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I love personal essays because they give readers a chance to glimpse into another person’s life and help change the discourse of “us versus them” and otherness into “we” and inclusion. Most often, personal essays help us learn from another’s mistake without the sanctimonious, preachy tone of self-help books or Malcolm Gladwellian essays.

I have a growing library of essay collections and autobiographies from the likes of Joan Didion, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Sherman Alexie, and Gary Shteyngart, all whom share their often painful experiences using humour and touching anecdotes. However, I’m also drawn to storytelling from authors who do not necessarily have the same talent with a pen but having the willingness to share their experiences – good or bad – as a cathartic measure that we may also benefit from through appreciated insight. We all have baggage.

The New York Times‘ Modern Love column is one of my favourite collections of personal essays on, what else, love. Readers (who tend to be mostly established writers) are invited to contribute stories on the different kinds of love they’ve experienced in their lives. As column editor Daniel Jones explores the rich selection of essays he’s edited over the decade in his new book, Love Illuminated, here are some of my favourite stories:

Do not Adjust Your Screen or Sound

A daughter hesitantly builds a relationship with her ailing father after years of constant disappointment.

A Housecleaning That Swept Out the Ashes of My Marriage

On finding the power to move on after a painful, devastating divorce.

Our Story Ended With a Slow Fade to Black

On finally finding love but losing a spouse to a rare brain cancer.

My Triplets Were Inseparable, Whatever the Risks

An expectant mom considers carrying twins instead of triplets because of serious health implications.

A Wedding Invitation for a Mom Long Gone

A bride-to-be feels the loss of her mom as she plans her wedding.

It Took a Villain to Save Our Marriage

A married couple going through a rough period bond over their shared dislike for an obnoxious neighbour.

My Back-Seat View of a Great Romance

As a young woman analyzes the pseudo-relationship she’s in, she witnesses the start of a forbidden romance in a foreign country.

Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear

A wife patiently supports her husband as he goes through a midlife crisis and contemplates divorce.

Sharing the Shame After My Arrest

A heartbroken wife learns to rebuild her life after getting arrested by the F.B.I. for a crime her husband committed.

Picking Up the Scent on the Road to Bliss

After many failed relationships, a wife finds a new appreciation for her husband through their shared love for dogs.

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My book review of Jamaica Kincaid’s “See Now Then” (2013)

Jamaica Kincaid is an angry black woman. At least that’s the impression readers may have when they dive head first into See Now Then, her first novel in 10 years.

Although Kincaid denies it, See Now Then appears to be loosely based on her life and painful divorce from her husband, the composer Allen Shawn, who she divorced in 2001 after 25 years together. They have two children, Harold and Annie. Shawn is now married to Yoshiko Sato, a pianist.

As such, See Now Then falls into the “scorned woman” genre that Nora Ephron made popular with Heartburn (1983), her loosely autobiographical novel based on her failed marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. (Spoiler alert, Bernstein had an affair while Ephron was pregnant with their second child.)

Kincaid’s novel centers on the Sweet family who reside in a pleasant New England village, living not-so-pleasant lives: Mrs. Sweet is a middle-aged black woman and a writer; Mr. Sweet is a smallish, arrogant composer; and they have two children, the energetic Heracles and the beautiful Persephone.

Autobiographical or not, See Now Then is cathartic at the very least.

Kincaid weaves in emotional scars, resentment, and hurt into a ‘stream of consciousness’ prose, which is often confusing to follow. The Carribean-born novelist runs sentences into each other as if she is typing her thoughts directly onto the page. Editing be damned.

But what may be confusing for some may be easily digested by the heartbroken women and scorned lovers who belong to the same “men are cads” club as Kincaid. Men, beware, there is no hope for your kind in the scorned woman genre.

Like Ephron, Kincaid holds nothing back. Race and class differences play a role in the breakdown of the Sweets’ marriage. Mr. Sweet often refers to his wife’s “banana boat” upbringing in comparison to his privileged, urban childhood – not unlike Kincaid and Shawn’s own backgrounds. Kincaid was born in Antigua while Shawn grew up rubbing elbows with New York’s literati as the son of legendary New Yorker editor, William Shawn.

See Now Then does not have a plot, for which Kincaid refuses to apologize. Rather than writing a linear story line, Kincaid depicts the emotional disintegration of a family of characters where there is no Hollywood-like beginning or ending.

Love, hate, resentment, naivety exist and fester, as it would after 20 years of a failed marriage. Time is the only discernible plot. Things continue to fall apart with every glance from, every irritable habit witnessed, and every regret felt by Mr. Sweet, a selfish, smallish man who directs his hatred for the life he did not have towards his wife.

…But Mr. Sweet was in his studio above the garage, where he always liked to be, it was not a funeral parlor, it’s only that he was in mourning and conducting a funeral for his life, the one he never led, and Mrs. Sweet’s calling him interrupted this mourning, she was always interrupting , his life or his death, she was always interrupting.” (p.45)

This is not a novel where a louse of a husband will see his flawed ways. Kincaid has no time for that; this is her side of the story. And so, the louse remains a louse.

But what can readers make of Mrs. Sweet, who seems to be as naive as her husband is selfish:

How the dear Mrs. Sweet loved Mr. Sweet and so too she loved all that he produced, fugues, concertos, choral pieces, suites, and variations.” (p.51)

Mrs. Sweet is either blind to her failed marriage or, like many desperate spouses, initially chooses to ignore her husband’s detachment so she can to keep her family – and her sole identity – from falling apart.

It’s heartbreaking, emotionally exhausting, and cleverly captures the one-sided devastation of a broken relationship. Ten years after her divorce, Kincaid will be celebrated by deceived women who are able to work through the novel’s stream of consciousness narrative and seek comfort in the kind of timeless vengeance they will be unable to execute against their no-good husbands.

The Washington Post‘s Marie Arana says it best in her summary of “See Now Then”:

Kincaid is not easy reading. Not much that is worthwhile in literature is. But she is fierce and true. Certainly, that is so of “See Now Then.” After 10 years of inexplicable fictional silence, she comes forth with a mighty roar.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Frederick Douglass

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
Oscar Wilde

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
Charles William Eliot

Admittedly, I am not a voracious reader when it comes to books but I love to disappear into a great book when I have the time, especially if it’s a good essay collection.

Over the past few months, I’ve increased my appetite for books/novels. It helps that I can finally afford to buy the books I want to read. (So long and farewell my sad student budget, I will not miss you.)

Below is a list of books I’ve read recently, been meaning to read, and will soon start reading. I’m always looking for great reads, so please pass on your recommendations.

Non-Fiction:

  • Books v. Cigarettes – George Orwell (Penguin) -> recently added
  • This is Running for Your Life – Michelle Orange (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) -> recently added
  • The Book for Dangerous Women – Clare Conville, Liz Hoggard, Sarah-Jane Lovett (Anansi) -> recently added
  • Confessions of an English Opium Eater (Penguin) -> recently added
  • Detroit: An American Autopsy – Charlie LeDuff (Penguin) -> recently added
  • Works and Other Sins – Charlie LeDuff (Penguin) -> recently added
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo (Random House)
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? – Mindy Kaling (Three Rivers Press)
  • Some Great Idea – Edward Keenan (Coach House)
  • The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion (Vintage)
  • Blue Nights – Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • The Partly Cloudy Patriot – Sarah Vowell (Simon and Schuster)
  • How Did You Get This Number? – Sloane Crosley (Riverhead)

Fiction:

  • This Is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz (Riverhead)
  • How Should a Person Be? – Sheila Heti (Anansi)
  • Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (Knopf Doubleday) -> my favourite book, I read it once a year
  • Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart (Random House)

Next purchase: Building Stories – Chris Ware (it’s a big one!)

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