It’s a prequel for a very simple reason: My mind likes to make up complicated rules, and one of those, for this game, is that books that I’ve picked up in the last few weeks that never made it to the Shelf of Doom, well, they don’t count. (And books I borrow from elsewhere don’t count at all, unless I feel like it. But these books have been sitting on my desk insisting that I do Something about their presence there.)
This is absurd, clearly, but for the purposes of keeping the tricksy parts of my brain happy, I’m ok with deciding that the book I’m reading right now counts, because it sat on top of the shelf, but these three don’t, because they either went straight into my bag or, in one case, straight into my hand when I walked out of the Strand and into the subway.
That book was the Kate Bernheimer-edited My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, which is the kind of book that I pick up from a table somewhere and start cursing about: How come no one told me? Not one of my friends saw fit to mention this fat little tome, full of stories I’ve read (Kelly Link’s magical “Catskin”) and stories I didn’t know I was going to fall head over heels for (Shelley Jackson’s “The Swan Brothers”)? How could the world keep this secret so long?
I grew up on fairy tales, earning actual gold stars that were stuck to the inside of construction paper folders, marking how many stories my elementary-school self had read. Every time I try to write fiction, it’s a fairy tale of some kind. (Most things are, but some things wear it closer to the skin than others.) I carried this book around for weeks. I skipped two stories, or skimmed them, because I couldn’t entirely leave them alone, but the style was too much for me. I wound Neil Gaiman’s “Orange,” which owes itself to no single story, around my little finger, and I fell into Timothy Schaffert’s version of “The Little Mermaid.”
When I was done, I felt like I’d accomplished something. And I wanted to shelve the book with the Maria Werner books I still haven’t finished, the thick volume of Grimm tales, the Andersen, the annotated this and that. It’s a shelf I peek at and come back to, but never read all the way through. This book was different. This book reminded me just how perfect short stories can be, scraping voices from rocks and pulling at their grounded, millenia-old veins.
Also, Gregory Maguire’s foreword nearly brought tears to my eyes. I love a book that loves a story.
When I finished Mother, I finally felt ready to grapple once more with Ellen Willis‘ Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial, a collection of essays about the 1990s that left me feeling as if my brain were too small to hold everything Willis had fit into just one book. In April, I went to a daylong conference about Willis’ music writing, and one of the comments that stood out to me was that she had been willing to argue with herself, to question her own ideas and positions, in her writing. Though Don’t Think, Smile! involves more questioning of things outside herself — liberals, the concept of family, the validity of certain nonfiction books — an intense sense of self-awareness runs through the writing. It’s not just that Willis writes with authority (which has plenty of value but shouldn’t be the be-all end-all it’s too often thought to be); she’s there in the sentences, foibles, quirks, contradictions sharing space with striking observations and an incredible knack for pulling together disparate threads and pinpointing the places where they connect. I should have been taking notes.
The third book was a reminder to pick carefully when you’re intending to read in public. Especially when you’re maybe feeling a little sensitive and a little bruised and a little liable to take things too seriously when they’re tiny, and neglect the big things, and relate too much to an honest, aching memoir like Emma Forrest‘s Your Voice in My Head. Her book is the kind of thing about which I’m sometimes hesitant to say too much; it’s so personal, so intimate and self-observant and jagged, that you’re either going to feel as if she’s taken you by the hand and led you into her life for a spell — or you’re really just not. The voice of the title is her psychiatrist, who dies suddenly, with no warning to his patients; the other man in the book is her ex, an actor whose presence in the story has gotten it plenty of the wrong kind of attention. It’s not who he is; it’s how they are. The highs and lows of Forrest’s journey land in different spots, maybe, than those of many other lives, but the story reads like a quest in which the goal isn’t treasure or love or glory, but calm and a certain kind of strength.
Thus concludes this prologue. I feel compelled to point out that I am doing this to clear my shelves, and to read more things, and not to write things I would exactly call book reviews — not the way I’d call things I’ve written for other places book reviews. I’m writing these for me, to find the places the stories I read bump up against my own internal narrative, and to record the inspirations they kick into being or the frustrations the lure to the surface. A friend once said, “I don’t know what I think about a thing until I talk about it.” But you can’t always find someone to talk about a book with.
So I’ll write about it instead.