The new year brings with it lofty declarations about reading habits. And without fail, every year, I break those resolutions. In 2015 I was going to read all the books I never read in high school. In 2018 I was riding high on the #NoNewBooks2018 book buying ban vibes. In 2019 I was going to throw out my scheduled reading and stop joining book clubs. LAUGHABLE. I sabotage myself best when it’s concerning books.
I’ve been plowing through books this year. My goal on Goodreads for 2017 is 35, but last year I read 53 and so far this year I’m already at 28, “20 books ahead of schedule”. This is partly because I’m newly addicted to audiobooks and checking them out like crazy from my library via the amazing Overdrive app (if you don’t know what this is, let me know and I’ll indoctrinate you). I listen to audiobooks on 2x speed. It’s also partly because I hate everything going on right now and don’t want to deal, so I’m diving into other worlds to cope. The thing is, though, these other worlds are connecting to mine and to where I am in my life right now in very interesting ways. I’m not sure what the stronger connection is here between me, current affairs, and these books, but I thought I would list them out and chat a bit about them and why they’re impacting me so much. Update: after writing this whole thing out, I now see that connection and it’s women. It’s always women!!!!!!!!
The first was Carrie by Stephen King. I got it on audiobook kind of on a lark one day and was hooked! I kept thinking that I wished I had read the book when it came out or before I had seen the movies. The structure was so interesting, written like a historical account, and it was very very creepy! While I think most people read this book for the scares (of which there aren’t many), what is strongest is the coming of age story. Carrie White suffers greatly throughout the book as she does battle with her mother, with her school, and with her cruel peers. She is a woman who fits none of the molds or expectations from any part of her life, and she breaks. I loved how this book speaks to the rage of women and the power behind that. I’m actually surprised that I haven’t seen it frequented on feminist book lists. What I saw in this book was a retelling of an old story: young women who try to come into their own and break away from their expectations are to be feared and destroyed because they carry dark and harmful magic within them. I love the idea that when women hit puberty (something that happens right away at the top of the book to Carrie), a deep power is unleashed inside of them. This is 100% true! But not perhaps in the way those afraid of it would like to imagine (to be clear, both men and women fear this power…which…come on ladies). If we could levitate beds, cause rocks to fall from the sky, or throw knives with our minds, wow what a party! But what we actually do is create life. And that is terrifying to those who can’t, so much so that they have shamed many aspects of it and made us hate ourselves. The story of Carrie White is the story of every woman. I was going to say that it doesn’t always end the same way, but I think a lot of women burn and destroy their own little “towns” to an extent when they’re finding themselves, I know I did. Thinking about women today, the state of feminism and womanism, politics, ugh, this all feels relevant. What does Carrie do in 2017 United States of America? What do we do?
Next was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirely Jackson. Interestingly, I saw a lot of this book in Carrie, which makes sense because King absolutely loved Hill House and Jackson. I read this as part of my Shameful Book Club, and it really blew me away. There is a deep thing happening in this book. To me it feels like corruption, the fight for autonomy, and a heavy dash of feminism all simmering together in a perfect stew of Jackson. Her writing never fails to enthrall me. In Hill House, two women have a very interesting relationship to each other, the men in the house, and the house itself. The main character, Eleanor, become intoxicated by the house and in the end it appears to conquer her (trying not to be spoilery here). Before coming to the house, Eleanor’s entire life was devoted to nursing her sick mother. After her mother died, Eleanor was determined to find her place in the world and have that place be exclusively hers — something we all take for granted. Like Carrie, she has an awakening and a new understanding of who she is, how she relates to the world, and what she wants out of it. But unfortunately, also like Carrie, she is denied this. A lot of how I felt about this book and Eleanor was the same as how I felt when I read The Yellow Wallpaper. Claustrophobia, gaslighting, frustration, helplessness, isolation, frantic empowerment. I guess I could call it, tongue in my cheek, weird women shit. I made a connection between various interests of mine during the listening of this book. They were (in no particular order) women’s empowerment, feminism, and spiritualism. It is a very interesting topic, if any of you would like to dive into it. During the rise of spiritualism, women (who were considered to have a deeper and stronger connection to the spirit world) saw an increase in power and autonomy. This also began right around the American and British Suffrage movements, and the two have been linked. Eleanor has an incredibly strong spiritual and psychic connection with the house, which just made all of these things click for me. I would love to read a full feminist breakdown of this book, so if any of you know of one PLEASE send it along!
After Hill House, I randomly picked up Alana Massey’s All The Lives I Want. Some people talk about how they’ve deliberately delayed reading a book because they love it so much and they never want it to end. I have never experienced this until this book. I cry pretty much every time I pick it up. Massey captures something so real for me. On the surface, her essays may seem vapid or materialistic to those not in the female 24-35 range, but for me they touched a very real part of my soul and identity that I think was craving attention. She talks about girls who buy Silvia Plath merch from Etsy, songs she used to dance to as a stripper, and how she thinks of people as either Winonas or Gwyneths. This all sounds ridiculous, but it’s laced with such a deep understanding of how these cultural touch points, icons, etc. have informed women and me and her and us. It is only very barely about these surface topics. I think that because a lot of other people will read it and maybe hate it or maybe feel no connection to it is why my connection feels so much stronger. It’s hard for me to really talk about this book because I haven’t digested it fully yet (maybe I never will), but when I read it, this is what I feel: I feel like I’m being hugged by a massive circle of women who all have different experiences, but those different experiences add up to the same as mine and the same as each others’. I feel like I’m at an adult women’s slumber party and we’re getting down to it — talking about everything that has ever shaped us. For some reason, I haven’t felt very connected to women my age. I put that on myself. While I’ve been reading so much about feminism and the experiences of great women or women from other cultures, I have neglected my own friends and my own experiences. This book is recalibrating me. I plan on buying it for many of my girl friends and sister.
Then came Goddess Joan Didion. Her new short work South and West was my first ever real experience with her, and it swept me away. It’s basically just her notebook from a certain time, and it compares her time in the south and also in California during the ’70s. The forward, written by Nathaniel Rich, sets the book up as a way to consider the roles of the west and the south. The south has always seemed so bogged down by its past and history, while the west was always a place of optimism and the future. Rich’s argument is that it is actually reversed, and Didion’s blunt observations from the ’70s in combination with our current political and social climate prove that. Well, that was a very interesting idea to consider as I read the book! Didion’s observations about the smalleness of life and the largeness of this country (and the universe, actually) struck a chord with me. She also turned her eye to the everyday racism and sexism that she encountered during her trip. Nothing felt overwhelming or awful, but it was insidious. For example, at a restaurant there was a menu item called “Italian or Wop Salad”. Things haven’t changed much during the enormity of time despite our thinking that it should. I felt a very heavy cynicism after reading it, but that also came with a lightness. It was very weird, and kind of hard to explain! It also felt very intimate, especially the moments when she is just existing around others while their lives continue to move and she just reports to us what that is. For example, she captures a moment in the south when a woman in a yellow bridesmaid’s dress is walking home from a wedding with her baby in her arms and her husband by her side. She referred to her as a girl, which I thought was interesting. That small moment stuck with me for so long. A young woman living what feels, to me during a particularly stressful point in time in my life, a simple life. I thought about what their house looked like, what that child was doing now, what happened to that dress? A small moment that could be repeating over and over again over countless decades in many different cities/states/countries. I also loved a moment when Didion went to get her nails done at a salon while her clothes were in the wash at a laundromat. Her small conversation with the young women working there held a disproportionate amount of weight. Perhaps that’s just because Didion’s writing style creates that, or, like I said, something just struck me.
How interesting that two of these books are horror fiction and two are personal non-fiction writing. I think that these books are capturing me now because of a perfect storm: I’m learning new things about myself and I’m living during a time that is quite uh, interesting. I think in my last year before 30, I am moving forward on a more introspective journey, and these works have somehow primed that thought process. Has anyone experienced this before where you seem to read several books close together that really click with you?