Book Spotlight: Lucky by Alice Sebold

TRIGGER WARNING: Lucky by Alice Sebold deals with the issues of rape, sexual assault, battery, trials, violence, sexual oppression, abandonment, and PTSD.

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Old Haunts, Great Friends, and New Faces

I am sitting at the Crema Cafe bar in Harvard Square while I await tonight’s book reading. Mary Karr, author of The Liars Club, will be signing and talking about her recent book The Art of Memoir. The Liars Club is a memoir; The Art of Memoir discusses Ms. Karr’s process for writing one. I’ve read memoir, but not hers. Not yet.

I recently devoured a piece of bread pudding made with cherries and bourbon. An iced chai latte keeps me company at the bar. A couple stands chatting next to their food at the bar on the other side of their chairs. Her voice comes directly at my ears, an unwelcome distraction.

I drove to Massachusetts yesterday for this event. My friends – The Bs – graciously offered to host me for two nights and a gathering of friends so I could see a whole bunch of mutual friends at once. Some friends I last saw at our own going away party; others, much longer than that. I love it when you haven’t seen friends in a while. Then you meet up. It’s like you never left. I had that last night. Thank you, dear friends!!

After breakfast, I took a leisurely half-milk walk down a shady street to Fawn Lake. I took the walking path strewn with pine needles and gnarly tree roots. The path wound near and away from the edge of the lake. Some lily pads already turned peaches and browns. One lily made its way back and forth away from the pad depending on the strength of the wind. I crouched down near the water, peering into murky depths. I thought I saw vermicelli down there.

On one side of the lake stood a small island. Mallards looped their heads under water and back again before diving up and down. After soaking their wings, they beat the surface of the water to shake them out. Tufts of feathers stretched out from them as if chicken had just been roused from their coup. A section of elm tree trunk was set up as a natural bench to rest on.

As I came around the bend, the shore came close to the geese. They stared at me like a bull in a ring. A triangle of them floated toward the shore at me in case I decided to make any sudden moves. I realized that I still held a fear of geese. I imagined myself racing away in terror as they beat at me with their wings and bit my hands. Wherever I saw a clearing, I stood and took in the sights – the tree line, the lily pads, the rippling water, and the partially cloudy skies.

Near the end of my path, I saw on a bench in the shade and closed my eyes. I let myself be lulled by the rustling of the leaves by the wind all around me. Sitting, I almost fell asleep. After I returned, I lay down for a nap before lunch. I accompanied my friend on an errand before driving myself into Cambridge MA for the book talk and singing. Tomorrow, I return home. On my way, I’ll take my 93 year old aunt out to lunch first. Who knows when I’ll get to see her again?

Abandoned Books and Rediscovered Authors

As part of my research for my memoir, I have been reading a variety of memoirs that come across my path. My memoir is themed around my struggles with illness since I was born and how they affected my life. Some of the titles, such as Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani, are directly relevant; this book is about how a near-death experience changed her life.

Others are tangentially about illness but not memoirs, like Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, by Susan Sontag. I was hoping to plumb the book for insight as to how metaphoric comparisons of illness might have affected how I experienced and interpreted illness, even though Sontag talks mainly about tuberculosis (TB) and cancer, and then later, AIDS.

Sontag’s writing style seemed dense and intellectual, drawing on a truly staggering number of literary references that demonstrated illness (TB and cancer) and its metaphors through fiction, such as in the operas La Traviata and La Bohème. In this manner, the book reminded me of a history tome, filled with date after date after date. Sontag also seems to repeat herself as if there was only so much that she could say about it, but her publisher made her try and stretch the thoughts way past their prime. I mentally pushed myself through about 70 pages of the book before setting it aside. I really hate doing that, but I hate torturing myself through repetitive, difficult to read books.

And in my procrastinations yesterday to avoid writing, I decided the next best thing was to read articles related to writing. This quickly lead me to the essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (DFW). I tried getting into his novels Infinite Jest and The Pale King, but I abandoned both because I could not get into the stream of consciousness that his writing seemed to be. I tried. I had read about how beloved DFW was both to his readers and critics, and I wanted to be one of his fan boys. But I had to come to the conclusion that his writing wasn’t for me.

Until now.

I was sitting at Argo Tea on a corner of 7th Avenue and West 26th Street in New York City with a writer friend. I quickly began laughing out loud and hastening my hand to cover my mouth. You know when you find something so funny that you immediately want to start making eye contact with everyone around you and telling them about it? That was me yesterday at the Argo Tea.

Here’s a little tidbit of his writing after which I had one of many outbursts:

I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeet shooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. I now know the precise mixological difference between a Slippery Nipple and a Fuzzy Navel. I know what a Coco Loco is. I have in one week been the object of over 1500 professional smiles. I have burned and peeled twice. I shot skeet at sea. Is this enough? At the time it didn’t seem like enough.

It’s not just his descriptions of things that makes reading the Supposedly Fun essay such a joy. Right away, you come to understand that this essay truly reflects his actual first person thoughts and feelings, uncensored and as they are. How easy it would be for DFW to pretend to feel something that he did not and make it seem real? Very. He shares his impressions of the staff, the other people at dinner Table 64, and his struggles with semi-agoraphobia that teeter him on the edge of whether he is going out of the cabin or whether he shall avail himself of room service.

What hit me deeply in reading this essay by DFW, however, was his repeated mentions of death, despair, and loneliness. In 2008 at the age of 46, David Foster Wallace committed suicide. Pictures of him often show him with a wrap around his head, hair disheveled, and a pained expression on his face. Even in an essay that he wrote when he was sent on a cruise for pay and asked to write an article, the pain came with him. When you have major depression and anxiety, there is no holiday or cruise that you can take that will separate you from the pain. If only there were, maybe DFW would have found a way to be with us still.

Book Spotlight: Down the Rabbit Hole by Holly Madison

As part of my memoir writing diet, I have been reading memoirs about medical and mental illness. However, I saw that Holly Madison had written a memoir about her time living at the Playboy Mansion with Hugh Hefner. I figured it would be a fascinating read, even though not strictly related to the type of memoir I was writing. When my library request came in, I ran to get it and devoured it in two days, staying up past my bedtime to finish it.

I found Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny by Holly Madison to be fascinating and boring. Part of the reasons why it was fascinated me are inextricably linked to the reasons why I simultaneously found it boring until it became fascinating again, but for altogether entirely different reasons. Let me explain. As I have never been interested in either fame or being a Playboy bunny, I felt a deep interest in wanting to know what would make a person want those things that are foreign to my way of thinking. What would drive a person to want those things? I was hoping that I would find out, but I was disappointed.

What makes a story gripping is getting to know how a person’s life drives them to do what they do. Holly glosses over her childhood and fails to explain why her need for fame is so deep. She wants fame because she wants it, as if that is enough a compelling enough basis for a story. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of a writer, even when that writer is a former Playboy bunny. If you want me as a reader to care about your story, then I need to know how life has shaped you into needing fame to the degree that you do, especially when faced with adversity in the pursuit of that goal/need. I’m not sure that I got that. I think the phrase “lack of depth in the main character” applies here. As a result, I kept feeling bored even as I had to keep reading it. Even though it’s two days later, I am still annoyed by this. I also did a bit of eye rolling near the end when she exclaimed, more than once, about how they wanted “me!” for a show or a part. I mean, that’s all great for Holly as it is personally meaningful for her, but not necessarily for me, the reader.

Initially, the fascinating parts of the story are what you might expect in a tell-all biography and memoir: the he said, she said; the gossip; the name dropping; the partying; the inter-girlfriend fighting; the backstabbing; the inside peek to life at the Playboy Mansion as one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends; the clothing; the clubbing; the alliances made, then broken, and remade; the jockeying among girlfriends for status; the publicity and the fame. Even so, I kept yearning for more. Eventually, I do get it.

One piece of feedback I have heard as a writer is that your heroine must take action. She can’t just sit back and do nothing. Holly repeatedly describes herself as timid and meek and, throughout, seems to take a lot of verbal and emotional abuse from Hefner as well as the other girls, abuse that I am not sure I could have taken on the way to my dreams. In one jaw-dropping scene, Holly describes Hefner screams that at her that she is a cunt. She lets it slide, but my anger would have gotten the best of me. I could not imagine myself giving any other response, but to tell him “Fuck you, Hugh”, to pack my things, and to walk out the door. I have too much a sense of pride, a quick temper, and an arrogance of belief that I deserve to be treated well by others, just as I ought to treat others.

To me, the most exhilarating part (and the real story) of the memoir begins when Holly begins to say NO. She finally says NO to staying on as Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend; NO to attempts by others to capitalize on her fame as Hefner’s ex-girlfriend after she leaves the mansion; NO to letting her boyfriends’ attempts to control her; and NO to turning over Peepshow to another Playboy ex-girlfriend simply because of their shared past. She also says YES to being treated with respect, YES to a boyfriend who is shares her goals and dreams,  and YES to motherhood. Her daughter Rainbow is adorable.

If you’re a lover of entertainment and gossip and Hollywood, then you will likely find Holly Madison’s memoir less boring than I did, notwithstanding the writing itself, which is quite good. If you want a memoir where you need the heroine’s internal life and character to be a meaningful driving force in the unfolding of her life, then maybe you should put this one down and pick up another one.

Kinda Sorta Done with YA Dystopia

In between reading memoirs, I am driven to engulf myself in some kind of fantasy novel that will erase the empathetic pain I feel for the writers. The last memoir I read is Shadows in the Sun: Healing from Depression and Finding the Light Within by Gayatri Ramprasad, another gripping tale. Somewhere in the middle of reading these memoirs, I start to feel a little sick, reliving my bouts of depression through the lens of their lives.

Someone I know mentioned that they were looking for stories similar Hunger Games / Divergent / Maze Runner for their summer reading. Because I loved The Hunger Games, I decided to pick up the entire Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth from my library the other day. I think there’s a part deep inside of me that hopes I can scrub the terrible feelings from my psyche by plunging myself into an alternate reality.

Roth’s story and pacing are gripping, and I do like it. However, I feel like I still loved The Hunger Games a lot more. It’s kind of like when you eat the best chocolate cake you can ever eat in your life and then go on to eat nearly-as-good chocolate cake. You taste the difference. But here I am, most of the way through book three (Allegiant) because I have to find out what happens to everyone. I want to know the whole system is gonna break down.

Earlier this year I read another YA dystopia novel called The Murder Complex by Lindsay Cummings, book one of a three book series. I enjoyed that quite a bit, too. The second one is out, and I am waiting for the libraries to order copies. I could only find 1 copy available, and that’s already been taken out. So I have to wait for the end of the month.

While reading the Divergent series, I have been thinking underneath why it is that maybe this series isn’t as interesting to me as other ones I have read just like it. All three stories have female protagonists who live in a society structured to “fix” the problems with human nature and society. All three heroines defy the odds, find their inner strength, have relationships, make mistakes, deal with guilt and consequences, and somehow find their way into winning at the end.

And, just like that, I think I’m just done with this genre for a while. The formula is too obvious and similiar to the others that it takes out some of the enjoyment for me. It makes me feel like I’m reading the same thing again, even though I am not.

I like fantasy, but I need to find a fantasy series that doesn’t follow the pattern I described. I need something else, something different, and, by its difference, something by more interesting.

If anyone has suggestions for fantasy (some sci fi is OK), please tell me!

Managing Depression

Today is 89 days straight in which I have written at least one page of writing every day. The chain remains unbroken.

In the last week, however, I have noticed negative thoughts creeping in. The act of daily writing has largely staved off these thoughts for the past 3 months. The fact that I am doing what I want to do creatively gives my mood an enormous lift.

So why have the old thoughts been creeping in? Thoughts like, “What’s the point of writing? You’ll never be any good. You’ll never make any money from it. You’ll die alone and unknown and no one other than family and friends will ever know you lived. Just give up.” Deep inside, I considered it. I felt my resolve wavering along with the tree outside my window.

I used to want to find the answer. What was the trigger? Why am I feeling this way? Now, I say to myself, Who knows? I try to find ways to keep going. Maybe it was the anticipation of my hitting a milestone (90 days of writing). You can find out the exact reason all you want and, sometimes, it just doesn’t help.  You can’t go back and change the cause. All you’re left with is dealing with your mood and feelings in the present.

All my posts here get redirected to Twitter get redirected to my Facebook page. On that page, a friend suggested I read the memoir, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon. His first chapter, entitled Depression, talks about what it is and, more importantly, how it felt to him.

As I read his descriptions, I felt myself becoming increasingly morose and unhappy. The painful feelings and sense of oppression made me feel as if I had a two-ton weight pressing down onto my shoulders that would not quit until it ground me into the ground. I felt more pain, too, and it made me wonder if all this fibromyalgia pain is depression pain instead.

After running an errand to find seed beads and coffee, I settled into my writing place at Argo Tea on 26th St. and 7th Ave. I opened my memoir file and began writing, but felt like it would be too hard. So I decided to start reading about memoir writing instead.

I found a great article “How to Write a Memoir” by Scott Berkun and ordered it from the library. Reading his article about how hard it is to write a memoir, that it takes a lot of times that only you can invest, and that you have to write for your own reasons – not to make money. I think that was the lift that I needed.

Then I wrote this post a day early. I have been trying to spread out my writing – Blog writing on Mondays and Thursdays; memoir writing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. But today I knew I needed to write this today. Tomorrow couldn’t wait. This post is beyond blog writing.

Just for today, this post is about getting to writing again.

A Two-Pronged Call for Memoir Suggestions

As you may know, I am in the midst of writing a memoir regarding how my many and/or severe illnesses affected my life. As part of my research, I have been reading them as well to get an idea of the kinds that are selling and have sold.

To date I have read the following:

From my local library, I requested

Out of all the ones I have read, only Dying to Be Me is a memoir written around an illness and how it affected the author’s life.

From my readers, I would like to hear from you on any of the following:

  • Your recommendations on medical/illness memoirs;
  • Your recommendations for the last memoir you read and why you liked it;
  • Your suggestions for things you’d want me to cover in writing my medical memoir.

Thank you!