The Lonely City

When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art.

Moving fluidly between the works and lives of some of the city’s most compelling artists, Laing conducts an eclectic, dazzling investigation into what it means it be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be redeemed and embraced.

How are you doing, really? Are you on lockdown? Are you a key worker?

I’m at home. In the past two weeks I went from working in an office, to working from home, to furloughed from work until further notice, the magazine I work on suspended from publication. I live with housemates, all men, none I am particularly close to – though we’re getting a bit closer, inevitably I guess. I’m lonely, and I am afraid what the total lack of structure in my life will do to my brain, which veers towards the angsty and sad even at the best of times.

I’ve gotten really into Money Heist. Like, to be honest, that show is my life now and I don’t know what I’m going to do when it’s over. If you have any recommendations they will be gratefully received.

What I’m saying is that one way or another, it felt like the perfect time to revisit, The Lonely City, a book of essays by Olivia Laing that I read during my months of non-blogging. When I picked up the book and reread a couple of essays this morning to refresh my memory for this very review it felt like a risk – would this make me feel better, or would it make the dread that has been creeping over me since the weekend all the worse?

Fortunately, it was the former. The Lonely City isn’t precisely an uplifting read, but it is a cathartic one. Post-break up and in a foreign country, Olivia wrote this book in a period of absolute solitude. During that time, when even ordering a coffee became a challenge because she felt so painfully self-conscious about herself (something I felt on a spiritual level), she found solace and a kind of kindship in the stories of the lonely artists that came before her. She looked at the work they created to fix themselves – or if not that, patch over their worst of it – as a road map for the way out of her own heartbreak, which began over one person and over time grew into something much larger than that.

“So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need to constantly inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed inside a unit of two, turned inward from the world at large?”

The book is filled with stories of artists, a lot of them from the 70s and 80s, and the various ways they did and did not manage to connect in their lives and work. They are painful, bittersweet and comforting all at the same time. Maybe my favourite was the story of Andy Warhol, who, hampered first by his weak grasp of English and second by his paralysing hatred of his body, started to use technology as a means of shielding himself from others. He started carrying a tape recorder with him everywhere he went, recording all of his interactions as part of some wider art project that seemed like it was as much about creating a means of holding himself at a safe distance from his friends and boyfriends as it was the end product, a book called a, which no one read.

These essays are filled with people who lived their lives on the fringes; people of colour, queer people, the mentally ill and those living in poverty, many of them not allowed a voice during their lifetimes. People like Henry Darger, the janitor who spent his entire life in poverty who was discovered to be an incredibly prolific artist and writer when his landlord came to clean out his apartment after he’d been hospitalised for what would be the final time. He may also have been a total psycho (his artwork is scary weird) – but nobody ever knew him, so no one knows for sure.

The Lonely City is an exploration of a subject we’re all facing right now in new and frightening ways. What is a world where we can’t go around to your friend’s place to watch a movie? How do you cope when all you want is a hug from your mum, but she is quarantined miles away from you? What this book does, somewhat paradoxically, is classify loneliness as a community experience – because at some point, to some degree, we’ve all been there.

Especially right now.

“If I sound adamant it is because I am speaking from personal experience. When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”

Everything I Know About Love

When it comes to the trials and triumphs of becoming a grown up, journalist Dolly Alderton has seen and tried it all. She vividly recounts falling in love, wrestling with self-sabotage, finding a job, throwing a socially disastrous Rod Stewart themed house party, getting drunk, getting dumped, realising that Ivan from the corner shop is the only man you’ve ever been able to rely on, and finding that that your mates are always there at the end of every messy night out. It’s a book about bad dates, good friends and – above all else – about recognising that you and you alone are enough.

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I grabbed a copy of Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton on a whim at the checkout in Sainsbury’s. It was £3.99, I was stocking up on yoghurt and pasta. It made sense.

I knew very little about the book besides a few people I follow on Instagram posting about how great it was and assumed from the title that it was probably about boys. And, for the first couple of chapters at least, I was right. Dolly Alderton starts what very much appears to be a book about dating before she pivots into a much more complicated story about friendship, self-destruction, loss, grief, therapy and independence – and cooking. There is a macaroni cheese recipe in there that’ll make you lose your mind.

“Sometimes the gap between the little faith you have compared to the unwavering faith of others is a very moving thing.”

Everything I Know About Love is a series of funny, heart-wrenching and sometimes cringe-inducing personal essays about Alderton’s life, from her beginnings living in the outskirts of London counting down the days until adulthood finally begins, to her discovery of alcohol and its impact on her, some boys and, of course, her personal reckoning – with herself. These essays are broken up by recipes (I know I mentioned this already but the hangover mac and cheese is life changing), made up correspondence on everything from pretentious house parties to the nightmare that is the hen do in the social media age and everything Dolly knew about love between the ages of 21 and 30. From “Men love a filthy, wild woman. Have sex on the first date, keep them up all night, smoke hash in their bed in the morning, never call them back, tell them you hate them, turn up on their doorstep in an Ann Summers nurse’s outfit, be anything but conventional. That’s how you keep them interested.” (21) to “There is a reason why those with shared demons or who had similar childhoods or overlapping ancestry often end up together. I think everyone’s deepest emotional fingerprints reach out and touch each other on an unconscious level. This can be good and bad. This can lead to intimacy and connection, and co-dependency and drama.” (30). Each list is full of embarrassing misconceptions and deep truths I’ve been reflecting on ever since.

In ‘Being a Bit Fat, Being a Bit Thin’, Alderton details how quickly it is possible to fall into disordered eating habits. Always described as “a big girl” by her peers, Dolly hadn’t considered her weight in much detail before her first Big Break Up age 21. Struck down by unexpected heartbreak, for the first time in her life, Dolly found herself completely unable to eat. When she shed a stone in the first few weeks she grabbed hold of weight as one aspect of her life she could control. This is a difficult essay to read, as it speaks very directly to how ingrained diet culture is – in young women in particular. We have been so socialised into believing that thin equals happy even the most reasonable person is vulnerable to falling into that belief – and, as Alderton points out, it’s one that is incredibly difficult to ever be completely free from. Once you know something’s caloric value, it’s very hard to forget.

When I saw the title Everything I Know About Love, I assumed the love Alderton referenced was mostly the romantic kind, but the love story at the centre of her memoir is a platonic one. She and her best friend, Farley have known each other since they were children. They always functioned as two parts of a frenetic whole – that is, until Farley met her partner. Alderton writes with honesty and humility about how hard it was for her to see her best friend fall in love. It is one of the lesser spoken of aspects of friendship, but the particular heartbreak of suddenly becoming second to your friend’s serious partner is a real and horrible phase of life at whatever age it happens to you. Going from speaking to and seeing each other every day to suddenly having to fit into the newly busy schedule of your bestie can be unmooring, alienating and very, very lonely. But, slowly, you adjust to the new normal. The partner you’ve resented comes to feel like family.

Alderton illustrates that periods of closeness and distance are all a part of a long-term relationship, something that becomes very apparent when Farley’s life takes a completely unexpected and tragic twist – leading she and Dolly back to the kind of closeness they hadn’t had in years, under the most awful of circumstances. It’s not the kind of unconditional love she had always pictured, but, Dolly comes to realise, she and Farley have it. Alderton spends much of the book lamenting her supposed inability to maintain long-term love. Her life has mainly been without serious romantic relationships, and she wears her independence like a shield. But the idea that she doesn’t have forever-love in her life isn’t real. Farley is the great (platonic) love of her life – with all the joys, fights, complications and phases that entails.

All I can say to sum up this book is this: I was not ready.

How To Be Alone

Lane Moore is a rare performer who is as impressive onstage – whether hosting her iconic show Tinder Live or being the enigmatic woman of It Was Romance – as she is on the page, as both a former writer for The Onion and an award-winning sex and relationships editor for Cosmopolitan. But her story has its obstacles, including being her own parent, living in her car as a teenager, and moving to New York City to pursue her dreams. Through it all, she looked to movies, TV and music as the family and support systems she never had.

From spending the holidays alone to having better “stranger luck” than with those closest to her to feeling like the last hopeless romantic on earth, Lane reveals her powerful and entertaining journey in all its candour, anxiety, and ultimate acceptance – with humour always her bolstering force and greatest gift.

How To Be Alone is a must-read for anyone whose childhood still feels unresolved, who spends more time pretending to have friends online than feeling close to anyone in real life, who tries to have genuine, deep conversations in a room full of people who would rather you not. Above all, it’s a book for anyone who desperately wants to feel less alone and a little more connected through reading her words.

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This review is difficult to write because How To Be Alone, Lane Moore’s heart breaking, funny, painful and ultimately healing memoir destroyed me for a solid week. Honestly I’m still not over it.

But I knew that would happen going in. Lane Moore appeared on Hannalyze This (an amazing podcast about mental health and processing trauma that I highly recommend you check out) a few weeks back and though I hadn’t heard of her before, I knew by the end of the episode that I needed her book. You know when a book calls to you on, like, a cellular level?

Yeah.

That.

How To Be Alone is a series of essays about Lane’s life, touching on her childhood (Emergency Contact Left Blank) through leaving home (Now You Get To Be An Adult, Even Though You Were Always An Adult. Good Luck!), relationships (So Your Family Dictates Your Romantic Future? What a Fun Punishment! and All This Pain Must Be Worth It Because You’re Supposed To Be My Soul Mate) and loving Jim Halpert from The Office (Am I The Last Hopeless Romantic On Earth?). Lane describes in strikingly honest detail – and I do mean tear yourself in half, blood on the pages honesty – what life is like when your primary support system, your family, is abusive and absent. In moments funny and tear-inducing, she writes of clawing her way to survival by way of the music, TV shows and books she used to build her identity in the absence of any adult affirmation or supervision.

What I loved most about How To Be Alone is it is a memoir written by someone who is still in it, by which I mean to say still in the pain, in the recovery. I heard Lane herself say in an interview that she was sick of reading memoirs by women detailing their painful experiences of negotiating the wilderness alone that almost universally end with… ‘and then I met Jeff and now everything is fine’.

Screw Jeff.

What Lane has produced is a book for people who are still in it. It’s proof that even in the midst of the pain and the horror there are moments of lightness. That feelings of pain – overwhelming and awful and insurmountable as they so often feel – are survivable, because Lane is writing not having survived, but currently surviving.

With almost every significant female written memoir in the story of survival canon ending with the arrival of Jeff, this is no small thing.

What I also appreciated about this book was that she didn’t only write about her struggles with romance, but with platonic relationships too. It’s always bothered me the way people who ‘struggle with relationships’ on TV do so exclusively in the romantic arena – seeming to have no problem maintaining an often large and close knit group of friends. As if feelings of insecurity, feeling like you’re a burden or having boundary issues only matter when sex is involved.

If you’re someone who finds life generally pretty hard, if you had a weird childhood that you’re still struggling with or you’re going through a tough spot right now, then you should read How To Be Alone. You’re likely to find a piece of yourself in there somewhere.

I grew up in a pretty chaotic household. My mum was a single parent and we had no money. She was in an emotionally abusive relationship for a long time (12 years – so basically my entire childhood and still a very large proportion of my life so far) and that person, though I haven’t seen or spoken to him in getting on for a decade, continues to loom large in my life in ways I’ve only really come to understand in the last couple years.

My dad was a very unreliable and often absent, and when he was around, the type who’d do something shitty to you and then find a way to demonstrate that it was actually your fault that he did that thing. We’re not in contact any more.

I do not have an easy time being close with people. I am painfully socially anxious and I second guess literally every single interaction I have. For a long time I just assumed I was broken, but I’ve recently realised (on an intellectual level, anyway) that actually my natural setting of General Dread may not be one I was born with so much as one that was… installed. Healing is a long, hard process I for one have barely even begun, but books like How To Be Alone, filled with pain as they are, go a long fucking way to helping you feel whole again.

In How To Be Alone – even though Lane’s life was a lot (a lot) harder than mine has been – I saw myself reflected in a way I really never have before. There was no neat tying traumatic experiences up in a bow, but instead a slow unfolding of the exhausting process of learning to carry your extensive and heavy emotional baggage – and the hope that you might one day let it all go.

 

 

Vanishing Twins

For as long as she can remember, Leah has had the mysterious feeling that she’s been searching for a twin – that she should be part of an intimate pair. It begins with dance partners as she studies ballet growing up; continues with her attractions to girlfriends in college; and leads her, finally, to Eric, whom she moves across the country for and marries. But her steadfast, monogamous relationship leaves her with questions about her sexuality and her identity, so she and her husband decide to try an open marriage.

How does a young couple make room for their individual desires, their evolving selfhoods, and their artistic ambitions while building a life together? Can they pursue other sexual partners, even live in separate cities, and keep their original passionate bond alive? Vanishing Twins looks for answers in psychology, science, pop culture, art, architecture, Greek mythology, dance and language to create a lucid, suspenseful portrait of a woman testing the limits and fluidities of love.

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Vanishing Twins: A Marriage, Leah Dieterich’s deliciously written and intimate memoir is consumed with questions of identity, love, queerness and establishment of self – in other words, all of the good stuff.

Dieterich approaches the tension between her identity and her relationship through the metaphor of Vanishing Twin Syndrome – a medical phenomenon in which one twin “consumes” the other in the womb. Dieterich sees herself as the remaining twin, arrived into the world as one half of an as yet unfulfilled pair, charged with searching the world for one who mirrors her perfectly.

She finds it in Eric, marries young and readies herself to live her life in perfect twin-ship with him. Eric is her life, her ambition and the centre of her universe – they agree on everything (turns out it’s not so hard if you are really determined), inspire each other every day and appear to be moving in a perfectly symmetrical trajectory.

Until, suddenly, they’re not.

For Dieterich, the problem of the vanishing twin is constant and evolving. When she finds her twin-ship, creates a “womb-like” life for herself and Eric where all that exists is each other, she risks herself becoming the twin that is consumed.

It’s like we’re the same person. We finish each other’s sentences. This is what we’ve been taught to desire and expect of love. But there’s a question underneath that’s never addressed: once you find someone to finish your sentences, do you stop finishing them for yourself?”

Dieterich spent so much of her young life looking for her “twin”, she forgot to look for herself. In her search she found herself in intense relationships with her female friends – friendships where lines blurred, became sexually charged. She doesn’t want to lose Eric, but as she grows she finds herself desperate to explore her sexuality.

They make the decision together to open up the marriage to other sexual partners. Leah starts a long distance relationship with an artist, Elena, while Eric moves across the country to pursue his artistic career. In their non-monogamy, and subsequently making the choice to no longer live together, both find that they can establish their identities in a way that seemed impossible in their monogamous state. In spending time apart, and with others, it opens up a sense of self independent of the other that neither had had – not since they had been in a relationship, and perhaps ever.

It’s painful and complicated. You question, along with Dieterich, whether the relationship can possibly survive, if independence and monogamy are mutually exclusive states, what her queer identity means when she’s in a relationship with a man and how it can be expressed (and the tension that expression creates).

We are not supposed to live our lives in exclusive pairs. That’s not to say I think monogamy doesn’t work, but that our entire lives can’t, and shouldn’t, be built around one person. What Deiterich discovers through her sexual relationship with Elena, but also her creative partnership with her work colleague, Ethan, is that one person can’t fulfil all of her needs. With Elena she explores her queerness and her art, with Ethan she creates a successful working and creative partnership, and with Eric she grows and changes – pulling apart and drawing together but, ultimately, never letting go.

Through Vanishing Twins, Dieterich explores identity as not just one thing, but a tapestry of elements that evolve, switch and move over time. And that’s okay. That’s as it should be.

Redefining Realness

Trigger warning: sexual abuse

In this profound and courageous New York Times bestseller, Janet Mock establishes herself as a resounding and inspirational voice for the transgender community – and anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms. With unflinching honesty and moving prose, Mock relays her experiences of growing up young, multiracial, poor and trans in America, offering readers accessible language while imparting vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalised and misunderstood population. Though undoubtedly an account of one woman’s quest for self at all costs, Redefining Realness is a powerful vision of possibility and self-realisation, pushing us all toward greater acceptance of one another – and of ourselves – showing us as never before how to be unapologetic and real.

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I’ve been a big fan of Janet Mock’s for a while now. I loved her Never Before podcast (the Kris Jenner interview!) and her journalism is fantastic, as is her jealousy-inducing Instagram account. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading her first memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More. I mean that title alone screams Lydia, READ ME.

I think sometimes my subconscious tells me to put off reading books until I’m ready for them, and that was very much the case with Redefining Realness. As someone who has spent much of the last year or so consumed by questions about identity (‘be yourself’ is about the most stress inducing advice a person can give me), reading Janet’s story hit me hard. So, next time you’re beating yourself up for not having got to a particular book yet – relax. You’ll read it when the time is right.

In Redefining Realness, Janet details her life from early childhood up until she goes to college and ends with her reassignment surgery. The book is a mix of Janet’s own story with contextualising elements regularly added to place her personal experience into the wider struggles that many trans women, and especially trans women of colour, deal with. She emphasises that her story isn’t representative of the entire community and acknowledges the spectrum of gender, particularly when it comes to parts like her need for reassignment surgery – a procedure that was necessary for Janet specifically, but one that she takes pains to explain is not necessary for all trans women.

Redefining Realness is a memoir that is also a great introduction to transgender identity, the systemic prejudices trans women face and the sometimes deadly consequences those injustices can have.

What I loved most about this book though, was the nuanced, compassionate and equally resentful way that Janet writes about her family. In writing about her parents, Janet navigates the dichotomy of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent with ease. Both of her parents were pretty disastrous, unreliable people while she was growing up. She quickly learned that she had to provide for herself, financially and emotionally, as both her parents had limited room for her needs because they were consumed by dealing with their own. Though both her parents at times appear villainous – her mother with her total focus on her own romantic life at the cost, repeatedly, of her children; her father similarly consumed by his own relationships, drug abuse and a need to impose his ideas of masculinity on the child he didn’t understand – they are also loving, complex people all of their own. Though both regularly let her down, they never let her go. Whether it was her mother nursing her back to health after her surgery, or her father’s response after she came out to him (defensively, aggressively) – “Your disrespect for me is apparent… But I’m the parent and you’re the child and it is not your job to love me the way I love you. My love for you is unconditional” – Janet shows that even in their neglectful moments, both her parents still proved their love for their daughter. Families are complicated, painful, delicate ecosystems and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that represented in a way that felt authentic to me until this book.

Janet’s unflinching commitment to describing every inch of the painful, frightening and vulnerable process of becoming yourself pierces right to the heart of the struggle of growing up. A sense of being in hiding from something is, I think, a state very familiar to many of us, and Janet’s gradual inching out of the shadows is inspiring to read as she comes to terms with the abuse, shame and hardship that led her to becoming the person she is today.

She is fucking epic.

Becoming a person is a long, hard process that requires an awful lot more patience than we ever imagined when we were young. Reading stories like Janet’s is a much needed reminder that struggle, pain and frustration are only one aspect of a long, complicated life. And, once again, that there is a lot of baggage behind even the most glamorous Instagram feed.

Lady Memoirs for the Soul

We are fast approaching the end of summer. Even though I am no longer a student, I can’t help but think of September as the beginning of… something. The thought of it makes me feel reinvigorated somehow. Does anyone else feel this way?

What I want, in periods like these, is to feed that sense of invigoration. For me, that means reading the thoughts of the people I most admire. So, books by women.

Here are a few to kick start your inspiration engine:

Lady memoirs

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

I thoroughly believe that everyone should read this book. I have the audiobook, and I listen to it whenever I am having a hard day. Amy Poehler is such a giving, open hearted writer. It pours out of her and infects you with its goodness.

“Hopefully as you get older, you start to learn how to live with your demon. It’s hard at first. Some people give their demon so much room that there is no space in their head or bed for love. They feed their demon and it gets really strong and then it makes them stay in abusive relationships or starve their beautiful bodies. But sometimes, you get a little older and get a little bored of the demon. Through good therapy and friends and self-love you can practice treating the demon like a hacky, annoying cousin. Maybe a day even comes when you are getting dressed for a fancy event and it whispers, “You aren’t pretty,” and you go, “I know, I know, now let me find my earrings.” Sometimes you say, “Demon, I promise you I will let you remind me of my ugliness, but right now I am having hot sex so I will check in later.”

The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is a singer on an art mission. Her memoir chronicles her journey from human statue to record breaking Kickstarter legend.

The Art of Asking is a book about art and trust and love. Amanda’s is a life lived to the fullest reaches of vulnerability and fearlessness. It makes wonderful reading.

“There’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen.

When you are looked at, your eyes can be closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, and you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light.

One is exhibitionism, the other is connection.

Not everybody wants to be looked at.

Everybody wants to be seen.” 

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Wild is a story of healing. After losing her mother at 21, Cheryl Strayed’s life falls apart. Her family disintegrates, her relationship with her husband implodes, and her relationship with heroin gets intimate.

Until one day she just can’t take it anymore. Until one day she picks up a guide to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2000 mile track across America. Until one day she decides to walk that trail, alone.

It’s an introspective, vulnerable, funny, heart breaking read.

“The father’s job is to teach his children how to be warriors, to give them the confidence to get on the horse to ride into battle when it’s necessary to do so. If you don’t get that from your father, you have to teach yourself.” 

I Was Told There’d Be Cake – Sloane Crosley

There is an essay in this book about how one time Sloane Crosley threw a very tense dinner party and one of guests shit on the floor of her bathroom.

Obviously a must read.

“Life starts out with everyone clapping when you take a poo and goes downhill from there.” 

Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

Okay, so I guess this one technically isn’t a memoir. It does, however, feature stories from Liz Gilbert’s extensive creative life. If you care at all about creating, or if even a little part of you wants to make something, I beg you to read this book. It isn’t some art instruction manual, or a book about the morning routine that will make you write a best seller. It’s a simple exploration or creativity. It is about the joy of making something just because you want to make it.

It is not a book about success, in the traditional sense. It is a book that asks you to commit to creating because it’s what your heart wants. I think it is a book many of us bloggers would benefit greatly from reading.

“Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.” 

Wild

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State – and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humour, Wild powerfully captures to terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

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Shout out to second hand books!

I went to see the movie adaptation of Wild by myself one morning when I was still a student who had time for that sort of thing. The movie starts with Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) lowering herself to sit on the edge of a mountain, peeling off her shoes and socks and ripping out a bloody and blackened toe nail. I reacted with a noise along to lines of AAAARRRGGGUUUGH. My fellow cinema-goers looked at me with disgust.

I looked forward to this scene in the book with a strange, excited sort of anticipation. What I didn’t know from the movie is that Cheryl Strayed left the PCT with less than half of her toe nails remaining.

But she kept on going anyway. This may be the least of what is awesome about Cheryl Strayed.

(which is impressive)

Guys, this book did things to me.

I like to think that some part of me only put off reading it the two years following my infatuation with the movie because I knew there would come a time when I, like… needed it.

If you’re one of those people who spends a lot of their life hoping that something is going to happen – but remain unsure of what that something should be, and are, as a result left feeling generally speaking too paralyzed by confusion to go looking for it (hoping that’s not just me?) – then this book is for you.

Don’t get me wrong. It does not make for easy reading. Before her hike, Cheryl’s life has turned into a black hole of grief, heartbreak and drug use. After her mother’s sudden and devastating death from an impossibly fast spreading cancer, her family falls to pieces. Her siblings scatter and the stepfather she has always adored slowly fades from her life. All of this leaves Cheryl with an uncontrollable desire to burn what remains of her life to the ground. She got married very young – a couple of years before her mother’s death – and by a couple of years after, she and her now ex are signing their divorce papers and getting tattoos to remember each other by.

Cheryl weaves the narrative of her life in and out of the present challenges of her days trekking the PCT. Every scene Cheryl describes – from the PCT to her tragic history – totally captivated me. The stories from her past are devastating and ever-present, yet somewhat overwhelmed by the daily challenges that arise for a person who decides to hike a thousand miles without having a clue what they’re actually doing. There was one time she nearly ran out of water and died because of a bit of bad planning.

While there was much about Cheryl’s life that I couldn’t relate to – I’m lucky, family-wise and way too anxious about death to experiment with heroin – the essence of the book, the feeling of being lost and constantly overwhelmed by that feeling, is one I think most of us have experienced at some point.*

*Brief side note – have most of us experienced this? The other day I had a conversation with a co-worker where I told her that pretty much every day I wake up with a panicked voice in my head screaming WHATNEXT?AMIWASTINGMYLIFE?AGAGAGAGAGHHH! at me. I kind of assumed this was the norm, so was pretty surprised when she gave me the side eye and told me that had never happened to her.

Anyway.

Ultimately it seemed like what Cheryl discovered on the trail was a life where she couldn’t deny the present. The seemingly endless path in front of her and the excruciating pain in her feet were impossible to ignore. Even when it feels like the walls are built of the past and the road the future, neither of them are where we actually live.

Cheryl puts it better:

‘It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was…. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands any more. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.

How wild it was, to let it be.’

The Art of Asking

Considering the amount of posts I’ve written concerning memoirs by ladies, it’s weird to me that I haven’t yet talked about The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer.

Chances are you’re wondering who Amanda Palmer is.

She’s a singer-songwriter.

She’s also a lot of other things. She’s a music industry rebel who lied her way out of her record contract, then went on to run a record-breaking Kick Starter campaign where her fans (including myself) collectively provided over a million dollars to fund her independent record and subsequent tour. She has since turned to Patreon where fans (including myself) pay her per thing released (as of now she earns $35,312.82 per thing). She encourages illegally downloading her music, so long as you share it with your friends. Almost all of the music she has produced independently of her ex-label you can either pay what you want for or have for free. When she’s touring she couch surfs, usually staying with fans.

She is a loved woman.

A lot of people hate her.

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A really great introduction to Amanda and her book is her TED talk. I really recommend it.

In her wonderful foreword, Brene Brown says of The Art of Asking:

‘… this book is not about seeing people from safe distances – that seductive place where most of us live, hide, and run to for what we think is emotional safety. The Art of Asking is a book about cultivating trust and getting as close as possible to love, vulnerability, and connection. Uncomfortably close. Dangerously close. Beautifully close. And uncomfortably close is exactly where we need to be if we want to transform this culture of scarcity and fundamental distrust.’

I have never read a memoir like The Art of Asking. In terms of thematics, it has much of what I’ve written about previously. It considers everything that’s harmful in the way we live our lives, and offers an alternative. The way it does it, however, I haven’t really seen before.

In terms of chronology, this book is all over the place. It is a bucketful of puzzle pieces tossed into the air, somehow falling into the perfect portrait of Amanda’s life and values. The book isn’t separated into chapters so much as vignettes – Amanda marrying her husband, Neil Gaiman, Amanda graduating from college and not wanting a job because she wants to make art (sounds so familiar), Amanda’s human statue years, Amanda meeting and falling in love with Neil Gaiman, Amanda’s escape from her record label, her disasters, etc. I think she chose to write the book in this style because in the end the timeline doesn’t really matter. Throughout her life and career Amanda Palmer has been driven by one value: her connection with others through art. That means radical trust. It means loving without question. It means being able to ask for help when you need it.

I think what is particularly compelling in Amanda’s version of this story is that she’s honest about the fact that this isn’t easy. She didn’t hesitate asking her fans to help her make her record, but when it came to her husband offering her a loan to see her through until the aforementioned funds came in, the choice was agonising.

I so admire people like Amanda Palmer, who live their life in a way that seems from the outside at least, to completely speak to their values. I love to read about people who live their lives in purposeful and compassionate ways. This book is an inspiring and heart-opening read for anyone who would like to stop worrying and let people help.

Also, if you didn’t already, you will an enormous crush on Neil Gaiman by the end.

Furiously Happy

Jenny Lawson made a community of crazy when she started writing about her struggles with her mental health on her blog. She writes about the times when life is just bizarre – most of the time, actually – and when it feels like too much to handle. People fell in love with her first because she’s hilarious, and second because she’s honest. She hasn’t so much defeated the stigma attached to mental illness as she has hunted it down with an army of taxidermy animals and a felted vagina* (I really can’t stress enough how much you should read this book). Clearly our collective crazy is something that we want to talk about.

Furiously Happy is her second memoir. It calls itself a funny book about horrible things. And it has a taxidermy raccoon called Rory on the cover. He’s the happiest damn taxidermy racoon you ever did see. I promise.

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See? He’s loving life.

Jenny Lawson’s funny and ridiculous stories just make you feel better about life. There is a sincere tone to all of her essays that made my heart feel full throughout. It is this truthfulness at the centre of the work that allows Jenny Lawson’s writing to veer so fluidly between talking about laminated cats and self-harm, I think. Whatever emotion she is in, she is in fully, and as a result, so are we.

I ended up giggling with this book in the corner of a library (not recommended. People get annoyed) and doing that thing where someone is talking but you can only nod because if you talk you will inevitably cry. Kind of like after you watch a really emotionally manipulative advert and you don’t want the people around you to know it got to you because you’re smarter than that. Except Jenny Lawson isn’t trying to sell you a new phone plan. She’s just telling you about her life, which, like most people’s, is made up of the pretty great and the very bad.

‘…There is something wonderful in accepting someone else’s flaws, especially when it gives you the chance to accept your own and see that those flaws are the things that make us human.’

Furiously Happy, for me at least, was a book that demanded I see life outside of my own skin sack. When you look at the community that Jenny Lawson has created you notice one overwhelming truth: everybody is struggling. For the past few months I’ve been feeling pretty lost in life, and when you’re in that space it becomes really easy to consider yourself… kind of a failure. Reading this made me feel – for a little while, at least – like that’s bullshit. Everybody’s struggling with something. Whatever negative feelings we’re dealing with right now don’t make us failures, they just make us people. And that’s totally okay.

‘…Stop judging yourself compared to shiny people. Avoid the shiny people. The shiny people are a lie. Or get to know them enough to realize they aren’t so shiny after all. Shiny people aren’t the enemy. Sometimes we’re the enemy when we listen to our malfunctioning brains that try to tell us that we’re alone in our self-doubt, or that it’s obvious to everyone that we don’t know what the shit we’re doing.’

*Reading Jenny Lawson’s life makes your own more amusing. While writing this review I searched through the whole book asking myself what was that vagina made of? and then, after a while had passed and I still hadn’t found it did I imagine the vagina? and, eventually finally! The vagina! This is only one of the many gifts reading Furiously Happy provides.

Why Not Me?

Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second essay collection. I have talked about how much I loved the first at length. In this second offering she has managed to give us even more of herself. Her mission statement for the collection is this: ‘If my childhood, teens and twenties were about wanting people to like me , now I want people to know me. So, this is a start.’

Why Not Me Edited

She proceeds from there through a collection that covers showbiz beauty standards (they are always hair extensions. Always.), dating in your thirties (apparently there is less drama) and the question of where she gets her confidence. She also talks about Ike Barinholtz’s alarm that one time she got behind on washing and wore her padded bra to the office. I too own a padded bra, though I have never summoned the courage to wear out of the house for this very reason, so I can imagine what that must have been like.

Mindy Kaling deals with a lot of crap. In every other interview some journalist feels the need to remind her that she doesn’t look like a ‘typical’ famous person. She has a constant stream of press asking where do you get your confidence?  in a way that sounds like a backhanded compliment. Asking someone so incredulously and consistently why they are so confident starts to feel like you’re telling them they shouldn’t be really fast.

Her answer to the confidence question is this: work hard. Get good at the thing you want to do and show it off. Hard work is the central theme to much of the book. She wants us to know that her craft is something she has worked hard to hone over a lot of years. I loved this. So much of what we consume is designed to appear effortless. We consider ‘talented’ a way of being rather than something we have to strive for. It’s easier to assume that a writer emerged from the womb clutching a book of original poetry than to go through the years of hard work that led up to it.

Celebrate this festive season with us

True to her intentions, at the end of the book, I do feel like I know Mindy Kaling a little better. Through small asides and quick anecdotes she does a wonderful job of sketching out the identities and personalities of her friends and loved ones. Her mother passed away a few years back, but she remains is a clear and constant presence in Mindy’s life. She calls her mum her best friend. Mindy also gives us some insight into her much discussed relationship with BJ Novak. They have a tumblr dedicated to them. It is absurd that she waited for this long to give us more information. From what I can gather he’s a funny guy who’s on his phone a lot who also happens to be very kind. Mindy Kaling did an amazing job of giving us pieces of her life to explore while keeping the whole as her own. (or maybe she’s just making sure she still has material for the next memoir. You’d have to ask her).

Reading Why Not Me? is like the midnight conversations you had in your kitchen at university. We get to gossip about being famous and going to the white house. We learn how to look spectacular (I would also refer you to Mindy’s Instagram for this) and what the average day in her life looks like. But she also shares with us her 4am worries (‘19. Is my father lonely? Would he tell me if he was?’) and that some days she obsesses about celebrities she’s skinnier than. She also reminds us of all the ways in which Mindy Kaling is not Mindy Lahiri.

Durga Puja Festival

Mindy Kaling does a really great job of making you feel like you’re probably going to be okay. I recommend this book to anyone who needs reminding of that.