Sunday, October 30, 2011

Electric Literature No.6: Stories by Matt Sumell, Mary Otis, Marc Basch, Steve Edwards, Nathan Englander

Electric Literature No.6
Stories from Matt Sumell, Mary Otis, Marc Basch, Steve Edwards, and Nathan Englander

After absolutely loving No.5, I had high hopes going into the latest volume of Electric Literature. Perhaps too high, as no ongoing literary magazine is going to be loved by a specific reader every single time. No.6 links together five stories of quiet resignation and detached violence, and though I found the stories and characters interesting enough to keep going, they did not stay with me. They're perfectly fine, well-written stories, but their complications were not the sort of complications I typically enjoy.

Maybe I've been in a bad, unforgiving mood, and I've needed stories that weren't going to tell me how shitty life can be. It's fair to admit that, I think — If you've read this site for any length of time, you know I review books in terms of what they mean to my own life, more so than what they mean to the literary world at large. Though the reviews come from the perspective of a writer who has a hard-ass editorial streak, I'm also regular reader who needs books to provide escape, in addition to creative fuel. No.6 did not provide me with either of these things.

Matt Sumell's "OK" opens with lines that made me sigh in a "So that's how this one's going to be, then. Impressed with itself at how 'real' it can be:"

This is the one where I Amex-ed myself to Ohio to see Fatlegs after she head-firsted her way into the world and forever ruined Tara's vagina — that's what my brother says anyway, and he would know, he's seen it — me calling her Fatlegs because she has fat legs and I'm not clever.

Our narrator has also come to see how his father is doing in the absence of his mother. The house is flea-infested, filled with trash, and his dad refuses to take his anti-depressants and wants to die. They call each other assholes a lot, and there's a scene with a cat and dandruff shampoo that made me think, "What the hell is wrong with you?" Then again, that's also what our narrator is trying to find out, under the guise of helping his cranky father. They are all struggling, and while the story's actually not as impressed with itself as it originally seemed, it was just... fine. And I moved on.

"Where We Missed Was Everywhere," by Mary Otis, is told from the point of view of a seven-year-old girl, dancing as quietly as she can with her six-year-old brother, upstairs and away from a funeral party.

Outside the rain sounds like a lazy person peeing, and everyone else in the family is downstairs — talking, falling asleep, drinking, smoking cigarettes in the broom closet without exhaling, crying quickly and quietly in the bathroom, staring at their fingernails, aching for relief. My brother and I have nothing to do with that.

It's a rather short story compared to the rest in the book, just a little over 2 pages, and it does seem to accurately capture the semi-stream-of-consciousness inside a child's head, where they know what is going on, but have not lived enough to feel the gravity of it. To some children, enduring a funeral is the same level of trauma as having to use the plaque detector their dentist gave their mother.

Funerals carry on as a plot device in Mark Basch's "Three," in which siblings — Kenneth, Lucas and Delia — decide to take a road trip after their mother's funeral. An Alzheimer's patient, she had been living in a long-term care facility and "the other shoe needed to drop; dignity needed to be restored." Kenneth is not so sure he feels her death at all — they had all been watching her drift away for years. The three are calm and detached, and yet, the story opens with the brothers beating up on some kids they catch beating up another kid. Lucas decides to get out a tire iron. Delia is asleep and does not find out until later. There's this unsettling subtext of hero worship, and once Delia finds out what happened, at least she's a voice of reason:

"You probably broke his leg," she said.

"It isn't broken."

"You don't know that."

"I know it. I know what it feels like to break a bone."

"You had no right."

"It isn't about who has a right," Lucas said. He hit the ceiling with the heel of his hand, spilling coffee on his lap. "Fuck." He brushed at the spot of coffee with the back of his hand. Delia's face went dark. "Somebody has to take care of something," he breathed. "There's more than enough pain to go around. I was just redistributing it back to where it belonged. And it felt fucking great, I might add. Never felt better in my life than after doing that. Never better."

In the back seat I heard Delia begin to cry.

Look, I know there are screwed-up people in the world and I know that people take that damage and do stupid things, but I'm never going to be in a place where I can objectively read a story where adults are harming children. That's not to say that those stories will never have any value to me — certainly there are other books I've read where that figured into the plot — but I've got to have something else besides darkness. I wasn't in the mood to be a helpless bystander.

My reading experience began to improve with Steve Edwards' "Daily Bread," taken from the point-of-view of a man participating in a government study during World War II. Joe says he felt like he needed to help out with the war effort, and so he agrees to have his food rationed out by the study's administrators. At first they receive 3,200 calories a day, and then they are brought to the brink of starvation, provided only a slice of bread and a plain baked potato per day. The men are all monitored closely, both medically and socially, and they are all assigned minders to make sure they do not wander around the college campus and cheat.

We're all getting skinny. We've gone grey in the face. We're notching our belts. But it's not even that so much as it is seeing these young men curl up on their cots after breakfast that gets me down. Grown men in their prime, getting up, eating breakfast, then going right back to bed. That's why I still hang around with George. I don't want to be one of those guys sleeping their way through this.

I don't want to be down.

The 'why' behind everything — Joe's participation, the study itself, other participants behavior — is fascinating in the same way some unsettling science fiction is. Since we are inside Joe's head, the starvation-induced delirium does not make for easy information, but piecing everything together does not feel like a chore. In a way, it reminded me of an episode of Torchwood, the way they would flashback to covert and morbid government operations whose repercussions would effect their present case. I don't know for sure if these sorts of operations were happening during WWII, but I believe that they could have.

Surrealism increases with the final story, "The Reader," by Nathan Englander. An unnamed author — male, older, formerly distinguished — has come out with his first new book in twleve years and is embarking on a reading tour. In this reality, no one comes to readings anymore. Bookstore owners shrug their shoulders and tell him, "That's just how it is."

And yet, just as he is about to leave, an old man calls out to the author, "Writer, you came to read."

Author is hesitant to stay, but the man insists, and the author gives in.

Author takes a seat himself, angling the chair farther into the horseshoe, and takes up his book to read.

"No," the little man says. "The podium."


"The podium."

"We are two," Author says.

The old man looks back, blank.

"As audience," Author says, "you are one." He holds up a finger to illustrate.

"Dignity. A great author."

"I am?"

"You are. A great author. A mighty author. One or one million come to see you, still, from the podium. Read out. Read strong."

It's an interesting take on insecurity, posterity, and what it means to be an artist. Maybe this is a story written for other creative people, particularly writers, and that is why I enjoyed this one more, despite it being somewhat depressing as well. Of course that's narcissistic to say — Oh, it's better because it has more to do with me — but that's another element of the story as well. Yes, it's about the love for books, but it's also about personal satisfaction, the feeling that one's work matters.

So, yes, what redeems No.6 for me are the last two stories. I may not have fallen in love, but I do love how each volume of Electric Literature I've read has been different. They have a common mood, perhaps — loneliness and conflicted families — but I definitely don't feel like I've read 15 of the same story. Let's see what No.7 brings, shall we?


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

How To Be Sick by Toni Bernhard (and My Story of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers

by Toni Bernhard

During a trip to Disney World in April 2009, I suffered a massive cold. Almost all of us did — my husband, my daughter (then five-years-old), my mom and myself. Only my 18-month-old son escaped with just a runny nose, but then he had his own porta-crib away from the rest of our germs. All that recirculated air, we said, before downing more Disney-priced Sudafed. Still, it was a vacation, and the adrenaline helped us power through. Soon after we were home, everyone recovered …

Except me.

Not until December 2010 — that's a full 20 months — did I figure out why I felt unrelentingly exhausted, why the lymph nodes in my armpits and along my collarbone felt swollen and inflamed, why the muscles in my arms and legs ached. And why, most of all, these afflictions never, ever went away. After puzzling more than one doctor and physical therapist, and after blood tests came back normal (thus ruling out anything scary/cancer-y), process of elimination led me to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

It's a silly-sounding name, isn't it? Aren't we all tired, one might say. Hell, I have a good friend who worked for three months cleaning floors without a day off — starting at 4 am, no less. Shouldn't he be the one who is "allowed" to be fatigued? Shouldn't I feel silly for having to quit a 17 hour/week barista job because it's "too much?"

The answer is no. We are talking about two different kinds of fatigue. All the days off and good nights' sleep in the world will not cure me. I still need them — in fact, they are a priority — but I will still have a chronic illness.

The commonly accepted definition of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), according to the Mayo Clinic, is this:

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a complicated disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that can't be explained by any underlying medical condition. The fatigue may worsen with physical or mental activity, but doesn't improve with rest.

Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) is an alternative name given to CFS, partially to give it a more serious name, and partly to specify the group of CFS patients whose immune systems continually produce flu-like symptoms.

Myalgic Encephomyalitis (ME) is the name for CFS that is used in many other countries, and I suppose there is a joke to be made about how Americans have to do things "special." Literally translated, ME means "muscle pain and brain inflammation," but the symptoms are commonly the same as CFS.

And what are those symptoms?

On July 20, 2011, the Journal of Internal Medicine e-published ahead of print “Myalgic Encephalomyelitis: International Consensus Criteria," which the CFIDS Association of America summarized here. It's not a perfect set of criteria, but it has handy visuals and covers it well enough as a start.

But to summarize that, eh, summary, here are some primary and secondary symptoms:

Loss of memory or concentration
Sore throat
Painful and mildly enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits
Unexplained muscle pain
Pain that moves from one joint to another without swelling or redness
Headache of a new type, pattern or severity
Unrefreshing sleep
Extreme exhaustion lasting more than 24 hours after physical or mental exercise

The secondary symptoms are not part of the official definition, but are often reported in CFS patients:

Abdominal pain
Allergies or sensitivities to foods, alcohol, odors, chemicals, medications or noise
Chest pain
Chronic cough
Dizziness, balance problems or fainting
Dry mouth
Irregular heartbeat
Jaw pain
Morning stiffness
Chills and night sweats
Psychological problems, such as depression, irritability, anxiety disorders and panic attacks
Shortness of breath
Tingling sensations
Visual disturbances, such as blurring, sensitivity to light, eye pain and dry eyes
Weight loss or gain

I experience 100% of the primary symptoms and around 75% of the secondary symptoms to varying degrees. Some days, my leg muscles ache to the point of making walking difficult and other days, they are mild annoyance compared to the armpit lymph node that feels like it wants to burst out Alien-style (you're welcome for that visual, by the way). Concentration problems abound, and I also have times where my hands forget what they are doing and just let go of whatever I'm holding. (This is also annoying when you've just paid for your drink. Or are making someone else's drink.)

The mental and physical symptoms fluctuate in severity, sometimes by the hour. To put it mildly, I get frustrated. I tire of being tired. This isn't a sob story; I just want to outline the complexity of this condition and to spread general awareness. Not everyone experiences it in the same way, which makes it even harder to treat, and it's a relatively "new" illness in terms of scientific study.

Once I had a diagnosis, I started to do a little research on CFS management and studies related to the condition. More than one site recommended reading Toni Bernhard's How To Be Sick. Bernhard's suffered from CFS since 2001, contracted after a plane ride from California to Paris left her sick and bed-ridden for three weeks. It's enough to give a person a complex about flying.

(Particularly one who has irrational phobias, anxiety, and mild OCD, but I digress.)

Despite my connection to her story, and my connection to Buddhism, I hesitated to buy the book at first. Let's be real — Many self-help and health books are shit, and awards aren't necessarily indicative of quality. However, after reading some of Bernhard's articles on the subject, where she would talk about mindfulness and allowing yourself to admit weakness, I wanted to know more. How could I live with this new reality of mine without going insane?

First, I could take comfort in synchronicity. I've said before, I like it when the things I like overlap. How To Be Sick's forward is written by Sylvia Boorstein, a smart woman introduced to me through Dani Shapiro's Devotion. Boorstein's metta phrases are written on the inside of my current notebook, and it's because of Boorstein and Shapiro that some of Bernhard's Buddhist terminology did not seem completely foreign. I can even draw parallels to Neal Pollack's Stretch, in which I further acquainted myself with terms like samsara. When I often have no set system for my reading queue, I enjoy it when my choices become, in retrospect, orderly. Meant to be.

The first noble truth — the fact of dukkha [suffering] — helps me accept being sick because that fact tells me my life is as it should be. "Our life is always all right," says Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. "There's nothing wrong with it. Even if we have horrendous problems, it's just our life."

Life education is everywhere, and when we are ready to listen, it will help us bear our load. The world can be sad, scary and disappointing, but it can also be small, compassionate and inspiring. Bit by bit, my reading has helped me make sense of my mental turmoil and physical pain, and it's only been recently that I've quit trying to power through. Treating CFS is a diplomatic summit, not nuclear war.

Even if I never fully recover (very few CFS patients do), my life is still valuable. My life is still filled with love, and I take comfort where I can.

When I was still debating over keeping my job, I had just started reading How To Be Sick. I'd owned it for a couple of months, but had circled around reading it, afraid of admitting my limitations. Research into the condition can be extremely depressing at times, and I wasn't sure I was ready. Luckily, Bernhard comes across like a thoughtful and sympathetic friend, and I was glad that I'd finally started reading.

Then, one bad afternoon, I fell onto the bed and sobbed to my husband that I couldn't stand the physical pain anymore. I hated standing for six hours at work, and even though I truly did enjoy making coffee, my symptoms were always worse on work days.

"I think you need to put in your two weeks," my husband said. I didn't know if I agreed, until I read this:

It's easy to look back and see what a mistake it was to continue working while sick — it probably worsened my condition — but many people who have contracted a chronic illness have done the same. First, there's the financial need to keep working. Second, there's the utter disbelief that this is happening to you (reinforced by people telling you that you look just fine — people who don't see you collapse on the bed as soon as you get home). Each morning, you expect to wake up not feeling sick even though for weeks and then months — and then years — that has never been the case.

I knew I had to quit. I'd survived, barely, for one year, and now it was time to go. The realization, to be honest, made me feel like an asshole. I felt some guilt about the burden on my co-workers, and even more for placing additional burden on my husband. Even though I didn't make a lot of money, the money still helped.

Still, I had to take care of me. Extra money means nothing when I'm too tired to cook my children dinner. This book has helped me continue my self-care, and for that, I am grateful.

Bernhard writes in a very direct, soothing manner befitting a longtime Buddhist who has the benefit of perspective. Already a grandmother when she became ill, her accumulated wisdom over the years helped her adjust. Yes, she is the first to admit that her symptoms — including anxiety and frustration — still get the best of her at times, but Buddhism has taught her how to bring herself back to the breath. We will fail, but we can always start again.

Each chapter is centered around one facet of dealing with chronic illness, loosely centered around the Four Noble Truths, and the approaches that have worked for her. "You need not be a Buddhist to benefit from the practices in this book," she writes in the preface:

If a suggested practice resonates with you, truly 'practice' it. Work with it over and over until it enters your heart, mind, and body and becomes a natural response to the difficulties you face as the result of being chronically ill or being the caregiver of a chronically ill person.

If a suggest practice resonates — Bernhard is not pretending she knows what will work for everyone, and that's an important distinction. There is no cure-all for chronic fatigue, and to claim otherwise would be dishonest.

Lest we think that healing and Buddhism is all serious business, Bernhard provides some funny moments as well. In the chapter "Soothing the Body, Mind, and Heart," she talks about using metta phrases to calm and forgive oneself for being sick. "It's not my body's fault that it's sick," she says. "It's doing the best job it can to support my life."

The trick, however, is to direct that loving-kindness towards others — friends, acquaintances, even those that make us angry — in order to make compassion second nature.

During the 2008 presidential election, Bernhard felt an extreme aversion to Sarah Palin. "I didn't like Palin's political positions. I didn't like her lack of humility when asked about her reaction to being picked as a vice presidential nominee," she says. Soon she realized that her disdain for the woman was causing her unnecessary stress, and she decided to direct metta at her, even if it felt artificial at first.

"Sarah Palin: May you be peaceful. May have ease of well-being. May you reach the end of suffering … and be free by seeing the error of your ways and becoming a completely different human being." This is, of course, not exactly what the Buddha had in mind..."

I laughed out loud at that one.

Elsewhere, Bernhard discusses how Zen Buddhism can help shift our perspective, even if we are not students of Zen. "Zen teachings tend to be short and to the point. In addition to koans, they often take the form of gathas — short verses reminding us of our practice — and haiku," she says.

I also love a book of gathas called The Dragon Never Sleeps by Robert Aitken. His gathas are indeed an exercise in meditation and poetry. Many of them also make me laugh. Poetic mindfulness plus a laugh — great medicine for the chronically ill..

Here's a sampling of Aitken's gathas:

When wayward thoughts are persistent
I vow with all beings
To imagine that even the Buddha
Had silly ideas sometimes.

Hey, the Buddha was human too, after all.

Bernhard also deals with more practical matters such as dealing with the loss of friendships, missing out on social events and ways to let our caregivers know we appreciate them. Constant pain can become awfully crazy-making, I know, and her ideas do help with reeling back in our thoughts that seem beyond control.

How To Be Sick is a book I'd wholeheartedly recommend to anyone dealing with chronic illness, but especially those with CFS/ME, lupus, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, or any other complex condition that is not easily treated. I'm glad I finally read it, and it's one I'll be referring to every time I need a little extra help.

For more information on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME, check out the following sites, as well as Toni Bernhard's site, also called How to Be Sick:

The CDC's page on CFS
The CFIDS Association of America
ME Association

And to the people in my life: Thank you for being patient.

(Edited to add: This review also appeared on Persephone Magazine on 1/31/12.)


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Luminarium by Alex Shakar

by Alex Shakar

How does one even begin to talk about Alex Shakar's Luminarium? It is 432 pages of swirling narrative touching upon twins, cancer, the nature of existence, brain chemistry, love, 9/11, synchronicity, and eastern religion. Set in 2006 New York City, post-tech bubble but pre-recession, the wounds of the new millennium still feel fresh.

Fred Brounian has used all of his money to keep his twin brother George alive. Cancer-ridden and in a coma, George was once partners with Fred and their other brother, Sam, as creators of the virtual world, Urth. Urth has since been sold to a military contracting company out of Florida, turning what was supposed to be an online utopia into a role-playing platform for terrorism response. Sam will continue on to Florida, whereas Fred has all but been forced out in George's absence. He's living with their parents and spending most of his time at the hospital when he sees a flier from the Department of Neural Science at New York University looking for study participants. Do you feel your life is without purpose? it asks. Fred checks out the study's website:

Among the healthful psychological qualities associated with individuals who describe themselves as having experienced a "spiritual awakening" are:

- a sense of well-being and connectedness in the world
-a sense of being "in the moment"
-a sense of union with a "higher" force
-a sense of calm detachment from everyday difficulties
-a decrease in negative emotions such as anger and fear
-an increase in positive emotions such as compassion and love

By reproducing the "peak" experiences commonly associated with spiritual awakening, this study hopes to help participants change their long-term cognitive patterns , leading to enhanced self-efficacy and quality of life. It should be stressed that these sessions will not involve religious indoctrination of any kind.

Both intrigued and dismissive, Fred debates over whether or not to contact the study's organizers. He can never really figure out what is the "right" thing to do.

Because if George were the one here, he — George — would have done it in a heartbeat. And because a sizable part of Fred wished it were George here instead of him, felt it should have been. And because, clicking on the link and filling out the questionnaire, Fred was able to feel what George would have felt — a peculiar, tense electricity in his chest and limbs, as though the study's purported electromagnetic signals were already coursing up through the keyboard. Like the onset of panic but without the nausea. Like the opening hole of despair but more like hunger. A sensation so long unfelt couldn't straightaway place it as hope.

At the study — Fred thinks the word "experiment" is more apt — he meets Mira Egghart, a lovely woman who places on him electrodes and a metal helmet. "It's safer than it looks," she says. What happens next, Fred cannot explain.

Another thing Fred can't explain is the email that he received, ten days prior. The subject? Only two words: Help, Avatara. No message. The sender? George. Fred can't help but think it's a server glitch or perhaps a cruel prank. Six months to the day, George has laid unconscious in that hospital bed. What did all this mean?

At its core, Luminarium is about a crisis of place. Faith, family, self-worth — all of it is tied to how we see ourselves in the world. Without the world we know, what is left? Alex Shakar tackles these massive subjects in layers upon layers of symbolism. Even Mira's name means "watch" in Spanish — appropriate for a woman who studies these crises. It's a command, that word.

Please observe that this exists.

Fred Brounian wants so badly to earn his existence.

To make extra money, Fred performs magic shows at parties with his father, Vartan. Vartan has lost the will to further pursue his acting career, and even though at times he has found success, he no longer believes that the theatre and cinema worlds have a place for him. Instead, he suspends the disbelief of schoolchildren, then smokes a bowl in the van parked outside.

Fred's mother, Holly, has become a Reiki master, in part because the practice calms her hand tremors. Her group meets often to heal the "energy" around George. They believe they have done some good, and other patients want that goodness directed their way. Everyone wants that one "thing" that's going to make their troubles vanish.

Emails from George keep arriving. Instant messages. Fred keeps returning to Mira and her study. He believes he is floating above his body and does not know how or why. His other half, his reasoned inner voice, is crumbling faster than he can repair.

This morning he'd dreamt he was eating the inside of his mouth, not just chewing it, but really eating. It was some kind of wasting disease, the action of his molars, a continual self-feeding frenzy. Unless his twin could be found to give him a transfusion, there was nothing that could be done, a doctor was telling a team of residents as they stood over Fred's bed in some sort of strange, high-ceilinged soundstage of a hospital. This mention of his twin was the closest Fred had come in the last six months of actually dreaming of George himself. George used to figure in his dreams all the time. Now he wouldn't even show up to save Fred from eating himself alive. The doctor and the residents left the room. By the time they returned, Fred understood, there'd be nothing left of him but a drool-covered white tuxedo and a pair of jaws.

Luminarium benefits from mental simmering. While reading, we may be just as bewildered as Fred, unsure of where or how all these events will resolve. With time and some additional thought, the real depth of what Shakar has accomplished becomes clear. He has written an extraordinary book, one I've grown to enjoy more once I've had some time away. Dave Egger's blurbs the book and says it's "so intellectually invigorating, you'll want to read it twice." Though I do not know when I will start again, that's good advice. Not every writer can pull off a novel of this scope, but Alex Shakar inspires us to try.


Full disclosure: Soho Press sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Other Heartbreaks by Patricia Henley

Other Heartbreaks
Stories by Patricia Henley

Hardly anyone's life turns out exactly as planned. People who swear they won't get married fall in love and then down on one knee. People who have exercised every day and never smoked still get cancer. Our bodies and hearts surprise us all the time, and no matter what our goals, we cannot control the actions of others. Patricia Henley has taken these fateful detours and written an excellent collection of stories, Other Heartbreaks.

Achingly authentic, most of the stories concern families coming together for an event, oftentimes a funeral or a wedding. The women are young and old, straight and not, and the men are just as tough and complicated. One doesn't always like them, but they remain interesting.

In "Rocky Gap," June has arrived at the family reunion with her partner Tanya, the first reunion since June's alcoholic sister, Peggy, died. June is trying to hold fast to her relationship with Tanya, but the distance is growing. Being with her crazy family for three days, she's afraid, will only increase Tanya's barely withheld judgment and comparisons to her own family.

Tanya's family is tidy and small. She has one sister; an attorney specializing in outer space law who still lives at home. Secretly June thinks: They wouldn't fart in the bathtub.

The stories are full of subtly funny lines like that closing one. The humor is a resigned and exhausted humor — As in, "Well, all of this may have gone to shit, but at least this part is mildly amusing." They're not jokes, exactly, but they show the characters' personality almost more than anything else we learn about them.

I also enjoyed "Kaput" quite a bit. In it, Bonnie is a fifty-eight year old (not sixty — "Fifty-eight is fifty-eight!") on unemployment after the university she worked for closed. She spent her retirement on a five month trip to Europe, and now she's living on school grounds, in her van.

My daughter Willow would leave the room exasperated, spitting out, "Boomers —." I wasn't simply her mother who had lost her job. I represented a generation of people about to enter their golden years unprepared. Willow, Alex, and my friend Kim all thought that I had swerved over the line and hit those hard dots on the highway that remind you: hey, get with it, you're asleep at the wheel.

Kim had sent me a ticket to Mexico. Free! For points! Willow disapproved. She had said, reasonably, "Mom. You've got to stop traveling. You're on unemployment. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, as Aunt Mina would say."

Nevertheless, Bonnie heads to Mexico to meet her friend. Bonnie's life presents itself as a gripping, though slow-moving, wreck. We see so much peril already caused, but we keep watching to see if she'll ever notice those rumble strips and move out of harm's way.

Yes, all the stories are good to different degrees and for different reasons, but what I really want to talk about is the trio of stories headed under the book's title — "Skylark," "Emma Compartmentalizes in Ireland," and "Ephemera." I've reread them at least three times since finishing this book, "Ephemera" especially.

A woman named Sophie March-Gonzales is grieving the death of her husband Luis. Sophie is an artist — oil paintings — and Luis worked for Ceasefire, a group dedicated to ending street violence. They live in Sophie's parents' building in a part of Chicago that used to be populated by Polish immigrants but has since transitioned into a tougher Mexican neighborhood. Her parents, Emma and Joe, have stayed put because it's where Joe grew up, and Sophie has since formed the same attachment. But now, Emma would like to move. She would like to travel Europe. They both wonder how their marriage has reached the state it is, and here Emma is in Ireland, alone:

It comes to her — not all at once like a pearl of wisdom, but in distasteful increments — that complaints that she has about Joe are little stories she tells herself to shore up her own desires. And walking down to find Liam, she blinks back tears, thinking — but not for long — of how she has deceived herself. And will.

And Sophie, poor Sophie, has understandably become a wreck of herself while drowning in grief and memories of her husband. I'm not sure how to fully articulate how much "Ephemera" spoke to me — something about the phrases Henley chose cut right into my chest and I was in it; I felt that grief and love and all-consuming despair of not knowing when she'd ever feel better. When Sophie remembers Luis, it is indeed heartbreaking and lovely:

On her birthday in April he had stuck a postcard in the corner of the bathroom mirror: a black-and-white photo of a broken-down building with a corrugated roof; the sign on the building read CARNAL GARAGE. From Carnal, Kentucky. He liked to say, "Carnal knowledge of you — that's part of my husbandly job description."

Think about the jokes you have with the person you love. Think about the things they do for you only because they know it will make you happy. Think about the things you two have together that no one else will understand.

In his arms, dancing in slo-mo to the tart Spanish guitar, what exhibitionist there was in Sophie flowered at tango. He called out the steps to their students who watched from a tentative circle. The checkerboard tile floor was a little gritty, not smooth as it should be. Buzzing florescent lights imbued their faces with a sickly tinge. A sexual current saturated her back with the pressure of his hand, his response to her ocho, her fluidity, the sharp ping of her heels on the floor. His cologne and the chemical reaction of it with his skin seduced her: the citric-tang of him.

Think about how good the person you love smells. Think of how it washes over your mind, how it makes you high. Think of the way your breathing catches when you experience even a split second of that scent. Think of how the scent's absence aches.

He had stripped off his insulated shirt and draped it over the back of the chair. A Saint Chris medal gleamed against his white undershirt. He could tell you that Saint Christopher protects travelers and bachelors, boatmen, bookbinders, bus drivers, cab drivers, epileptics, fruit dealers, gardeners, porters, sailors, and anyone at all against lightning, hailstorms, toothache, and sudden death.

Think of all you have indulged. Think of all the things you've learned because of those indulgences. Think of how beautiful the person you love is in your eyes, and how you do not care if it is the same way other people see them. Think of how you will lay down next to this person, listening, for as long as you can.

His angularity presses against her softness. Like John Lennon and Yoko. Iconic lovers. His hard-on has a nickname: Señor Amor.

"His angularity presses against her softness" is the best sentence in the entire book. It encompasses everything. When it comes to love, would that time let me, I would stay in that moment forever.

Anything ideal will not arrive easily, and ideals change over time. Other Heartbreaks is an excellent portrayal of the journeys we take to feel whole — the process we must recognize in order to do so. Henley's work is honest and resonant, and it is work to which I will return again.


Full disclosure: This was an uncorrected proof sent to me by Engine Books prior to the publication of the book. I thank them for gesture and will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

Devotion: A Memoir
by Dani Shapiro

When I was ten years old, I decided I would, for the most part, no longer eat pork. Partly brought on by the appreciation for the animal itself, I realized that I'd never much liked pork to begin with. Rather than say to people something like, "Well, I hate pork chops, but sometimes I end up eating sausage when my mom makes red beans and rice," it was easier to eliminate it entirely. (The exception being pepperoni — which is a magical amalgam of more than one meat and entirely different from its more unappetizing cousin salami.) Now, I don't even eat turkey versions of typical pork products. To avoid extended "but whhyyyyyy" conversations with strangers (this happened more often than one might think), I would start telling those strangers I was Jewish. It would shut them up. Either they did not want to offend me by pressing further, or their brains hiccuped over whatever preconceived notions about Judaism they had, and how that related to me. I don't do this anymore, as I'm more comfortable now with owning my peculiarities, but I still like having a set of rules for food, some of which are kosher.

Being a spiritual fence-sitter, falsely claiming Judaism didn't interfere with any beliefs I had. Apart from the Church of Rock n Roll, I'm rather non-participatory and non-deistic when it comes to matters of faith. Bits of Judaism make sense to me (Rituals! A drinking holiday! Really having a day of rest!), as do the compassionate parts of Christianity (The Golden Rule! And Christmas presents for everybody!). Even the one-with-nature elements of some pagan religions seem all very well and good, but like a lot of categories in my life, labels do not neatly apply to my beliefs.

I'm married to a Buddhist, and over time, learning about the practice behind it, I've started to lean in its direction. There is incredible solace to be found in its patience and quiet peace. And ever since I've been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, its meditative qualities feel more important than ever. In that regard, this is all a very long preamble to tell you that I read Dani Shapiro's Devotion at the perfect time. It is a fantastic book, worth all the personal introspection it produces as a side effect.

Having grown up with a deeply devout Jewish father and an angrily secular mother, Shapiro's drift from her faith felt all the more pronounced when confronted with the life-threatening illness of her son. Paired with her unrelenting anxiety and loneliness, despite a happy marriage and eventually healthy son, Devotion traces her journey to discover what beliefs would help her find greater meaning in her day-to-day life. Shapiro writes with a wonderful intimacy, and she owns up to her failures. Her process is not so tidy, and she wants others to know that it's okay; we can all be untidy, and the world will not stop spinning.

Sometimes I want to run away: have a few drinks, take a sleeping pill, buy those overpriced stiletto heels. Anything to sedate myself — to mute the endless loop of stories. And sometimes I give in and do exactly that. The clarity is too painful, and I want to forget. The problem is, it doesn't work. Not in the long run. There is no permanent forgetting. Though the world of things is persuasive and distracting, the stories always come back, circled in neon. They are all the more alive for having been hidden.

Yes, giving in to sedation is easy and often feels preferable. I don't know how many different ways I've tried to temporarily forget about how much my body hurts. Everyone has their struggles, of course, but as a person with a father who died too soon, as a person who has a mysterious and frustrating chronic illness, as a person who wants to be good mother and spouse, despite the often unrelenting anxiety and depression, and as a person who thinks faith must be nice for those who have it — Well, to say I identified with Shapiro's journey might be underselling it. Though I know logically that I am not alone, I find comfort in the direct reminders.

Deep within my body, the past is still alive. Everything that has ever happened keeps on happening. I might be meditating, and then, suddenly, instead of sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor in Connecticut, I am standing in a New Jersey hospital room, hearing the news that my father has died.
It's a seductive idea, closure — but I think it's a myth.

In multiple interviews, Shapiro has talked about how she used to think that people who took selections from different religions and folded them into a patchwork belief system were somehow inauthentic or "intellectually lazy." But during her own struggles, she started to wonder what more could she learn. She already practiced yoga — what more from Buddhism could help her? Then, at a meditation retreat, she met Sylvia Boorstein, a Jewish Buddhist teacher. Boorstein talked about how she would always be "complicated with Jewishness" and to deny her heritage was futile. Instead, she turned her attentions elsewhere:

"The whole world is a lesson in what is true," she said. "Everyone is struggling. Life is difficult for everybody. Once you're in, there's no way out. You have to go forward. And we all die in the end. So how to deal with it?"

Yes, how to deal with it? How do we wade through the bittersweet, the debilitating, the heart-wrenching, and the loves so true that they cannot help but ache? For everyone, whether they are aware of it or not, it is a process. Boorstein devised a series of metta phrases (loosely translated as lovingkindness) to guide her. No matter what was going on in her life, she could repeat these words to help bring her back to peace.

May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be strong.
May I live with ease.

"I wanted something I would always be able to say — in old age, in sickness — and have it be realistic," she told Shapiro. "No matter what happens, I can always wish for strength."

The words are so simple, they can encompass most every healthy wish a person can have. I cannot wish away my medical condition, but I can learn how to take care of myself within that condition in order to feel stronger and happier. I have to learn to do what's right by me.

Around the same time I stopped eating pork, I started giving myself challenges, little things I could do that were beneficial in some way. For awhile when I was around 11, I decided to see how long I could go without eating fried food. I don't remember exactly how long I lasted — maybe six months — but post-swimming hunger made me forget in the face of french fries. But I'd gone for awhile, and knew I could, and that was satisfying enough.

The challenges are not all food-related. I've completed the 50,000 word National Novel Writing Month challenge six times, just to get my ass in the chair and to make the words fly. These book reviews, the number of them for the year, are their own challenge. My goals are not of the marathon variety. It's not really about control or triumph of the human body. For me, any small challenge is more about "What would happen if I tried this? Will I be happier for having done it? How long is enough?" I may never eat ham ever again, but I'm more likely to say that a life without hashbrowns is just not worth living. And I will always write, and if I have to create self-imposed deadlines and arbitrary numbers to keep myself motivated, then so be it. When it comes to my body? I have to keep faith that my efforts will not be wasted, that incrementally I will gather the whispers of wisdom from so many sources, and I will continue to find strength. I'm here, and I'm in it for the long run, so it's time to cultivate my own peace.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.