Mood Reads

When the idea of hanging out with your friends makes you want to puke from anxiety…

Fan Girl – Rainbow Rowell

When is feels like EVERYBODY has somebody but you and you’re going to die alone…

The Upside of Unrequited – Becky Albertalli

When you want to set fire to things…

Play it as it Lays – Joan Didion

When you want to start a political movement…

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

When you want to celebrate adult life, in all its weirdnesses…

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

When you want some serious sexy times…

The Hating Game – Sally Thorne

When you’ve had one of those nights with friends where you feel like you’ve found your place in the universe….

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

When you need to feel like you exist…

Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

When you need to disappear…

The Name of the Star – Maureen Johnson

When you want to have learned EVERYTHING…

My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem

When you need to hear that it’s okay to be insecure…

The Rest of Us Just Live Here – Patrick Ness

When you need reminding that the world can be beautiful….

No Matter the Wreckage – Sarah Kay

Too Much and Not the Mood

On April 11, 1931, Virginia Woolf ended her entry in A Writer’s Diary with the words “too much and not the mood.” She was describing how tired she was of correcting her own writing, of the “cramming in and the cutting out” to please readers, wondering if she had anything at all that was truly worth saying.

The character of that sentiment, the attitude of it, inspired Durga Chew-Bose to collect her own unconventional work. The result is a lyrical and piercingly insightful cluster of essays-meet-prose poetry about identity and culture.

Informed by Maggie Nelsons Bluets, Lydia Davis’s stories, and Vivian Gornick’s exploration of interior life, Chew-Bose mines the inner restlessness that keeps her always on the brink of creative expression. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, Too Much and Not the Mood is a lush, surprising, and affecting examination of what it means to be a first-generation, creative young woman working today.

Book + coffee + sunshine = happy place #bookstagram #belletristbabe #summer #sundayfunday

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I read a lot of essay collections written by women. I treat them like instruction manuals for life; I return to them over and over and over again when I need to scratch a particular emotional itch.

You probably know the one I mean.

But in all the collections that line my bookshelves there is nobody quite like Durga Chew-Bose. It makes sense to me that she named her collection after a Virginia Woolf quote because Too Much and Not the Mood flows, bounces and draws up short in a stream of consciousness style that is distinctly Woolfian.

I was thrown off balance as soon as I started reading, finding the first essay, ‘Heart Museum’ (probably the most experimental of the collection) was 93 pages long. It’s Chew-Bose at her most whimsical. You don’t so much open the door into her world as tumble, Alice in Wonderland-style endlessly down into her interior life, wondering, all the while, how she managed to paint the inside of her brain in a way that makes introversion feel big instead of claustrophobic. The essay meanders through anxiety, writing, your woman friends who make you feel more connected than anybody else, so called ‘nook’ people and the purpose and beauty that can be found in, as she calls it, intentionally digressing.

In Too Much and Not the Mood, Chew-Bose is preoccupied by her childhood and her relationship with her parents in particular. In another standout essay, ‘D as In’, she writes about her experience of being a first-generation kid, and how being a woman of colour comes with ‘an assumption that I owe strangers an answer when they inquire’ but where are you from from? It is a beautiful piece about finding your identity while living in a society that so often imposes a limited one on people from minorities.

My copy of the book is filled with dog-eared pages. Durga Chew-Bose’s writing is like unwrapping a gift or sinking into a hot bath after a long day. There is something luxurious about existing in the interior space that she creates. A great example of this is the piece ‘On Living Alone’, which she writes of as an exercise in getting to know the person she’s spent her whole life avoiding: herself. She writes: ‘Living alone, I soon caught on, is a form of self-portraiture, or retracing the same lines over and over – of becoming.’

There were so many moments while reading that I had to put the book down and quietly wonder at her writing. There were other times I had to wave the book in the air and read out passages to the nearest friend or family member I could grab hold of. I took photos of quotes and sent them to my friends, to confused responses mostly. Chew-Bose has such a poetic way of cutting to the heart of a feeling in a way that made me catch my breath.

In the final essay of the collection ‘My Least and Most Aware’, she recounts meeting up with an ex, and the way that all of the old resentments she thought she’d moved past came rushing back to the surface. She writes:

 ‘We laboured, he and I, over niceties. Listening to him felt like work. It was as though we were both trying to retrieve a mutual tenderness that had fallen from our hands and rolled into a storm drain.’

I already know this is one I’ll be reading over and over.

 

The Rules Do Not Apply

Ariel Levy picks you up and hurts you through the story of how she lived believing the rules no longer applied – that marriage doesn’t have to mean monogamy, that ageing doesn’t have to mean infertility, that she could be ‘the kind of woman who is free to do whatever she chooses’. But all of her assumptions about what she can control are undone after a string of overwhelming losses.

Levy’s own story of resilience becomes an unforgettable portrait of the shifting forces in our culture, of what has changed – and what never can.

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“I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all”

I want to start this review with a sort of trigger warning. This book is ultimately about a traumatic miscarriage, and if that’s something you’re not in a place to deal with right now, I would recommend steering clear of The Rules Do Not Apply. Levy goes into the specifics of the experience in detail, and it’s hard to read.

*

The Rules Do Not Apply is an interesting take on the notion of ‘having it all’. Rather than look at the idea in terms of career, Levy uses her memoir to study the polarities within herself. As the quote above illustrates, her desires for excitement and comfort are frequently at war with each other in ways that are destructive to both states.

“I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.”

‘Life doesn’t ever go as planned’ is one of the clichés adults start rolling out around the time you turn fifteen and people start seriously asking you what you’re going to do with your life (which is such a joke anyway). It’s a throwaway comment most of the time, but others, advice someone is choosing to impart kind of desperately, like they want to go into more detail but they can’t yet.

Because they don’t know how it ends, I guess.

It’s the desperate I’m-seriously-worried-but-trying-to-keep-it-light version of ‘life doesn’t ever go as planned’ that hangs heavy over The Rules Do Not Apply. Levy foreshadows what she calls the explosion of her life, by referencing an evil she invited into it, an evil that began the gradual disintegration of her marriage and finished with her miscarriage.

Levy delves into a lot in this relatively short memoir. Times skips from her early twenties, back to childhood and forward to her thirties and her marriage. The skips are fluid and purposeful, the stories from her early twenties illustrate a young woman driven by the need for adventure, while the moments she picks to describe from childhood shed light on the decisions she makes as an adult.

She writes a lot about infidelity, both her own and that of her mother. She frames them both as women who feel stifled by domesticity and self-destructive as result. They are both torn between opposing desires for uncertainty and stability that neither of their lovers (or their spouses) turn out to be the solution to. She doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of herself, and writes interestingly on the experience of doing something shitty, recognising its shittyness and also her inability to stop doing it. It’s equal parts raking herself over the coals and accepting mistakes that cannot be changed.

The Rules Do Not Apply is a book concerned with grief. The big, overwhelming grief of losing her child, and her whole future as she had imagined it would play out. But it’s also the grief resulting from the gradual, painful dissolution of her marriage. Through infidelity, addiction and lies – both to each other and themselves – Levy and her wife come to realise that the life they thought they were building was a fragile and ultimately unsustainable one.

As predominantly YA readers, we read an awful lot of stories about falling in love. It makes sense – falling in love for the first time is an experience of many people’s teens (not mine, but that is another story #colddeadheart). There is something different but equally interesting to me in reading about a breakup, especially of a long relationship (I think Levy was married for around 10 years). There is a different sort of beauty in the snapping of the stitches people thought would hold them together forever.

We like to think that we can have everything. Some of us were brought up with the idea that it – everything – was owed to us. But that fact is, life is more complicated than that. The Rules Do Not Apply details some harsh realities and the resilience required to navigate them. It’s well worth a read.

 

 

April Wrap-Up

Let’s be honest.

I was not a good blogger this month.

I reviewed:

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There but for the – Ali Smith

Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

(I’m sorry)

I also wrote:

When Do You Read?

Eesh. Thank you, everyone who has stuck with me through this period of epic blog drought. I will try and do better in May.

OTHER THAN BOOKS: Some recommendations you didn’t ask for

To Read: Krsta Rodriguez on womanhood after breast cancer. Reading this is sort of like wringing your heart out like you might a wet towel, but it’s wonderful.

To Watch: I’m newly obsessed with Lilly Singh, and selectively watching my way through her back catalogue of videos. The other day I came across this one about how to get shit done and it got me all kinds of motivated.

To Listen: The Rookie podcast. It is wonderful. Go listen. Now.

 

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.” 

The Dead Ladies Project

When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding. A way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.

The Dead Ladies Project is an account of that journey – but it’s also much more. Fascinated by exile, Crispin travels an itinerary of key locations on its literary map, of places that have drawn writers who needed to break free and start afresh. As she reflects on William James struggling through despair in Berlin, Nora Barnacle dependable for James Joyce in Trieste, Maud Gonne fomenting revolution in Dublin, or Igor Stravinsky starting over from nothing in Switzerland, Crispin interweaves biography, literary analysis and personal experience into a meditation on the interactions of place, personality, and society that make escape and reinvention such an attractive, even intoxicating proposition.

Personal and profane, funny and fervent, The Dead Ladies Project ranges from nineteenth century to the present, from historical figures to brand-new hangovers, in search, ultimately, of an answer to a bedrock question: How does a person decide to live their life?

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If that summary hasn’t sold it to you, I don’t know what will.

Through this blog I have been casually putting together a list of books you should read in your twenties. This one shot right to the top. It’s required reading for any of us who ponder the possibility of getting on a plane and abandoning our lives on a semi-regular basis.

I know that is quite a few of us.

‘I was tired of being the person I was on an almost atomic level. I longed to be disassembled, for the chemical bonds holding me together to weaken and for bits of me to dissolve slowly into the atmosphere.’

I spend a lot of my time searching for models on how to live. I think we all do it. I’m not even just talking about scrolling through Instagram and admiring all the #lifegoals either. Sometimes it happens in the briefest of encounters. A few weeks ago at work, a lady walked over to me and my colleague and gave us a pep talk on how we shouldn’t let the world get us down, and the advantages of not giving too much of a shit (there are many) and when she was done she left and we’ve never seen her again, but behind her stayed this impression. All I could think was: that lady is doing life right.

In her travels through Europe and her various deep dives into the lives of the artists whose adventures took place there, Jessa Crispin is doing the same thing. She’s searching for comfort in other people’s struggles, for self-acceptance if not actual happiness (because what even is that, anyway?).

‘We both sit quietly, drinking the dregs of our tea and feeling the long expanse of years before us. The weight of uncertainty. Whether it’ll be a late blooming or whether the soil will prove to be infertile.’

She looks through that acceptance by studying a litany of delightful weirdos from history. This book is a fascinating study of characters we all know – William James, W. Somerset Maugham, Stravinsky – and those most of us might not – Nora Barnacle, Claude Cahun, Margaret Anderson.

They aren’t all stories of escape, although those are the ones I enjoyed the most. I like the optimism involved in escape. Some of them are tales filled with misery, or of betrayal, whether that’s by your own inability to leave a shitty situation, or the people of the island you live on selling you out to the Nazis (yes, I am being specific).

One the aspects of this book I truly loved was how Crispin looked into the idea of being a bit of a social reject as an adult. When you’re a teenager (and if you’re reading this as a teenager, I’m sorry), and kind of a strange one at that, all you’re told is that it gets better with age and by the time you’re a grown up you find your people and it’ll all make total sense.

Thus far, this has not been my experience.

(again, teenagers, ignore me. It gets better. You’ll be fine.)

So to read of a lady floundering at thirty, and not in the self-conscious I’m-such-a-weirdo non floundering-floundering with the perfect rom-com ending way, either, was both comforting and painful to read.

‘…it would be nice if a god did come down and say, This is that thing, stupid. The thing you have stared at the horizon waiting for for years now. It is standing right in front of you.’

At the end of Breakfast at Tiffanys, after Holly has decided to ditch the cat and her entire New York existence, Paul, exasperated yells at her that running away is pointless ‘Because no matter where you run you just end up running into yourself.’

The Dead Ladies Project is an entire book about that phenomenon. Jessa Crispin, William James, Margaret Anderson, Jean Rhys… all of them, they all had the same problem.

Some of them were okay, some not so much.

Which is just sort of what life is.

This book will make you inspired and depressed and introspective.

But, like, in a good way.

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.’