From Woolf to O’Hara: Four Authors for Your Anxiety Addled Brain

This article appears on paperbackparis.com:

There are several authors whose work I keep returning to in times of acute anxiety, which is more often than I care to admit these days.

When I’m not thinking about nuclear annihilation, escalating racial tension, hurricanes and natural disasters striking with alarming frequency, and our broken capitalist system, I find myself facing smaller anxieties—the very stuff of my personality. The only reprieve is a set routine that keeps me grounded.

But when faced with simple tasks that enter the wrong side of my wormy brain, I find that I can’t breathe properly; my blood pressure rises; I have to walk around briskly to catch ahold of myself.

Sometimes I think about those larger cataclysms in order to keep my mind off of the smaller ones—the nagging bits of daily life that keep me pinioned to solitude. Little heartbreaks aren’t so bad when I think about the state I live in—and the entire East Coast—being swallowed by the ocean. When I’m feeling especially blue about my crippling social dysfunction, I think about the planes that land at the Air Force Base near my house during odd hours, which 1) make me think of nuclear war, and 2) that are actually carrying the bodies of dead soldiers.

Then I think of my parents firmly telling me to pull myself together because people like us have shit to do. My world, after all, was not as tough as theirs.

It’s a lot of give and take.

Many of us have brains that bend towards bleakness naturally, and these unsettling times don’t help. When the above-mentioned periods of recursive, claustrophobic thinking become overwhelming, I turn to the authors who have worked through their own fear, paranoia, and anxiety to construct great essays and pieces of fiction. It’s also helpful to explore the work of writer’s whose concision is so pointed it rearranges the brain’s neurons into an organized stream. Literature has, and always will be, the only real solace we have.

Here are just a few of the authors I’ve been reading:

1. Virginia Woolf

Creative Commons

Much can be said about this giant of the literary canon. Virginia Woolf‘s work is characterized by vibrant prose and the methodical exploration of her character’s lives. Her sentences are so complex, so nuanced, they seem sturdy and tenuous simultaneously. The goal is to show the mind as it is through stream of consciousness, drawing attention to the myriad thoughts that flicker through people on a daily basis. The plot plays second fiddle to her characters’ minds. After all, it doesn’t matter that Mrs. Dalloway is buying the flowers herself; it matters that she is stepping out in search of something.

“You look, eat, smile, are bored, pleased, annoyed — that is all I know. Yet this shadow which has sat by me for an hour or two, this mask from which peep two eyes, has power to drive me back, to pinion me down among all those other faces, to shut me in a hot room; to send me dashing like a moth from candle to candle.” —from The Waves

Woolf’s particular style of writing mirrors the frenzy and passion of an anxious mind because it takes into account every sensory input, every stray thought. Her 1931 novel, The Waves, is a particular favorite of mine. It’s experimentation yields an array of emotion and imagery that soothes my brain to the point where my only functioning thoughts are completely wrapped up in her prose.

2. Lorrie Moore

Credit: Linda Nylind / (Pictured: Lorrie Moore)

Lorrie Moore‘s short stories are so good, they make me blush with envy every time I open one of her collections. When one of my high school English teachers had our class read “How” from her collection Self-Help, it was the end all, be all for me. At that time, I’d only experienced the systematic breakdown of one romance and a whole lot of unrequited pining. These were teenage heartbreaks, of course, but they meant a lot at the time.

At seventeen, “How” felt like the greatest series of truths about love ever put down on paper. That feeling hasn’t faded.

It resonates, perhaps, because the little anxieties Moore highlights in the story are the same ones that keep one from acting like a normal human being in public…which tends to preclude romance. Reading about people who have the same modes of thinking–people who keep love and affection at bay because of their neuroses–casts feelings of solitude in the face of love into perspective, making them slightly less daunting.

“Wake up one morning with a man you had thought you’d spend your life with, and realize, a rock in your gut, that you don’t even like him. Spend a weepy afternoon in his bathroom, not coming out when he knocks. You can no longer trust your affections. People and places you think you love may be people and places you hate.” —from “How”

3. Junot Díaz

Junot Diaz

My obsession with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is no secret. From time to time, I’ll grab it off my bookshelf just to read sections out loud, reminding myself just how powerful the narrative is. These days, I’ve been listening to the Audible narration by Lin—Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo. I’m unashamed to say I’ve listened to it three whole times in the past two months. Driving around and listening to this story of an overweight Dominican nerd who falls in love at the drop of a hat but who has no chance of ever being loved in return hits close to home.

“— Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.

— But your yourself sucks!

— It is, lamentably, all I have.” — from Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz‘s narrative speaks to a deeper cultural anxiety. Despite being Dominican on paper–a product of the great Dominican diaspora–Oscar is ostracized for his nerdiness, his unattractiveness, and his complete lack of sexual acuity. (I mean, same here, obviously. That’s why I sit inside and read books all day.) One of the narrator’s friends tells Oscar, “Tu no eres Dominicano.” “You are not Dominican.”

And all he can say is, “Soy Dominicano. Dominicano soy,” hoping people can suspend their disbelief enough to see it.

The concept of feeling “other” is nothing new for most people. We all have those moments of exclusion. But to get rejected from your culture for not being enough of this or that, or lacking some specific quality is a different kind of pain. In addition to feeling uneasy in the world because of the way your brain works, you also have no tribe.

It’s some dark shit to think about, but the novel’s beauty, humor, and complete boundlessness make it all feel less painful.

4. Frank O’Hara

Pictured: Frank O’Hara

I’ve talked about my love for Frank O’Hara in the past, and nothing has changed. I still read from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara every day, opening the book at random to catch just a little bit of calm before moving on with my day. His great capacity for crafting the smallest details of life into pieces of beauty (with a touch of cheeky humor) make for some amazing poems.

 ” I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it” —from “Having a Coke with You”

To this day, “Having a Coke With You” is the only poem I’ve read that sounds exactly like my brain does when I’m half in love and want to show that person everything I’m obsessed with. Unfiltered enthusiasm is the hallmark of my affection after all.

Reading these poems makes human contact seem less elusive…As if maybe the anxiety-ridden can experience love after all.

On “Holding” by Graham Norton

31364727One of my favorite pastimes on days when I cannot concentrate on anything or sleep more than a few hours is to watch The Graham Norton Showa slightly ostentatious, mildly campy chat show that features major Hollywood stars and musicians who go on to talk about their work. Graham Norton, the eponymous show’s host, has a knack for navigating the personalities that settle on his red couch for the evening—expertly pivoting between guests in order to make a cohesive, often hilarious, show.

So when I found out the same Graham Norton was turning his hand to fiction, I was surprised. The solitary act of writing fiction seemed like the antithesis of something Norton would do. But as he explains on the BBC Radio 4 broadcast, “Books and Authors,” he has always wanted to write a novel and seized the opportunity when it came along.

After already having written two acclaimed memoirs, So Me (2004) and The Life and Loves of a He Devil (2014), Norton strays from using autobiographical content in his debut novel, Holding, though he does return to his native land to tell the story.

Set in a small Irish town called Duneen near the city of Cork, Holding explores the lives of those lifelong residents who, for one reason or another, find themselves stuck there. Sergeant PJ Collins—the town’s sole police officer—is overweight and has nothing else to do but dispense parking tickets. Brid Riordan, Duneen’s resident alcoholic, will not admit that she has a problem even though her family is slipping away from her. And Evelyn Ross—beautiful and composed—lives with her spinster sisters in their family estate, refusing to abandon each other after their parents’ untimely deaths.

When skeletal remains are discovered at a construction site on the old Burke farm, these three—and the entire town—are thrown into the past. Finally, PJ can put his skills to use; his time to shine. But the police lieutenant from Cork who supervises the case questions his competence, secretly referring to him as “Sergeant Sumo.”

They come to believe that the remains belong to Tommy Burke, a boy no one has seen or heard from in twenty-five years. For Brid and Evelyn, the reemergence of Tommy Burke dredges up painful memories. Right before Tommy disappeared, he had been engaged to Brid. He did not love her, which Brid knew, even then; he valued her family’s farmland. But she’s never been able to get past the idea of what her life could have been like with Tommy instead of her husband, Anthony, who looks at her with disgust more often than not.

Evelyn was in love with Tommy and believed he was in love with her as well. For twenty-five years she’s mourned a love that never got the chance to form. She’s lived a half-life instead. Just like Brid. Completely loveless.

Norton’s story hinges around the discovery of a body, but its primary function is to explore the psyches of Duneen’s residents. They wonder what life could have been if things had been different in their youths—if they had only had the chance to leave. If, perhaps, love had come easily for them.

One of Norton’s greatest strengths in Holding is the exploration of solitude as it relates to never attaining love. For his characters, love has been lost, stolen, killed, buried by circumstance, or, quite simply, never found in the first place.

It’s the exact opposite of what people would expect from the public persona Graham Norton puts forth, but this novel exhibits his keen ability to dissect the inner workings of human turmoil. Any reader who is fond of simple little mysteries will enjoy this book. Though Norton’s fans might be hard-pressed to find the entertainer’s personality displayed obviously, they will be able to find his humor in the slight details. It’s well worth a read.

On “What to Say Next” by Julie Buxbaum

30199656This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Julie Buxbaum‘s new novel, What to Say Next, is a heartwarming exploration of grief, social norms, and first love.Two teenagers from vastly different high school social strata find themselves talking to each other after years of occasional pleasantries. Over the course of the novel, they teach each other how to handle grief and experience love—even when it’s unexpected. They drive past all the noise and go directly to the things that matter.

Half of the narrative in What to Say Next comes from a teenage boy named David Drucker who falls on the Autism spectrum. He dislikes labels and comes up with what he believes is solid evidence refuting the idea that he has Asperger’s syndrome or High Functioning Autism. He’s just different, and everyone in school simply ignores him or forgets that he exists. But he’s had his fair share of torment, so to avoid potentially dangerous situations, David’s popular sister Laura—one-time ruler of Mapleview High—has him make Trust and Do Not Trust lists in his notebook. Each person in his class is profiled with details that he has observed, accompanied by any interactions he has had with that person in the past.

When it comes to Kit Lowell, David notes the way she always sits criss-cross applesauce, how her hair falls in commas across her face, how she smiles at him sometimes. Kit, who is half-Indian (Asian, not Native American, according to David’s notes), is the prettiest girl in school. She is someone with whom he never expects to have any meaningful social interaction.

Until the day she sits at his lunch table.

And the first thing David says? The most recent fact he’s learned about her: “So your dad is dead.”

Thus starts the beginning of their acquaintance as more than just classmates. Kit finds that it’s easy to talk to David. He’s straightforward, tending not to sugarcoat the fact of death. In turn, David experiences the nuance of flirtation, analyzing everything along the way. Much like Don Tillman’s 2014 novel The Rosie Project, David decides to take on the task of studying the mechanics of Mr. Lowell’s accident. Could he have braked in time? Or was death inevitable?

Kit and David come across some heavy truths over the course of the novel, and they come to depend on each other for feedback and support. Buxbaum does a fantastic job of crafting the narrative with both Kit’s and David’s perspectives. The precision and logic with which David approaches life suits the circumstances of Kit’s grief. Like every teenager that opines in a John Hughes movie, these two get each other.

What to Say Next is perfect for people who loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is effortlessly readable and its characters loveable. Perfect for the last stretches of summer.

On “Summer Crossing” by Truman Capote

Summer_Crossing_SmallMy relationship with Truman Capote and his work has always been harried. There is no doubt that he is one of America’s finest writers; Other Voices, Other Rooms and the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s remain staples of our canon. Even the hotly contested In Cold Blood is considered a masterpiece of the “creative non-fiction” genre. But, as Melanie Benjamin explored in her novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Capote had a nasty tendency toward exploitation and excess. The infamous “La Cote Basque 1965” is enough to explain just how far he would go for fame and attention if he felt like he was falling into obscurity.

The 2005 Bennett Miller film, Capote, explores the personal tumult the author went through while writing In Cold Blood. It shows a man who tells his subjects what they want to hear in order to get information at the great cost of his self-respect and what would be a huge blow to his friendship with Nelle Harper Lee. The film pays especial attention to Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith, which was deeply empathetic. In one scene, he tells Nelle Lee, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

Later on, he turns to Nelle again for reassurance after Smith and Hickock are hanged. He asks, “And there wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” She responds, “Maybe not. But the fact is, you didn’t want to.”

This is who Truman Capote is in my mind–the man who does whatever he must for the sake of a story–for good or evil. He left behind masterpieces but died a lonely, creatively-stunted alcoholic. A bleak ending for the once shiny, gregarious Southern author.

Like a moth attracted to flame, I picked up Truman Capote’s unpublished first novel, Summer Crossing in the hopes of getting a glimpse into the author’s origins. Before he sold his soul for fame and notoriety. The manuscript–believed to have been thrown away–was rescued by one of Capote’s former landlords and eventually sold at auction. The slim text, which was published by Random House in 2005, is a fascinating display of the young Truman Capote’s keen instincts.

The story concerns Grady O’Neil–the bohemian daughter of a wealthy Manhattan family who decides to stay home while her parents go on a “summer crossing” to Europe. It seems that she has found love with a 23-year-old Jewish man from Brooklyn named Clyde Manzer–a condition of secrecy for both parties.

Capote builds their narrative from a series of psychologically adroit sketches: Grady making breakfast for Clyde, burning waffles in the process; the push and pull relationship she has with her childhood best friend, Peter Boyd, who has fallen in love with her; the oppressive, sizzling heat of Manhattan at night–the only time Capote’s characters will safely venture out.

So many of these interactions are marked by Capote’s trademark wit and the dissection of human experience that he wields in his later work. The observations are there even if his sentences show the uncertainty with which he lays out the story. Reading his passages can be exhausting, to the point where I had to imagine myself reading out loud to make sense of some of his more circuitous descriptions. I am happy to note that, in his later work, Capote dropped his incessant use of semi-colons.

The only peculiar element to this story is its abrupt ending. Unlike his other pieces of fiction, Summer Crossing pokes at the surface of dread until the novel’s very last paragraph at which time he plunges his characters right into it. It seems, in that moment, that something in Grady snaps. She is pregnant with Clyde’s child, and they have eloped. What should he a happy time is marred by apprehension and distrust. They go for what would be a normal night out until a moment of tension between Clyde and Peter unnerves her to the point where she speeds her Buick along the Queensboro Bridge with the intention of going off the edge and killing everyone.

Clyde’s friend Gump says something along the lines of, “Slow down! You’ll kill us all.” To which she replies, “I know.”

Summer Crossing could be a commentary on any number of things: the unbridgeable gap between classes; the gentle malaise of the bohemian elite; or, the Great Gatsby-like trope of summer addling the minds of those who have everything to lose.

Or–it could be none of those things.

In my estimation, Capote used this story as an exercise, flexing his muscles for future narratives. The paint strokes of Summer Crossing are apparent in his later work, showing the author as someone who is constantly hyper-aware of nuance in behavior and speech.

For Capote fans, this novel is well worth a read. At a scant 130 pages, readers can digest the story in a matter of hours, though I would recommend reading with care. Capote is a tricky one when it comes to building those pristine sentences of his. One misstep and you could fall down the rabbit hole.

On “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas

ACOMAF-cover1This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

To say that I stopped breathing for the entire length of A Court of Mist and Fury would not be an overstatement. I knew its predecessor, A Court of Thorns and Roses, set the series up for some cataclysmic changes, but I never expected to be so emotionally drained by the end. That, I say, is the mark of a well-crafted series. Sarah J. Maas‘s world building is compelling, rich with detail, and surrounds the reader completely. Her character building as well remains unparalleled in the YA fantasy genre.

I had my doubts about how good the second installment in the series would be—a classic anxiety for any budding fan. But ACOMAF was even better. So much better, in fact, that I stopped to ask myself why. *SPOILER ALERT* The answer: Rhysand. Rhysand and Feyre. Feyre and Rhysand. The world is righted. Tamlin, that a-hole, is out. Rhysand, Prythian’s resident BAMF, is in. I knew in my gut at the end of ACOTAR that Rhys was Feyre’s mate, but I didn’t know how Maas was going to unspool the threads of their narrative.

In the beginning of ACOMAF, Feyre is severely psychologically damaged by what happened Under the Mountain in Book One. Tamlin is also damaged, but he offers Feyre no comfort. His need to protect becomes overblown and completely stifling. Feyre can barely leave the house because of his new overprotective nature…or is it new? Later on in the novel, Feyre contemplates how her relationship with Tamlin morphed into what it did. When she first came into Tamlin’s court, after years of drudgery and destitution, she needed Tamlin’s protectiveness and the safe environment he provided for her to paint and relax after so many years. Feyre realizes that who she was before Amarantha died when she went Under the Mountain. There is no going back.

Right before she steps onto the altar to marry Tamlin, Feyre knows she’s about to make a huge mistake and she screams internally for someone, anyone, to help her. Enter Rhys. He interrupts Feyre and Tamlin’s nuptials to make good on the bargain he and Feyre made Under the Mountain. He takes her to the Night Court where she slowly, grudgingly realizes how much better life is when she’s learning and doing and being around people who don’t treat her like a porcelain doll.

Tamlin continues to keep her cloistered, and, in the moment that changes the course of everything in ACOMAF, locks her in the Spring Court manor. The animalistic rage that stems from being caged in takes over her body. Rhys and his cousin, Mor, rescue her and take her to the Night Court for as long as she wishes to stay. Feyre feels numb. She feels guilty about leaving Tamlin but knows she couldn’t have stayed without becoming a shell of a person. Rhys has asked for her help. The King of Hybern is about to wage a war that will destroy both Prythian and the mortal world on the other side of the wall.

With Rhys’s help—and the help of his small group of friends/allies—Feyre learns that she is more powerful than most Fae. When the High Lords of Prythian gave some of their power so that she could live, their powers became hers. Ice, wind, fire, water–it’s all at her disposal. Will Feyre work through the trauma of death Under the Mountain? Will they defeat the King of Hybern’s arsenal of magic and deadly forces? Only time will tell.

A Court of Mist and Fury is an absolute thrill ride. Feyre learns how to become a true warrior by using the tools she possesses. She and Rhys seal the bond that was between them for years without their knowledge. (Good riddance, Tamlin.) A new cast of characters brings the realm to life. Cassian and Azriel—Rhy’s Illyrian brothers-in-arms, the ever powerful and charming Morrigan, and the deadly, sarcastic, knife sharp Amren.

Maas developed their narratives with such deft plotting that no reader can start this book without finishing it as fast as possible. It is engrossing, romantic, action-packed, and a sharp study of kingdoms at war. I have no doubt this series will go down as a classic in the fantasy genre, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the third installment, A Court of Wings and Ruin.

On “Rum & Razors” by Donald Bain and Jessica Fletcher

51dtdeGWtwL__SX295_BO1,204,203,200_Another book in and no signs of stopping. The Donald Bain Murder, She Wrote series is the epitome of that coveted little genre that’s been pegged, in recent years, as the “cozy mystery” –that sweet combination of international travel, well furnished rooms, and warm, decadent meals. All of them present in this series.

The novels are light, quick reads that feature one of television’s most beloved characters, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher. From London to St. Thomas, we find her at the threshold of tragedy wherever she goes (a long running joke about Cabot Cove being the murder capital of the country would not be amiss), and treats everything with true dignity and respect. She’s also whip-smart and ready for adventure at the drop of a hat.

In Rum & Razors we see Jessica encounter a more complex moral conundrum than what Bain plotted in the first two novels of the series. In this book, Jessica has just finished another novel and is in need of a vacation. Her good friends from Cabot Cove, Walter and Laurie Marschalk, a travel writer and gourmet chef respectively, have opened a luxury inn on the island of St. Thomas.

What promises to be ten days of paradise immediately turns sour when Jessica realizes how much financial difficulty the Marschalks are in. When Walter ends up dead, there are more than a few individuals who could be responsible. At a travel writer’s conference in the hotel neighboring Lover’s Lagoon, Jessica learns just how unpopular Walter was with his colleagues; he was greedy, arrogant, and a notorious philanderer. One of his mistresses is even present during the entire debacle.

So who murdered Walter Marschalk? Was is the island senator with whom he struck a deal to purchase the environmentally protected land on which the inn sits? Was it the disgruntled employee he just fired? Was it the manager of the lagoon’s neighboring rival hotel? Or was it Walter’s lover and her boyfriend?

Most surprisingly, Jessica has to confront the idea that it might have been her dear friend Laurie who committed the murder. The day after the heinous deed is done, Jessica intercepts divorce papers meant for Walter that had been initiated by Laurie just a few days before. Could she have murdered her husband? Jess can only remember how happy they seemed back in Cabot Cove…But when she thinks about it, Jessica realizes she didn’t really know the Marschalks that well at all.

When Jess’s good friend, Seth, arrives on the island, they make a last ditch effort to find Walter’s killer and exonerate the name of an innocent man caught in the cross hairs of greed.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. They’re deftly plotted and fun to read–perfect for when you feel like taking a break from other books you might be reading. Better yet, if you’ve never seen the television show these books are based on, watch them ASAP. Angela Lansbury is absolutely timeless as Jessica Fletcher, and I can guarantee you will be binge watching for days.

On “The Boy in the Smoke” by Maureen Johnson

Image result for the boy in the smokeMy friends, if you haven’t already started reading Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, now is the time. I know I’m late to the game myself, but the long reigning “Queen of Teen” has delivered a well-written, suspenseful, page-turning series; It’s best to start reading now before some production company decides to make a film adaptation.

I was only aware of the three major installments of the series before I started reading. (I have yet to read the third novel.) But I found out that Johnson published a prequel novella for National Book Day in 2014. Naturally, I had to get my hands on it. I don’t know about you, but if a writer produces supplemental material for a series I love, I have to read it.

When I realized it was about Stephen Dene’s childhood and relationship with his family, I was thrilled. The Madness Underneath left me feeling some kind of way, so the novella partially placated my sense of loss. Since I have a ton of other books to get through before I can read The Shadow Cabinet, it also served as an excellent hold over until I can get to that last book.

In just over eighty pages, Johnson paints a deft, astonishingly complete portrait of Stephen’s life as a teenager (which makes me think she’d be an amazing short story writer.) His relationship with his sister is the only thing that matters to him. But after his parents cut off contact with her, sending money in exchange for silence, they see less and less of each other.

After her death, he continues to go through the motions of his life at Eton with everyone avoiding any mention of tragedy. Indeed, as far as his parents are concerned, his sister never existed at all. No use airing dirty laundry, as they say.

Plagued by a deep sense of loss and time wasted, Stephen is driven to despair, attempting suicide by hanging. Yet, he doesn’t succeed. He’s saved by a ghost–a student who threw himself in the river over unrequited love from another boy and has been stuck in the boat house ever since.

Thus begins the start of everything. Before Callum, Boo, and Rory, there was just Stephen, tasked with assembling a team of fellow ghost seers. Having Stephen’s backstory makes his romance with Rory all the more poignant in retrospect. Only time will tell how the rest of their story will play out.