For the first six months of 2011 I was pregnant, and for the other six months I’ve been a mother. While parenthood has of course changed me irrevocably (etc., etc.), it’s comforting to know that certain parts of myself and my life remain exactly the same as always. Namely, reading. Namely, that I still do it. Taking a book to bed or to the bath, or sneaking to a cafe to read over a latte (decaffeinated now, alas), remains a joy and a privilege that I value. Perhaps now more than ever.
Many books were meaningful to me this year, but there’s probably nothing more tedious than a woman talking about breastfeeding manifestos, so email me if you want that kind of recommendation. Instead, I present to you two writers of fiction that rearranged my brain, origamied my heart into a better heart: a bigger and stranger and certainly weirder one, more equipped to face life. Oh, life! I haven’t slept in ages!
I recommended We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver back in May, when I was a very, very pregnant lady. What I said then still holds true: “Shriver’s brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing. It’s a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it’s certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be.” Now that I have a son, whom I am certain is 100 percent good and kind, possessing a 100 percent good and kind soul, I love Shriver’s investigation into motherhood even more. What if you were this kind of mother? What if you had this kind of child? All good fiction begins with questions that are risky, scary. I admire Shriver for her bravery, for her what-the-hell-let’s-go-there. Eva is what I call a likeable-unlikeable narrator, and to identify with her is to understand and acknowledge a thorny part of oneself that you didn’t know existed, or perhaps didn’t want to know existed.
This year I also discovered Dana Spiotta, whose new novel Stone Arabia moved me unexpectedly. I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting it. After all, the book is about siblings, Denise Kranis and her musician brother Nik, who were raised in Los Angeles. Sibling relationships and L.A. are subjects I hold close to my heart, as a writer and a reader, and as a person: I was raised in L.A. with three sisters and one brother. This novel isn’t perfect: its opening confused me so much that I had to start it three times, and there are shifts from third to first person and back again that bugged me. But! But! A flawed novel can be a great one, and never before did this fact seem so true. I loved that Nik diligently kept The Chronicles, a fictional account of his life as a rock legend, fake music reviews and all. I loved Denise’s neurotic obsessions, with news stories, with memory. I loved reading about her commute, and about the contents of her fridge: “…the jar of butter-flecked jelly, the container of capers floating in leaky brine, the optimistic bottle of multivitamins now in a moist, smelly lump…” I loved the final scene; it got me thinking about the past, and how it can be resurrected by memory and narrative, but not really, but maybe, just maybe, for a few sweet moments. Dana Spiotta is like Don DeLillo with a vagina, and, wow, that vagina makes all the difference. I just finished her second novel, Eat the Document, and her use of the adverb “unstoppingly” had my whole body buzzing. I plan to read her first novel, Lightning Field, as 2011 slips into 2012. Write more imperfect stories, Ms. Spiotta. You’ve got a fan in me.
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