We writers constantly shortchange ourselves. We seldom read for pure enjoyment or to escape daily tedium. Instead we ' research, ' hoping facts will gave a book credibility, OR we surgically dissect a runaway bestseller to 'see how the author did it,' OR we read the classics year after year (Tolstoy, Faulkner, Hemingway...yawn) hoping their brilliance will rub off on us. I can quote ANNA KARENINA and ABSALOM, ABSALOM backwards and forwards, but I am not any wiser about human nature than I was at university. And I still don't know why we are programmed to remember pain, (except that without it, we would not have Art.) Consequently, I am learning that...
At some point in life we wise up. We LIGHTEN up. With ebooks now so accessible and reasonably priced, I've begun to read authors I never heard of, because they were recommended and I might enjoy (!) them, or their titles are intriguing, or because I'm curious about an unfamiliar culture, or medical term. And I read as a way of supporting and cheering on the new digerati, self-publishing pioneers.
Here are a few books I read in 2011 that I enjoyed and recommend. They might shock you, make you laugh, make you cry. They might enlighten you. They might make you want to forgive your father, your mother, your ex-wife-or-husand, your ex-partner, and maybe even look for love again.
DO TAMPONS TAKE YOUR VIRGINITY? by Marie Simas. Kindle, $4.99 (The sequel is entitled DOUCHEBAG ROULETTE!) I bought it because the title is outrageous, but the downloaded sample showed there was good writing here. ( An perennial Amazon bestseller.) A gut-wrenching memoir about a Catholic Portuguese-American family in California's Central Valley. A dysfunctional family with a brutal father. With jaw-dropping candor, Marie describes her youth: a headstrong daughter who refused to bow down to a sadistic, sociopathic father who beat her frequently, relentlessly kicked her, even broke her tailbone, and who continually raped her mother even when she was dying of cancer. This was a man beset by demons, who obviously needed psychiatric help. The Catholic church with its misogynistic preachings and double standards only further fed his sociopathy.
Yes, rough stuff, here. But as I read I saw this memoir as a catharsis, a purging of the rage and sorrow Marie held in as a girl. Somehow she kept her mordant humor. There are hilarious passages, and tender ones, too. At 15 she loses her virginity to a boy who then deserts her. Her heart-tbreak is 'worse than all the years of beatings.' She matures into a foul-mouthed waitress, who uses and abuses men. Surprise. But there is a strong will to survive and achieve embedded in this girl. After years of struggle, on her own she earns a college degree. She becomes a respected professional, eventually a successful mother and writer. In the end you want fireworks and marching bands for her. In simple, powerful prose Simas has given us a tale of survival, of triumph over tragedy. It's shocking and poetic and tragic, and finally uplifting. You might weep, you won't forget it.
UNRAVELING ANNE. by Laurel Saville. Amazon Encore. Kindle $7.99. (Also on the Amazon bestseller list). A memoir of a beautiful, brilliant woman whose downward spiral led her to a violent death. Saville's mother, Anne Ford, was a ravishing beauty queen, model, actress, fashion designer in Los Angeles, who dated Marlon Brando. Through bad choices, booze and possibly creeping schizo-phrenia, she threw her talents and looks away in the hippy 60s and 70s of L.A. Saville and her brother were raised in near-degradation, subjected to their mother's daily abuse, exposed to a nightly parade of strange men, and left to clothe and feed themselves for years.
Living back East with her father, Saville learned her mother was now living in the streets in empty lots. Finally she was found strangled and stabbed to death in a burnt-out hovel. After her death she discovered clues to her mother's past. An emotionally starved childhood with unloving and unforgiving parents. At nineteen when Anne came home pregnant, her father punched her in the stomach. Saville slowly began to grasp who her mother really was: a sensitive, possibly schizophrenic woman, rejected by parents who had primed her for success, then shunned her as a failure, an obscenity. She finally understood that though deeply flawed, a cruel and competitive mother, Anne Ford was also a human deserving of love. This is a tale of surviving and healing, a testimony to the generosity of a daughter who could finally understand, and even forgive, her mother.
SHOES, HAIR, NAILS. By Deborah Batterman. Kindle. $4.99. A collection of stories set in New York, Las Vegas, and life in post-9/11, about relationships between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, lovers and friends. On the surface they seem to be about the day to day, but then evolve into stories of human frailty, male and female sexuality, and how we handle longing and rejection. Each story starts simply, then sideswipes the reader with heart-rending takes on morality, mortality, and all the epic mishaps in-between. The writing is elegant, restrained, often satirical.
"Shoes" explores a mother's addiction to pricey shoes, then the authors hijacks us from shoes to desire to sex to adultery to a character's death. Shoes as metaphor. In "Hair, ' a mother cold-bloodedly abandons her young daughter to a friend, then, out of dim-wittedness, sadism, or some form of sociopathy, through the years writes letters to her daughter about her fashionable life in Paris, her every-changing lovers, and hair-styles. When the mother finally disappears, nothing found but her wallet, this reader stood and cheered. So we are swept along with Batterman's gleaming little gems of poignant, heart-breaking, laugh-out-loud stories that address the universals of love, death, birth, loss and our against-all-odds human will to survive. Brilliant stories to cherish & reread.
DELIGHTFULLY DIFFERENT. By D.S. Walker. Kindle $7.99. (Pricey, but an important book.)
Much more than fiction, an award-winning educational novel aimed at 9-12 YA readers. But adults should read too. Especially those with children on the autism spectrum. Its deals with ASPERGER'S SYNDROME, one of those medical conditions most parents are not aware of - until their child is afflicted. This is a lovely work of fiction that also educates, and tells the truth. And most importantly, it teaches Tolerance. Its told from two different perspectives, the mother's and the afflicted daughter's. Mia Lung, a young girl with Asperger's Syndrome, allows us into her life and mind so we 'personally' experience her life of deep sensory sensitivity, her 'differentness' from other children, her pain from their bullying.
Walker, a registered nurse of 25 years, studied sensory processing and knows of what she speaks, so there is a beauty in how she translates Mia's 'affliction' into more of a personality replete with 'quirks,' as all human have. Its hard to do this book justice. Walker dispels much of the mystery of AS, as she gently advocates Tolerance as a humane treatment. She also emphasizes how drastically teachers and guidance counselors need to be re-educated about AS, since they handle these children everyday. DELIGHTFULLY DIFFERENT is also important because it deals with ASPERGER'S SYNDROME in a female child, whereas most literature deals with AS afflicted males. I thank Walker for writing this important book. More people should be aware of it. It needs vigorous marketing by the publishers!
THE OLD MERMAID'S TALE. By Kathleen Valentine. Kindle, $3.99 A lavish, sweeping saga of maritime history, myth, and an all-encompassing love. A coming-of-age tale set in the Great Lakes region, rough, bustling waterfronts of the early 1960s. Clair Wagner, a modest Ohio girl, enters college at nearby Port Presque Isle and is drawn to the unknown, even the forbidden, in the waterfront grog-shops of Lake Erie where she is ultimately exposed to seamen, poets, harlots, musicians, to phantoms and legends that step fully-fleshed into her life.
Valentine's writing is so sensuous and graphic, it resurrects the lusty, maritime smells and tastes of that bygone era. Clair is initially swept off her feet by the dashing seaman, Pio, but finds a deeper love in Baptiste, the hypnotic Breton, a seaman and musician of tragic, aching vulnerability who harbors a dark secret from his past. While exploring this complex and doomed love, the author transports us to other eras: shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, Native American legends come alive, the boomtown years of prosperity in these slowly fading waterfront towns. There are scenes where the book's depth approaches the Biblical, the epiphanic, as her characters contemplate the meaning of love, and of existence. The writing is on an epic scale such as Fielding and Melville. A nourishing novel, a great journey. I loved it.
Its sheer coincidence that these books were all written by women. I hope men will read them, too. In a forthcoming post I will list books authored by men that I read in 2011 and enjoyed and recommend.
What is great literature, we ask? The answer is still the same: books that last down the centuries. Alas, the classics don't always give us answers to contemporary life. The world is moving fast, each day it's transformed by coding gurus. And so are we. As we march inexorably toward a radically greater degree of transparency in our personal lives, perhaps what we look for in a good book is empathetic characters who make us feel less alone, less naked.
Even if they start out as fascinating psychopaths who run on all fours, in the end we want our characters rehabbed. We want to relate to them, want them to make us laugh and cry. We want high-low humor, secret vices, acts of contrition. In short, we want books full of characters like us: Fearful, questing, excruciatingly complex. Losers who morph into heroes. And heroes who morph into everyday humans searching for love.
( Martin Luther King Day.)