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My publisher has notified me in writing that I am contractually obligated to say I did a reading (a little ditty called Pub or Perish) on Sunday that corresponded with the Arkansas Literary Festival. Rumor has it I did not perish.
Thank you to the menfolk who made that reading (and writing) possible. Except for the one manfolk for whom I have no affection and who will remain nameless because I’m still pissed. It’s only been 3 or 4 years.
There is nothing quite as uniquely satisfying as a good book. A book of the soul, writing that just clicks with some inherent voice in your head. You won’t find me talking about authors’ love sonnets and classics, reciting flowing language that sags and droops like the lost, loose skin that falls in defeat when it’s shed the fat and the filling beneath it.
Perhaps it is enough to say that I like the words and the way the words string together a lullaby, reminding me there are kindred spirits in the world.
I’ve been crying since I was eight years old. Blame Lurlene McDaniel. I do.
In the summer of 1987, I found death on a shelf at the Lee County Library in Sanford, North Carolina. I had been looking for those pre-teen romance novels, the ones where boys didn’t have naughty intentions and girls said no to drugs even in the midst of the popular kids. I had devoured these sorts of books all summer and had finally exhausted the library’s moderate selection. So, as any other little girl would do, I began perusing books for the coolest, hippest teenage girls on the cover, the girls I wanted to be.
It was time to go and I was desperate to find something to read. By chance (or was it?), I saw a really pretty blond girl, whose hair was crimped and massive, sitting with her mother. I hastily picked up the book and ran to the check out.
Later, I examined the book more closely. The book was called Mother, Please Don’t Die. Which, of course, meant Mother was, in fact, going to die (but I wasn’t a savvy reader back then so I held out hope things would end well). The book followed a girl’s journey through her mother’s dying and her own grief as well as the difficult transition from being a little girl to being a teenager. Megan made sense of her mom’s worsening symptoms as best she could as a young girl; she told me about the terrible pressure and the anger bubbled to the surface at baseball practice, resulting in her consequent suspension. After her sister’s wedding, Megan sat with her mother and they had the first truly frank conversation about death that I had ever read; Mother was not going to be there for Megan’s wedding. She was dying.
And when she did die, my heart was shattered and I sobbed out loud. I’ve been reading and sobbing ever since. I developed a voracious appetite for the dying genre. Through my middle and high school years, I learned about living with diabetes, juvenile arthritis, kidney failure, and AIDs. I felt enlightened with each page. I groped for all the empathetic artifacts in the words that were written. I began to live with all of these hardships. I felt I knew what it was like.
The year before, 1986, had been a bad year. In January, my grandfather died of lung cancer. It was the first death I’d experienced. It was scary flying from North Carolina to Arkansas, only to see a dead body, dressed in blue and not breathing in a wooden bed. Two weeks later, I sat forward with the rest of my class, eyes glued to the television as the Challenger exploded and everyone on board was killed. They sent school counselors around to speak to us about dying and grief. I felt terrible for the teacher on the Challenger, but I cried terrible, painful tears for my grandfather.
Weeks later, I randomly asked my mother if she had had any other children before my brother and me one night before our bath. She hesitated and told us she had given birth to a little girl when she had been previously married, but the girl had died when she was a toddler from cancer. I nodded and soon forgot about it, as children will. It wasn’t long before my subconscious mind kicked in and I began to wonder if I had cancer, too, and asked my mother if I was going to die. Months I asked her and for months I must have drove a stake in her heart.
Little girls don’t understand these sorts of things. I didn’t. By the time I held a copy of Mother, Please Don’t Die in my hands, I needed to read about grief. The only problem is I never stopped grieving. The reading and the grieving is a question of insignificance; no matter if the chicken came before the egg, the chicken and the egg exist.
When I was eighteen, a very receptive former teacher gave me Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt as a graduation gift. Since then, it’s the real stories of laughter and pain that have touched me the most. Into Thin Air. Devil’s Knot. Young Men and Fire. Books about the Holocaust, 9/11, surviving freak accidents, OCD, alcoholism, depression. The stories are compelling but they are most important to me as conduits for processing my own life (and grief).
In a nutshell, I read books that are too sad for other people. A book is deemed good if I cry. It is deemed brilliant if I can still sob thinking about it a year later. There are many brilliant writers out there.
Right now, The Dark Tower: the Gunslinger is impatiently waiting on my bedside stand for me to finish it. The sojourn will be short and I will soon return to form. Stacked in the corner are my standard fair, books about the Taliban, mental illness, murder, the Mormon lifestyle…all await me. I can only think greedily of the sobs I am soon to cry.
I can’t help but think I’ve made Lurlene proud.
• Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking.” It’s basically, let’s get closer to nature. He uses humor in the most effective way. You can get it in book form, which combines Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. Both of these can probably be found on the internet for free. Not so much in love with Emerson.
• As a follow-up to his excellent Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia , Ahmed Rashad updates the historical relevance of the first book with recent events (from 2000 on) in Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I very much enjoy learning more about all the factors leading to the establishment of the Taliban and its hold over Central Asian countries.
• How to Shit in the Woods. It’s an environmentally sound instructional book with informative material for avoiding introducing any more pollutants into the wild than is already there.
• Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, an account of the 1996 deaths of several climbers on Mt. Everest. Krakauer blends his personal narrative with explanations the Death Zone, the flippant commercialism of climbing the highest peaks in the world, and how a series of small mistakes can lead to catastrophic ends. I am still haunted by this book, years after I read it. Gripping.
• Haunted by Chuck Palahnuik. The drama of writers and reality shows. It’s hysterical. A wicked satire that writers are sure to enjoy.