So I had coffee with one of my besties, Erin, last night, and because we are straight-up English lit nerds, talk turned to books. I met Erin in my MA program. She's a year behind me and is working on her thesis right now, and we talked about reading for "fun" versus reading for school/work/etc. She told me she wanted to read something brainless and trashy over vacation, so she picked up Fifty Shades of Gray, but despite the terrible, terrible prose, she still found herself sucked in. Talk turned to this notion that we can pick up and put books down and not be affected, and we came around to the fact that for us, for Readers, we often find that no matter how trashy or inconsequential a book might be (and we'll leave the issue of problematic labels for books aside), we still find ourselves affected by what we read. That reading for "fun" is never simple. That for us, the act of Reading, no matter what we put in front of our eyes, is an act of attaching that text to ourselves, sometimes in ways we don't want. This is something I've learned about myself in the last year, so I will avoid books, even ostensibly harmless, trashy, throwaway books and turn instead to harmless, trashy, throwaway television shows (again, ignoring problematic labels for the moment). So I haven't read Fifty Shades of Gray, I haven't read The Hunger Games, I haven't read a lot of Must Reads, even "good" books, because I know that they will attach themselves to me in ways I don't want to be tethered. For our conversation last night, talking about reading sexy books turned to talk about how, instead of just reading something fun we end up fixated on the dissatisfactions of our lives.
I'm pretty good now at avoiding books that might make these unwanted attachments, but I can't predict how a book will affect me, and the last two books I read have unfortunately hit me right where I live. I say unfortunately because I'm not particularly happy with the state of things.* I suffered a serious Disappointment this week, the kind that made me want to crawl in bed like an Austen invalid. I wanted something to make me laugh, not make me think. So I picked up Rachel Dratch's memoir Girl Walks Into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters and a Midlife Miracle. I probably should have steered clear, because besides the Disappointment (which is career based), I really don't want to think about dating disasters. But Rachel Dratch is really funny! I liked her on Saturday Night Live, even if her most famous character, Debbie Downer, has made my life a misery (since my first name is Deb, which I've always hated, but now, in addition to being associated with a porn character is associated with a non-lovable loser, but that's not Dratch's fault and I'm totally digressing). I wanted this book to be another Bossypants, but it was mainly about Dratch's career and relationship woes. Although related in an amusing manner, the book depressed the hell out of me because it was another stellar reminder that too many women buy into the pervasive cultural narrative that in order to have a happy and successful life, a woman must marry and bear children.
Now, it's not that people shouldn't want this. Hell, I want this. But I might not get it. Dratch spends most of the book worried she won't get it and trying to become "genuinely" okay with that prospect. What angers and saddens and depresses me is that SO MANY PEOPLE think this is the ONLY path and don't hesitate to tell everyone who maybe isn't on that path that they are on the wrong path. Dratch addresses what Bridget Jones called the "smug marrieds" who told her that things will happen when she's not looking, that she just has to get out there. Can I tell you, between us, how many time I want to punch people in the THROAT when they tell me this??? But I don't, because the people who tell me this (generally) REALLY care about me and want my happiness. But it's SUPER depressing to hear this narrative, because I hear it ALL the time, and now I'm reading a book about it? I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Dratch didn't have a child? Would she have found her happiness or lived with a nagging and lingering sense of sadness and dissatisfaction with her life's path? Would she have gotten a book deal? I admit that I don't read a lot of memoirs written by men, so I don't know if they also have this narrative pushed at them, if they have other weighty, useless stereotypes hung around their necks. I supposed they do, but do they get book deals for conforming to the narrative?
This is why How to be a Woman has meant so much to me. Sure, Caitlin Moran also falls into the marriage and kids narrative, and at a pretty young age, something my small-town neighbors would praise, but she spends a lot of ink talking about ways in which women can and do find other narratives, narratives best suited to them, and advocates for the legitimacy of these narratives (she got the book deal, after all).
The other book I read this week was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It was our Ladies Book Club selection. It is a gorgeous and moving novel, a story of women in a way that is hard for me to define. Yes, the characters are all women, generations of a family in which the patriarch dies in a train wreck at the beginning of the novel and his absence is barely noted. The narrator, Ruth, tells the story of how she and her sister Lucille came to live in Fingerbone, Idaho, the fictional town in which their mother grew up. It's a literary novel, full of the most gorgeous prose you've ever laid eyes on, which also means, as I found out when I tried to tell my aunt about the book, that you can't simply relay the plot. It's...about these women? In a small Idaho town? And the girls are raised by various elder women of their family when their mother commits suicide? But the writing is so beautiful. To which my seven year old cousin asked, "What do you mean, the writing is beautiful?" And I couldn't answer her. Perhaps if I'd paid more attention in Critical Theory?
Anyway, it is a beautiful novel. But at it's heart, it is a novel about transience and loneliness, and it is so not what I needed to read, particularly after the Disappointment. Although it did make me appreciate the people I have in my life who love me and care for me (even if they are smug marrieds), it left me feeling so sad, and not in the cathartic way that a good tear-jerker works. It left me feeling heavy and trapped. Whee.
So yeah. Heavy stuff this week. I am sorry if this totally bums you out. I generally like to share things that amuse and excite me. So I apologize if this post bums you out. It bummed me out, and even writing about it hasn't helped me bleed off the negativity. I'm stewing in negativity at the moment. It's not fun. But hopefully, something good will come along soon.