THE LIBRARY 2015
FUCK YOU AND OMG I LOVE YOU
RACHEL READS SUPERLATIVES 2015
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! I hope you, wherever you are, are not buckling under the imagined pressures of all the things you hope to do this year, and also that you are carpe diem-ing this brand new day of a brand new year.
And here, at last, I reveal the book I most hated and the book I most loved this year, hopefully with comparable amounts of gusto and shouting. SPOILERS ABOUND so watch out! Drumroll and sound the trumpets and pass the envelope! Here we go!
THE VERY WORST BOOK I READ IN 2015
A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara
Oh, but I love a big book. Give me pages upon pages and more pages besides so that when I finish, I can behold all the dilemmas of my life and console myself by saying, "Well, I did read infinite Jest, so there's that."
I had a big reaction to this big book, so what follows does indeed prove that A Little Life is not a bad book - and it's not. I just hated it.
EVERYBODY was talking about this book in 2015 and how it would just devastate whoever read it. It will hijack your life! It will leave your soul depleted! It will scoop out your heart and fling it around the room and poop on it and you will be sadder than you were when Snape shoved Dumbledore off the tower!
Expectations, needless to say, were high.
A Little Life begins innocently enough. We meet four friends from a fancy-pants private college - Willem, J.B., Malcolm, and Jude - all from backgrounds varied and diverse. To be totally honest, I was gleaning tips on how to write The College Novel that's been banging around in my head, because I, too, went to a little liberal arts school in Bumblefuck, Northeast America, and had a pretty solid clique who are all just begging to be fictionalized but who were also fairly standard among the lunatics that comprised the student body, faculty, and general populace of that crazy little place on the Hill. And who doesn't want to write the next Secret History?
So we meet these friends, and we revel in their friendship, and we follow their exploits as they come to terms with their ambitions and their ancestry, etc etc, and all the while there are mysterious allusions to Jude's past. He has dreadful health. He is super secretive. He is also brilliant and sensitive and somehow terribly damaged though how - what exactly happened to him - is never quite clear.
Until it is.
But more on that in a minute. I'm at page, oh, 300ish of this giant brick of a book, and already I have some issues. Of course these brilliant young men all move to New York City because of course they do because fuck the rest of the world, only New York matters! Is there anything more cliche than Young Man Tries to Make It in the Big City? Yes, this is a purely personal vendetta, but on behalf of people Trying to Make It in Places That Are Not New York City (such as myself and the press where I work and QUITE A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE), some geographic diversity would be nice. Kudos on diversifying everything else, but, mercy, am I sick and tired of New York City Books.
Also! Lord, but these boys are successful. One is a brilliant painter! One is a brilliant actor! And one is Jude, who is clearly a genius! And they are all quite wealthy! Or at least affording their NYC lifestyle very well! They travel internationally! They are, in short, the definition of bourgeoisie! They drink fine wine!
Jude, especially, is just stunning. He is a baker and a brilliant lawyer and, as the other fellows frequently remark, he is just beautiful. But oh, he is troubled! So troubled. You thought Heathcliff was troubled, with his moors and his passion and his brooding? Meet Jude.
Turns out, young Jude has suffered quite a bit at the hands of some capital-E-Evil people. The monastery where he grew up was full of rapists, including the one who kidnaps him and pimps him out so he is riddled with STDs in addition to the scads and scads of psychological scarring such a miserable upbringing would involve. He makes it to a foster home - after some more raping - and is ultimately adopted by a doctor who locks him in a basement and then, one night, decides to set Jude loose in a field and chase him with his car and then run him over.
Guys. I love horror. I watch what commonly gets called "torture porn" for kicks. I already told you I love serial killers! But the amount of abuse and torture and pain and suffering in A Little Life simply, as this New York Times review says, defies belief.
So the abuse is gratuitous, as others have noted. The situations are more than a little outlandish. But here, ladies and babies, is where I lost it with A Little Life.
Jude cuts himself. Jude cuts himself a lot. Jude has a special friend doctor, whose name I don't remember, who he sees regularly to deal with all his diseases and busted up legs from getting run over by a sadist and who, time and time and TIME AGAIN, tells Jude to stop cutting himself and seek some help. I think Jude does see a therapist at least once, but it just doesn't take. Meanwhile, Jude hides his razors and admits his self-abuse is a kind of indulgence but his special doctor friend essentially lets him continue. Sometimes he remarks about how there are fewer cuts than before so hey, progress!
Friends! Maybe you know this, but I, too, have some of the old emotional imbalances up in my head! I have dabbled in the act of self-harm! I got help! I take medication! I try to live a mindful and balanced life with varying degrees of success!
And if I had a friend who was slicing themselves silly - regardless of how many rapes he or she had endured - I WOULD HELP THEM.
Jude is surrounded by love. He is adopted by a kindly law professor. He has a beautiful relationship with Willem (after, of course, being smacked around and thrown down some stairs by a previous boyfriend). And he tries to kill himself and, eventually, he is successful. The end. And that is the true abuse Jude endures - that his lover, his adopted father, and HIS DOCTOR really can't save him though he is begging, through all 700 pages, to be saved.
A Little Life was nominated for a lot of very major awards. As far as ambition goes, the book is impressive. Seeing the long-term repercussions of trauma played out over - wait for it - a little life was truly remarkable. But there was so much I couldn't stomach and moreover, couldn't believe. Maybe Jude is today's Holden Caulfield, a character who either needs a slap in the face or a fat dose of Prozac and a hug, depending on the mood you're in when you meet him. The book embodies the adage "Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," but if you ask me, which you inherently are by reading this long-winded rant, Yanigahara could've made the point with a bit more nuance and a bit less sodomy.
THE VERY BEST BOOK I READ IN 2015
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget - Sarah Hepola
I had a great year. It wasn't 365 days straight of joy and sunshine, but, for the most part, it was a solidly good year. I didn't go to the hospital for suicidal ideation like I did in 2012. I didn't grit my teeth and war with my ambitions and entitlement in any workshops like I did from 2005 onward. I made a few too many Grand Conclusions, yes, and I didn't walk my dogs enough, yes, and I could've been a better employee and friend and daughter and partner, and I am physically at the highest weight I've ever been at, yes, but these are all things I am actively aware of and hoping to change.
What I really did that I really shouldn't have in 2015 was blackout from drinking. Only twice, and only on Capital-O-Occasions where everyone was drinking and the mood was festive and celebratory, and I didn't wreck my car or get arrested or come to mid-coitus in a Parisian hotel on top of a man I didn't remember meeting, which is how Sarah Hepola opens her truly brave memoir, Blackout.
But I did blackout. I definitely did.
Recovery memoirs are rampant these days. Throw a rock into the internet and you'll probably find someone spilling their guts about their trauma. Hepola knows this - she was a personal essays editor at Salon - and that awareness is key in Hepola's tone throughout the book. She is keenly observant of her own behavior and forthright in admitting her foibles. She is absolutely part of the Blonde Sisterhood of Women I Want to Be, including Cheryl Strayed and, love her or hate her, Elizabeth Gilbert. (I also reread Eat Pray Love this year since I was going to Italy and yep, it irritated me tremendously but also showed how much I've grown as a reader, a writer, and truthfully, a woman since I first read it in 2009).
I started Blackout two days ago and my heart was in my throat the entire time because oh, my god, this is me. I could've written this book. I might have, and I might still, because my relationship with drinking has been troublesome (to say the least) since I first really fell into a bottle of Bacardi Raz in a dorm room when I was 18. I spend way too much energy asking the same questions Hepola did: Am I an alcoholic? Is alcoholism (like my depression) a disease? What if this, or that, or the other thing?
Sobriety is a scary thought and I am not making any Sky-High Sober-or-Die proclamations. I drank boatloads of wine in Italy and loved them all, and I will probably always enjoy the combination of beer-and-a-cigarette. I am still working towards a safe and comfortable way to unwind and agree wholeheartedly with this because, due to chemistry or psychology or whatever you want to call it, the most I regret the morning after some weed is all the chips I ate and not, as Hepola describes with eerie familiarity, the horrible things I may have said, the clothes I may have removed, the danger I may have waltzed into and the damage I've done.
Plus, hangovers suck and I ain't getting any younger.
So thank you, Sarah Hepola, for your book, which I'll be reading again and buying for everyone (when it comes out in paperback because I am broke) and returning to for as long as it takes me to figure myself out. I grabbed my highlighter on page 210:
Addiction was the inverse of honest work...I drank away nervousness and I drank away boredom and I needed to build a new tolerance. Yes to discomfort, yes to frustration, yes to failure, because it meant I was getting stronger.
And, on the next page, when she's discussing the newfound discomfort of learning to play guitar: It put a plum in my heart to be the person who wanted to play but could not bear to play...To know there is a book in you but to never find the nerve to wrestle it out.
This year, I'm saying yes. I'm finding the nerve and I'm wrestling.
CURTAIN FALLS! APPLAUSE! STANDING OVATION! CONFETTI AND BALLOONS!
So there it is, America. See you next year when I will have read even more and tune in soon for more Instadogs, more Best Things, and more other stuff, too.
HAPPY NEW YEAR I LOVE YOU