to begin with (Zadie Smith’s NW for this summer’s choir tour to Italy, for instance, or a strong memory of reading Cloud Atlas on the train away from Oxford at the end of my first term.) My name and address and sometimes a detail or two on the inside front cover provide a kind of map. In future years, my children (or the children of my friends to whom I function as a beloved mad auntie–there are worse fates) will see in those inscriptions the record of my life before I knew them.

This does, however, require a certain premise, which is that those books are mine. You cannot, after all, make an heirloom of something that doesn’t belong to you. My love of books has a corollary, which not everyone shares. I love to read them–that is the main thing and the important thing–but I also love to own them.

By this I do not mean that I love to collect them. People who like rare or shiny or pretty or valuable or otherwise aesthetically distinguished copies of books have their own preferences, which I respect but don’t share. I like a battered paperback. I like a book you can take on the train, in a handbag, to the doctor’s. Beautiful books, for me, obscure the real purpose of the written word, which is to be everywhere in your life, even–no, especially–the places where beauty doesn’t last, or at least not unless backed up by some serious substance.

By “I love to own books”, I mean that I love to own books. Buying them, possessing them, knowing that they’re mine and I don’t have to give them back to anyone. I can write in them if I like (and I do–mimsy puritanism about not annotating is simply misguided); I can bend the spines if I like. I can take them with me or give them away. They’re my books.

This is partly, I think, because I’m used to owning books, and I’m used to owning books because my parents used to give me a book a week–one every Friday–from the age of two until I left home. Believe me, I am thoroughly aware of the privilege that I’ve just revealed. Buying books is expensive. My family isn’t penurious, but we’re not well-to-do either, and frankly, I think at times there were some half-secret councils about the wisdom of continuing the book purchases. Luckily for me, my parents clearly concluded that it was worth it. I know that a lot of people cannot afford to buy their books, or at least not from first-hand retailers. I’m now one of those people. My disposable income is limited and I can’t justify £8 on a book when that sum could also be put towards two or three days’ worth of dinner.

Solutions: 1) Libraries. I will come right out and say that my personal experience of public libraries has never been good. In Charlottesville they function as impromptu homeless shelters, since they’re the only public space you can legitimately occupy without having to pay for something. This makes them valuable community centers, but nevertheless a bit weird, especially when you are a thirteen-year-old girl and have just been surprised by a large snoring man in camouflage jacket sitting in the young adult section. Public libraries are chronically underfunded, their staff are generally pinch-lipped and irritable, and the chairs rarely, if ever, invite you to make yourself comfortable. This could be remedied by pouring more money into them, and I think that needs to happen–especially as people like Caitlin Moran give us an excellent idea of what a lifeline public libraries can be in communities full of intelligent, bored, understimulated, economically disadvantaged kids.

I’ve joined the Oxfordshire county library system. It’s infuriating–most of the books I want are on loan across the county, if they’re stocked at all–but worth persisting with.

2) Secondhand shops. I’m actually going to stop myself from buying anything else until I’ve read through at least 3/4 of the books I’ve already bought. But if I really need a fix, I hit an Oxfam or the book stall at Gloucester Green market on Wednesdays. The books are £2 or £3, which, problematically, means I can get a lot more of them at once, but which also means that individually speaking, they’re less of a drain on the wallet.

3) Borrowing from friends. This gives the comforting illusion that the book is yours, while still enabling you not to buy anything. Also, book-sharing is actually intensely enjoyable, even though I disparaged it a little at the beginning of this post. There’s almost nothing that produces a sense of happy companionship, that wonderful this-is-why-we’re-friends feeling, better than enthusiasm for a shared book. Book-sharing may be the best bet for continuing to read books without actually acquiring them.

4) Reading surreptitiously in bookshops. Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t. When your favorite author releases a new book in hardback and you know you have got to read it, do you a) sell your soul to the devil to raise the cash, b) steal it and inevitably get in serious trouble, or c) find a comfy place in the bookshop and read the whole thing through in a few sittings? Duh. I did this with Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Best. Decision.

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