Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Rules Do Not Apply

My stylish friend from New York had Ariel Levy’s memoir, THE RULES DO NOT APPLY, at the top of her list. So, when I saw the book perched on the shelf at our down-home, trusty library, I figured I’d best snap it up. I may live in the boonies, but NYC non-fiction keeps me fresh.

Of Levy’s memoir, I devoured it in the course of a few days. Cheryl Strayed read the thing in “one long, rapt sitting.” There’s a compulsion to the book’s style, an almost-addictive quality also present in Cat Marnell’s NYC tell-all, HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE. Levy’s memoir shares other qualities with Marnell’s; both analyze addiction, writing, and how to sustain the two. But where Marnell’s book languishes in the booze, the pills, and the name brands, Levy’s transcends a hip Manhattan life to encompass the realm of motherhood, the life of a New York City lesbian, and the landscape of a wild Mongolian steppe. Levy’s book is about living as an urbanite, a social climber, a hipster intellectual. It’s also about living as a daughter, a wife, a traveler, a philosopher, and a mother—even if that motherhood only lasted for a moment.

Ariel Levy, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, won the National Magazine Award in 2014 for her essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” The essay, published with The New Yorker in 2013, describes Levy’s decision to travel to Mongolia for an assignment – at five months pregnant. Empowered by the strength of her own body and the heat of her skyrocketing career, Levy promises herself the risk is worth it: I would teach my child the power of fearlessness,” she writes. “I would tell him, ‘When you were inside of me, we went to see the edge of the earth.’"
What happens over the course of The New Yorker essay – and THE RULES DO NOT APPLY – is brutal to read. Ultimately, Levy loses her child on the floor of a Mongolian bathroom in a hotel room. She’s alone, and for a few moments, the baby is alive. She snaps a picture with her phone. Afterwards, numb with grief, she shows people the photo of the tiny baby, born too early to ever have survived, and the essay ends with her guilt, her sorrow, and her shame. Just when you think you’ve got everything, the essay seemed to be saying, the rules suddenly apply.

THE RULES DO NOT APPLY: A MEMOIR is “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” expanded. In just over 200 pages, Levy explores her career as a journalist and, eventually, a New Yorker contributor. Complexity abounds in this memoir, whose style mirrors a chronicle by Joan Didion or Cheryl Strayed—the narration jumps in time and place, but remains anchored a singular, traumatic incident. From stories of Levy’s grandmother, Tanya, a bold Russian immigrant, to details of assignments from all over the world—Africa, Los Angeles, Maureen Dowd’s apartment—Levy shows us how she fought for what she wanted, and how, for the longest time, she had it all.

The book’s strongest passages explore with courage Levy’s long-term relationship with Lucy, a brazen, assertive gold star who takes the narrator under her expert wing. THE RULES DO NOT APPLY is punctuated with examinations of the wealth dynamics at play in the relationship, the roles each woman assume, and, most fascinatingly, Lucy’s decline into alcohol addiction. In that realm, THE RULES DO NOT APPLY is reminiscent of Sue William Silverman’s extraordinary memoir LOVE SICK: ONE WOMAN’S JOURNEY THROUGH SEXUALADDICTION. Both narrators explore the role of addict from the viewpoints of the psychologists they’ve worked with; the result is a revelatory discussion of addiction, made more personal – and hugely more interesting – by the medium—the essay or memoir form. 

THE RULES DO NOT APPLY belies its name, for the book, in the end, is about how the rules really do apply, however hard we try to escape their scope. Slurring words really does mean she’s drunk. It really does get harder to get pregnant as you age. And as Maureen Dowd shrewdly tells our narrator, “Everyone doesn’t get everything.”

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Running Wild

The first time I heard Robin MacArthur read, I was twenty-five and in my third semester of graduate school. Robin was a semester ahead of me, and she intimidated me, though I realized years later, when I got to know her, that she shouldn’t have, and that she definitely didn’t want to. Still, there’s something distinctive about Robin, something uncannily familiar and exotic, worldly and down-home, intimate and unattainable. 

Her writing is like that, too: it’s many things at once, like the best writing is.

That first time I heard Robin read, none of us had published anything yet. Still, it was clear that Robin was going places. She read “Running Water,” an essay about her grandmother’s rugged life on a rambling old farm, and I cried at the end, amazed at the beauty of Robin’s writing and also the sadness, the grief at the end of the story—grief I realized years later was actually joy. When I became Robin’s friend, I asked for the story for the literary journal I manage, and miraculously, Robin still had it, unpublished and all. “I’ve always had bad luck with publication,” she said, her shrug perceptible through the emailed note.

The second time I heard Robin read might have been a year after the first. She’d had a baby and returned to the program, and now, we were graduating at the same time. For her final reading, Robin chose “The Heart of the Woods,” the second story in her new collection, HALF WILD.

I’ll never forget hearing “The Heart of the Woods.” It was beautiful, surely, just like “Running Water,” but there was a darkness to the story’s core that I still can’t get out of my mind. As Robin read, the afternoon faded into dusk outside. The story is about a woman who has found success in a Vermont town. Her father, still poor, lives in a trailer she visits one day—a trailer tucked back into the heart of the woods. In spare, wretched, lovely prose, Robin shows us these lives, rippled with past anguish that penetrates every moment. The story’s ending isn’t a slap, or a push, or a stab: it’s a slice with a very sharp knife. It’s something dark and sick and sad, and in the end, like all of Robin’s extraordinary stories, it’s the most beautiful thing the reader has ever seen.

Yesterday, I saw an old friend from the same graduate program, and I mentioned Robin’s book. “The book is about loving a place and wondering how you can leave,” I explained. “No, the book is about transcending a place, whether you leave or not,” I decided, correcting myself. My friend nodded, considering, and I changed my mind a final time. “The book’s about a hating a place,” I said finally. And to hate something you must love it fiercely. This is HALF-WILD: A kind of love that sometimes looks like hate. A place’s cruel grip on your heart. As resonant and tightly plaited as a novel, HALF-WILD’s eleven stories tell of those who both adore and despise their lives, their choices, their families and, most deeply, their land.

Awed, tearful, and mightily proud, I raise my glass to Robin, who showed us that it really can be done.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

On Reviews

The best reviews don't come from the New York Times.

Today, I was perusing my Amazon book page (you do this when you have a new book), and I came across this brand-new review:

I read Kate's book while meandering through Europe this spring. Patagonian Road came with me to the rugged coast of the Baltic Sea, to little mountain huts in the French Alps, through the busy streets of Berlin and to the snowcapped peaks on the border of Italy and Austria. Every night I turned a page and stepped out into the bustling markets of Beunos Aires, thick jungle in Ecuador, endless stretches of salt in Bolivia. Patagonian Road takes the reader along on a journey of self-discovery, while gently reminding them of the importance of home, family, the open road, and the profound pleasure to be found in simply getting lost. Blessed with a true gift for sharing the vivid smells, sights and sounds to be encountered in any foreign place, Kate reminded me that travel isn't about acquiring photos or visiting the right places, it's about fully embracing the journey and the lessons it can share.

Beautifully written, Kate.

Your brother Dave

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How to Murder Your Life

It took some wheedling, but Peg came through for me, like she always does, and HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE, Cat Marnell's tell-all memoir, arrived from the High Plains Library District via interlibrary loan just a week after I'd requested it. It wasn't something we'd be ordering for our own library, Peg explained. Too....something. So when the book arrived, it had that tinge of bad, of banned, and I grabbed it up and held it close. Illicit. The cover itself was a guilty pleasure, the title scrawled in pink and blue - lipstick and smeared Adderall? I took the book home to read and, for the next two days, did little other than that.

HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE is one addict's story of growing up rich, white, beautiful, and hungry - for drugs, for men, for experience, for food, for beauty, for love. Cat Marnell, in gossipy, inviting prose, draws us up the crystal stair of her childhood. Born and raised in a Bethesda "Shangri-La"—her words—Marnell endures her parents' constant fights and her own sweeping mood swings against a backdrop of professional landscaping and a kindly grandmother, dear Mimi, who bails out Marnell way more than once.

So I figured I'd hate it: rich bitch, catty prose, and a barrage of exclamation points. Like, every third line....! But despite the irreverent style and the decidedly "unwriterly" quality of the book, I found myself falling ever deeper into Marnell's sticky web of crushed pills, Gatorade spiked with Ketel One, and all-nighters fueled by speed, heroin, and 4 AM visits to the 7-11 for binge foods. I'll admit it: I fell for Marnell, right away and then increasingly so as this raunchy memoir progressed. Her style is so refreshing! It's so candid! The exclamation point really can serve a function! The exclamation point, in essence, is Marnell: a little showy, a little gaudy. Plus, it takes the right person to use it well - it only looks good on some people.

It looks good on Marnell, whose style seems to edit as it goes, reflecting the many layers of revisions that went into this book. This narrator is constantly referencing editorial desicions - for example, in comparing her first boarding school to a "concentration camp," she admits that she put the phrase in and took it out literally fifteen times. "Let its presence here," she writes, "be a harbinger of bad judgement to come."

And come bad judgement does: in the form of a late-term abortion, a series of failed relationships, a best friend who sucks blood from the character's nose after a night of too much coke, a series of babydoll dresses and an infatuation with Courteney Love, a string of champagne-filled events in which our narrator gets obliterated, a second abortion, many falls and accidents, several assaults, several robberies, and several rapes. At times, I couldn't go on, but go on I did, barreling through Marnell's raucous, battered, wired life like an addict myself.

In the end, I'd fallen into twisted love with Cat Marnell. This wasn't the healthiest relationship, and her final lines left me unsettled, disgusted, and weirdly smitten. In her Afterword, which serves primarily as a way to report on all the book's characters - most of whom Marnell cares about far more than you or I - she writes:

Yes, my addiction is still very much part of my life—distracting me with cravings, obsessive thoughts, and negative self-talk. Yes, I see my Chinese night pharmacist more often than I see my pregnant sister. Yes, I was recently 'caught' doctor shopping on the Bowery...I'm keeping my disease active as long as I'm not in recovery. By keeping away from AA or NA, I remain in the danger zone. Things could—and probably will—get bad again. Real talk!

Recovering addicts, current addicts, would-be addicts, new mothers, old mothers, grandmothers, my mother, and Peg: I can imagine all rejecting this book. Maybe it starts with discovering it somewhere it shouldn't be, like in a teenager's bedroom. Maybe it escalates to reading, just out of curiosity, a few paragraphs, but then burning it, destroying it, disappearing any evidence of what many readers will call filth. Being sick and hating herself made Cat Marnell famous, and in many ways, her book advocates drug use. "I may be back on speed," she writes at the book's close, "but I take way less than I used to." In 2017, Marnell is wealthy, well-dressed, well-groomed, and comfortable. "Runner's high is so crazy!" she writes of her new fitness routine, Barry's Bootcamp in Noho. "Especially when you boost that shit with a little nibble of Adderall just before you hit the treadmill."

Hate Marnell if you want. She's expecting you to. The whole story, after all, is about keeping an addiction alive, sabotaging your goals and dreams, and still winning in the end. Still, Marnell isn't without a conscience. In HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE's final pages, she writes:

So what can all you pretty young addicts learn from this? Beware. Unealthy people attract other unhealthy people—and girls on drugs attract bad guys like a wounded baby deer attracts vultures. When you're high every day, you are vulnerable every day. You are making your jugement all screwy. You will let bad people into your life.

Of her life now, Marnell writes, "I've got a hot career, a clear head, and in ice pick in my kitchen in case I need to Basic Instinct a bitch."

Not quite sober, not quite free, but five stars for courage to Cat Marnell.

I've never quite heard it told like that before.

Friday, February 17, 2017


I'd been hungry to read EILEEN, Ottessa Moshfegh's first novel that competed with DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. I'd already read the New York Times' tantalizing review: "Through Eileen," Lily King writes, "Moshfegh is exploring a woman’s relationship to her body: the disconnection, the cultural claims, the male prerogative." I was seduced by King's descriptions, which paint Moshfegh as a feminist, and her protagonist, Eileen, as a pioneer, a woman venturing into the unknown realms of her own capacity.

What King glossed over was the gross intimacy of the book, the grotesque confessions at every turn, and the narrator's relentlessly described proclivities for the debased and the disturbing. EILEEN is the story of a woman disgusted with herself, revolted by her life, sickened by her job. Everything disgusts her, it seems: her co-workers, who she imagines to be lesbians. Her father, who lies drunk in the house all day and night. Most of all, though, Eileen hates herself: her breasts, the unexplored "caverns" between her legs, the slime-sludge color of her eyes. This narrator is writing from a place of maturity, looking back at her 24-year-old self with pity, shame—and perhaps a slant of amusement.

EILEEN spans several weeks in the life of its namesake, who floats from work to the liquor store to home in her father's beat-up Dodge. She watches the world through eyes hardened by hate. She shoplifts compulsively, touches herself at work, and uses the bathroom without washing her hands. Some of the Moshfegh's lines horrify, and that, I suspect, is the point—this is a book that shocks and awes. This is a book about agency and passivity, action and inaction, but it's also a book about being a woman - in any age. What I both hated and loved about this story was that I could see myself in it: the dirty nuances, the graphic revelations—these belong to Eileen, to Moshfegh, and to me.

The book's dramatic finale left me underwhelmed—especially since the Boston Globe claims that it "culminates in a dynamite ending." In fact, as King writes, "For a while we hang on to the hope that more will be revealed about her...that somehow the gun-blood-death culmination will feel as fresh and particular as the first part of the novel. And then we have to let those hopes go."

Ultimately, EILEEN is a bold, brave book—a book not for the faint-hearted, the squeamish. Not a book, I think, for my mother. If you ate up SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW or THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, you'll be drawn, I think, to EILEEN—she's a similar narrator, after all: mannish sensibilities, moments of unreliability, and a raw, confessional voice that forces you, grimacing, on.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien, in her sprawling, complex, and vigorously beautiful third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, manages to simultaneously devastate and inspire. The book is poetic balm, even as it tortures.

Thien begins by introducing us to Marie, who remembers the day Ai-Ming, a mysterious family friend, comes to live with her and her mother in Canada. Ai-Ming instantly becomes a part of the family, offering Marie a link, however tenuous, to the rich tapestry of ancestors she barely knew she had.

What begins in present-day Canada soon shifts to a  China under Chairman Mao's regime, where “people simply didn’t have the right to live where they wanted, to love who they wanted, to do the work they wanted. Everything was decided by the Party.” In this China, there are very few liberties, but, as Thien muses, “It was still possible to keep your private dreams, only they had to stay that way, intensely, powerfully private. You had to keep something for yourself.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing has many faces: A pair of wanderers, hunting the desert for their missing girl. Sparrow, Ai-Ming’s father, who filters everything he hears through the language of musical notes. Zhuli, daughter of the desert nomads and a brilliant violinist who, mid-novel, takes her own life and whose character lingers throughout the narrative long after her death. Always there’s Ai-Ming, coming of age in a country where nothing is hers, not even her body, not even her family, and just barely her thoughts. To Ai-Ming, Thien writes, “The only…question that mattered was, How was it possible for a person to write her own future?”

Ultimately, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about both loss and inheritance, destruction and rebirth. The book hinges on revolution—first, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when China was brutally forced to erase its past. The country’s artists, educators, and thinkers become the enemy to be spat upon in the street. The gifted are forced to unlearn their abilities. Sparrow, Ai-Ming's father, has only ever known music, but he submits to a lifetime of work in a wire factory. Kai, Sparrow’s closest friend, his maybe-love, manages to leave the country while he still can, forever branded, at least to himself, as a coward, a traitor to his family and his country both. Zhuli, Sparrow’s cousin, kills herself rather than betray what’s inside her heart. No option ever seems wholly right; no character can be fully blamed. All are intensely, relatably real. As Ai-Ming remarks, “Maybe we should mistrust every idea we think is original and ours alone.”

The second revolution, the student protest at Tiananmen Square, lends the book its strongest, most compelling scenes. “When the demonstrations began,” Thien writes, “the students were asking for something simple. In the beginning it wasn’t about changing the system, or bringing down the government, let alone the Party. It was about having the freedom to live where you chose, to pursue the work you loved.” In this revolution, the victories are staggered, balanced by violence. The city is stagnant with heat beneath a yellow sky, and the protests go on for days. The students weaken, starve, collapse. The city occupies an uncertain, unsettled no-man's-land. “I want to live,” Ai-Ming thinks to herself, “but nobody here knows how.”

Those still reeling from Trump’s November victory might find solace in Thien’s sensitively penned and ever-shifting saga. It is, after all, a story about survival: cultural preservation, family bonds, and the enduring strength in courageous art. Even as power corrupts, our ability – or, perhaps in Thien's world, our desire and will – to enact change prevails. Facism, however brutal, eventually fuels change. Human rights violations eventually fuel change. Censorship fuels change. Ultimately, Thien’s novel affirms, the power to enact meaningful change exists within us all. Sometimes, we just need someone to light the fire. Sparrow walks in protest with his fellow citizens - police, bus drivers, shop owners, all daring to walk in protest, all daring to risk their lives. “He felt," Thien writes, "as if all his past lives, his past selves, were walking beside him.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about our most fundamental freedoms: the ability to think, to create, to imagine, and to feel. Thien's story is about remembering, even when the safest thing to do is to simply forget. Even when an entire cultural history is destroyed, families are shattered, and song lyrics are buried deep into the ground, “Not everything," Thien wryly reminds us, "will pass.”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Take Your Broken Heart

Make It Into Art.

To a productive, inspired 2017. #StillWithHer #NotMyPresident #Hope