The Ropes Have Been Unbound

Top 5 Books of 2k17

The story that my parents always told me is that I’ve been reading since I was a year and a half old, enrolled in a neighborhood preschool because I was too precocious to stay at home. From the very beginning, I tore through everything I possibly could, literally banned for reading too much as a kid and used books as an escape during my adolescence. So it goes, you can’t be a writer without being a reader and well, I am irrevocably both those things. I want to be remembered and I’m good with words and the English language so I guess that’s what I’m going to do, write and write and write more, most of all when I’m heartbroken and can’t imagine writing another word.

This is my list of the 5 most memorable books I read this year. They range from an Australian new adult novel, to a memoir really about motherhood, to something I can’t even quantify but loved all the same. There is something about being a reader and a writer where I feel the need to have everything written down for future reference. I don’t trust memory when it’s not mine and other people lie and hide and shade the truth in a way that suits themselves. That being said though, I find reading accounts of other people’s lives to be extremely valuable in understanding humanity as it is and how it could be, which I guess is why there are two memoirs on this list.


  • Summer Skin by Kathy Egan

I’m starting this list with this book which I read once but feel like it lives in my skin like no other I read this year because of how it wrote about sex in particular but also how it talked about love. It’s an Australian new adult romance but there’s something so deeply humanistic and lovely about it and I’m not just talking about in a sexual way. Early on, there’s an exchange where the main guy goes ” I don’t do girlfriends” and Jess, the protagonist responds “Your own or other people’s?” and my jaw dropped open because well, that’s precisely how I would respond. The characterization is much stronger than I expected it to be, it’s staunchly feminist in its understanding and description of sex and love and well, for me anyway, I can’t really differentiate between the two, at least not beyond a certain point.

  • Hunger: A Memoir of my Body by Roxane Gay

As for Hunger as a book, it was awful for me to read because I couldn’t shake my revulsion and my anger at Gay and at society itself. At some points I wanted to shake her because she was knowingly behaving in self-destructive ways, whether it was through eating too much or having sex with people that didn’t love or value her or whatever else she detailed. I guess I can’t be talking though because although my history of violence against myself is different than Roxane Gay’s, it is no less insidious. I was never a creature of excess but was rather one of restraint. I saw it as an accomplishment to punish myself, a deeper sign of my self-control and my future of self-care. And of course, I saw how badly the world treated fat people so I was deathly afraid of receiving the same treatment. As I have said before, I wanted the privileges of being thin and I saw it as an achievement that I was able to stop eating to the point I was severely underweight. For the record, no adult looks good at 85 pounds.

My favorite quote is the one that follows:

“This is what most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.”

And isn’t that the most real thing? We can’t disappear I refuse to let it happen to me or to anybody I love. In any case, this book is an essential read for anybody who wants to broaden their empathy because honestly, it really piqued my limits of empathy for the reasons I previously articulated. And I hope that you can muster the strength to read this book as well.

  • The Conqueror’s Saga by Kierstien White

These two books were the most violent books I read this year but also one of the best. They are a reimagining of the story of Vlad the Impaler if he was a girl named Lada and god, she is one of my favorite characters this year. Lada is feral, to say the least, physically and emotionally unreal in how violent she is but also unreal in how she loves, and love she does.The general plot is simple, Lada and her brother Radu are wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised by the Ottoman courts. Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright while Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. But then they met Mehmet and they both fall in love with him despite the fact he’s the heir to the kingdom Lada despises.  Her brother Radu is first of all, soft in every way that Lada is hard, entirely transforming the expectations of gender set forth by them but is also gay, completely in love with the sultan Mehmed, who is unfortunately in love with Lada who loves him back albeit in her own way that just causes pain for all involved. It’s a love triangle unlike any other because all three parties deeply love each other and are aware of their love for each other and at the same time, have no idea the scope of each other’s affection and respect for the other.

I couldn’t help but love this series and I absolutely tore through it but that being said, major trigger warnings for violence because while the sex is almost pure and downright romantic, the violence is nothing but extreme in comparison, think beheadings and stabbings and betrayal galore.

  • Problems by Jade Sharma

Easily my favorite book of the year, Jade Sharma, in Maya, wrote the book that speaks to the worst parts of my character. I finished it on the morning I had my first date with the guy who would become my boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) who absolutely broke my heart and I can’t help but feel that I should have known. Maya rages against men, against white people, and I fully get it. The thing about Problems is that it’s “darkly humorous” in the best and worst ways possible. I laughed but felt bad in doing so because Maya is so FUCKED UP. She’s selfish and blatantly wrong in everything she does, she’s a downright terrible person who takes advantage of everybody else’s good will but at the same time, there’s something deeply relatable about her. There was a passage that I will remember for the rest of time and I’ll quote it here

“It’s not fair how you could be this white girl with a busted face and still be picked last in the gym class of life before all the pretty brown girls. It didn’t matter how smart and cool you were. All these chill liberal guys who were all PC but only wanted to put their cock in white girls. They could be unfair with their love and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it.

The whole world wants young white girls. 
You have to play dumb. Guys like being smart and funny. If you want to compete with white girls, the least you can do is learn to laugh at jokes, not make them up. To ask lots of questions and not tell stories.”

I mean GOD. I just feel a deep association with Maya and by extension Jade Sharma at this time because she says what I’ve been scared to because well, some of my best friends are white women. I deeply love them but I sometimes think they don’t get what it’s like to be a woman of color in a world that as Maya says, loves young white girls.

  • The Rules do not Apply by Ariel Levy

I don’t know how I felt about this book. I mean, I read the whole thing which is more than I can say for many others I attempted this year but at the same time I didn’t entirely enjoy it. There were parts of it and quotes from it that I really enjoyed but on the whole, I did not get the hype about it. An early quote that I earmarked (or rather highlighted in my Ebook) was “Nothing really bad could happen to me in my movie, because I was the protagonist.” I think that in general was Levy’s manner of thinking about the world which is a lot more unattractive in her than it is in myself if I’m being honest if not entirely fair. I don’t have it in me to critique Ariel Levy though because I think she is as self-aware as I am so she knows exactly what I’m going to say. She knows herself at her very best and her very worst so I think that I will refrain from adding to that in a way that is inappropriate at best if not downright heinous. I described this book to my father as a “lesbian motherhood memoir” and if that turns you off from reading it, I would entirely recommend that you pick it up. I’m glad I did in any case.







Perfect All-American Girl

Joan Didion is for American girls, so the saying goes. I’m American in the sense I’m an American sense but I’m about as un-American as you can possibly imagine. I was born in Mumbai, India, back when it was still Bombay and I have mixed feelings towards my homeland but I’m still inclined to call myself Indian rather than American. Anyway, I recently reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didon’s best (in my opinion) book of essays and read for the first time The Year of Magical Thinking and I was deeply content for a short while doing so. There was something comforting about reading the worst things that happened to somebody else that made me feel at peace, at least for a little bit.

Bethlehem is a collection of essays about California so to speak but it’s about more than that. Rather than writing on the whole book, I thought that I’d focus on my favorite essays in the book because I’d rather do them justice than to brush over important aspects of the book in general. My first essay that I loved in the book, even more than the eponymous one was “On Keeping a Notebook,” and it’s on, you guessed it, keeping a notebook. But really, it’s about so much more than that. The thing about keeping a notebook is that there’s a written record of who we were on a given day and the dissemination of a notebook demands that people care about us at our best and our worst. Didion writes,

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

Growing up, I’d keep notebooks but since I was 15, I’ve maintained a blog, which is different because it’s irrevocably public but at the same time, extremely private. I can say whatever I want on my blog but obviously, I maintain a modicum of privacy because I don’t want the world to know my deepest and darkest secrets. I feel the need to be remembered so to speak as well as to remember. I want to go back to a particular date and figure out who I was and what happened on a particular day because I want proof that what I did and what I said and who I am mattered on a large scale. Didion goes on to write that as Americans, we’re taught that we’re the least important people in the room, as Jessica Mitford’s governess hissed in her ear before she entered a room, and it takes years to stop thinking of ourselves in that manner. But the key word here is Americans, and I am not an American, at least not in the traditional sense.

The most important aspect of the notebook is the terminology of the “I” and that segues into the next and perhaps my favorite essay of them all, “On Self-Respect.” In it, Didion writes,

“Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named co-respondent. In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for reelection. Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.”

I absolutely love that passage. For the record, Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame does not have self-respect while Samantha Jones from the same program definitely does. Carrie is sleeping with Big while he’s married to Natasha and she’s in a relationship with Aiden and after their affair is discovered, Carrie attempts to go to Natasha, the wronged party in question, and receive forgiveness of a kind and thankfully, is spurned and promptly rejected. Like, what kind of message would it send if Carrie were forgiven? Not a good one I’ll tell you that. She was a grown ass woman sleeping with a taken grown ass man while she attached and there is no excuse for it. From a fictional standpoint, it’s fascinating how the showrunners attempted to make us as an audience sympathize with Carrie but personally, I think she got what she deserved, abject humiliation to say the least.

As for The Year of Magical Thinking, I read it very quickly and I don’t have much to say about it except this: grief is a funny thing and people process it differently. In Season 2, Episode 13 of Gossip Girl, the Upper East Side responds to the death of Bart Bass and his son Chuck is the most affected. Immediately prior to his father’s funeral, he gets extremely drunk, refusing help from his friends and lashing out at Dan Humphrey, expelling him from the church. Celia Rhodes, the grandmother of Serena Van der Woodsen, says “It’s his father’s funeral, he doesn’t have to make sense” to her granddaughter’s protestations that Chuck is being unfair to Dan. And I guess that is the crux of grief: it doesn’t make sense at all why bad things happen but yet they do, to good and bad people alike, and there is nothing we can do as human beings to prevent them from occurring. All we have at the end of the day is somebody to love us, hold us in their arms while The National plays in the background and I guess, that’s all I can really ask for.


On Life and Death and Pain Again

I deeply respect and appreciate A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara but I fundamentally can’t bring myself to enjoy or recommend it. It details the history of Jude St. James, complete with the extreme abuse he undergoes at an early age that cripples and expressly traumatizes him for his entire life. I cried so much reading the book, I would read a few pages and then scrunch up into a little tiny ball hiding my face in my knees because I couldn’t deal with the prospect of Jude being hurt even more than he already had been. The explicit descriptions of abuse that Jude undergoes and enacts on himself were side by side with depictions of extreme love and affection between Jude and his friends, his found family, and I felt a feeling of real whiplash reading it because I didn’t always know what I was supposed to feel at a particular time. But despite my love for the book, I couldn’t help but think, what if Jude had been Judy? It irks and frustrates me that the trauma of women, rape victims and sexual abuse victims and everything in between, is almost commonplace, as if it’s just what we should grow to expect being female. It’s as if the suffering of being a woman is a common coming of age narrative we all ought to come to terms with and it’s ultimately not worth writing about because somebody has probably done it before and probably done it better than we ever could.

There’s something very notable about being a woman who’s been in a lot of public pain- you start to realize that you can’t really escape the identity. I want people to take me seriously despite my experiences but at the same time, I want them to be valid portions of my past, things that I can bring up and discuss without fear of social retribution. I want people to stop asking me “Has your condition returned?” but I want them to be aware of its existence, not judge me but to understand me for what I’ve been through. The balance that has to be struck when writing about the wounded woman is between acknowledging the voyeurism associated with female pain but also realizing that no matter how reductive the image may seem, we must acknowledge the various needs and sufferings that yield pain and attack them at their cores instead of focusing on the unsavory ways they may be displayed. It’s almost as if my pain makes me all the more feminine, as if it’s a constraint for my womanhood to be in deep and unforgettable pain. I think about Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and the continual trauma he witnesses and how it changes him, how he swears to God as a little boy that he will never die. I think about Hemingway himself and how much I can’t help but relate to him, his inability to escape from his own mind that eventually led to his sorry suicide. I deeply empathize with him and I love him in a way feminists on the Internet would scorn me for doing so but at the same time, I can’t help but think that men in pain are allowed to be more than their pain. Hemingway is still a great writer who committed suicide, Sylvia Plath is that woman who stuck her head in an oven and was probably a terrible mother to boot. Her writing is almost an afterthought despite its extensiveness and nuance. Men are allowed to be more than how they’ve been hurt, as women it feels like we’re scarred by what we’ve been through in a way that makes us anathemas. But the thing is, we’re never alone in our sorrow.

What I’m trying to say is that I can’t really deal with the lack of female characters in A Little Life despite its many merits. I have some questions about the book itself and the implications about literary fiction that it raises. Hanya Yanagihara is female but what does it say about literature that for a woman to be so lauded she must write about men? Are female issues and characters not enough? The Neapolitan novels are resolutely female but to what extent? They are about economics and social mobility as much as they are about the relationship between the two female protagonists. Moreover, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the depiction of male versus female pain in the novel. We all know that I’m a huge proponent of “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” but I’m just fixated on the portrayal of Jude’s pain compared to that of women in other sources. It just feels so extreme and I didn’t even read the whole thing, I just felt this overwhelming dread and I couldn’t bring myself to read something that I knew I would hate. I read the reviews, and I completed about 400 pages of the book but I stopped right before the bulk of the detailing of Jude’s abuse.

There’s also something strange about how the love that Jude inspires feels almost as a reward for the pain that he’s been through which I really fundamentally dislike and disapprove of. It’s really not a no sum game, it’s real life and it doesn’t work like that. Pain doesn’t make one a better or worse person, it just is and it’s horrific obviously but I don’t need the unequivocal lauding of Jude to tell me that. He didn’t bother me as a character but rather what he represented. I felt as if his pain was more important than that of other people and I dislike that notion. I compared his experiences to that of Theon Greyjoy in ASOIAF because the both of them undergo horrific torture and are forced to live with their pain. But the difference is that Theon was forced to compartmentalize his torture in order to survive, to help Jeyne Poole, while Jude wasn’t required to do so. In other words, I felt that Theon’s narrative was more blatantly truly feminine while Jude’s was almost a male impression of a female narrative if that makes sense. I got the impression that Yanagihara was trying to inspire empathy in her readers but it didn’t feel as if they’d truly have to try to care for Jude simply because of how abjectly pitiable he is. It wasn’t like Theon who committed such heinous sins and had to be truly forgiven in order to understand his storyline.

As for me, I’m conflicted in my pain though because on one hand, I believe it makes me special that I can see and feel such profound things about the world I live in. I know things about people that they never told me, I know who they’re sleeping with and why they hate who they hate even though they never told me. I can see it in their eyes, the way they move around and play with their hair, and I can’t be rid of the pictures in my mind no matter how much I might want to be. I can relate to other people who I have no overt connection with because pain is universal, I can empathize in ways that aren’t taught in the schools even though they ideally ought to be, and I have so much to give in a world that clearly needs it. But at the same time, I feel spent; my emotional labor is going unpaid and I feel like I’m suffering more and being rendered more pain than any I might cause or heal. I feel the pain of other people and it doesn’t feel remotely fair because honestly, I’m burdened with enough of my own. Am I being punished for what I’ve done to others? Am I being punished for how I’ve hurt myself? Nowadays, unlike in my past, I sort of deal with my pain in the ways that I’m supposed to, I read and I smile and I sleep, I dance and I laugh and I cry, but only in secret where nobody can see me rather than on public buses like I used to, yet nothing really takes it all away.

Despite everything I have forced myself to endure, my pain belongs to me because I have claimed it like no other, because I have resolved to take ownership of it for all that it’s worth. And I don’t know if Jude has that same frame of mind. I know it’s wrong to impose my ideas on how to deal with trauma onto others but sometimes I can’t really help it because it doesn’t feel natural or real. I don’t think the book was tragedy porn per but at the same time, it was too much for me. Maybe some day I will be able to handle it but right now, I’m too hurt on my own self to be able to stomach the ways that somebody else has been viscerally destroyed.

I think about the ugly ways we deal with pain, cutting and inhaling and breaking hearts, allowing our hearts to be broken in return. The faces of the people I’ve hurt flit rapidly through my mind, and I physically feel the lingering consequences of long-standing pain that I caused myself. I think at the end of the day, pain and trauma are neither transitive nor sustainable, but are bitingly human in their very existence and we cannot live without them. Every relationship is bolstered by pain, the remnants of what we used to be and what we are today, and what remains to be understood. Kendrick Lamar raps “A fatal attraction is common/and what we have common is pain” and he’s right in his assertion. It brings us together, it tears us apart, and it ultimately defines us with regards to who we are to be.


Hazy Rotten Musty Evenings

I guess I think a lot about girlhood and portrayals of it. Currently, I’m en route to India to see the family, and I just finished Emma Cline’s The Girls and Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, and I have a lot to say about them both and not all of it is good. I feel a lot about the state of young girlhood because I’m finally, finally growing up past it and at the same time, I’m a little hesitant to critique any aspect of it because I don’t want to take away from what girls enjoy and take pride and joy in. It’s a thin line between critiquing something in a misogynistic manner and coming across a truly misogynistic piece of media and in these two books, I found myself exploring that line.

The Girls was honestly underwhelming. I was reading it on the plane and my mother was reading over my shoulder and we had the same reaction: “Why is this book so celebrated?” In particular, there’s this scene involving two underage girls having a threesome with a middle aged man and I literally couldn’t stomach reading that scene and I’m not somebody who regards herself as squeamish. That being said, the prose was absolutely lovely and it pains me to criticize it in such a manner because I truly believe that Emma Cline is capable of writing something much more original and much less sensational. She writes about love better than she writes about sex in my opinion or rather writes about the absence of love in people’s lives.

“The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like “sunset” and “Paris.” Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.

But as for the rest of it, I’m so tired of reading about sex and drugs to be blunt about it. I’ve been around and I’ve seen it all, I’ve had sex, I’ve done drugs, and it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but at the same time, it’s not the end of the world either. I’m not looking back on my days of rebellion with a dewy eye of “what could have been” but then again, I didn’t almost commit heinous acts of murder.

I got to thinking about why the book is being so celebrated among literary circles. I think it’s partially the prose itself is absolutely glorious that it’s easy to forget the plot is well, forgettable. There’s the wannabe stepfather and the rebellious teenage daughter and the well meaning but disgustingly oblivious mother and for what? There’s not a single person in the book I feel remotely positive towards and that includes Evie herself and I’m not one to disdain unlikable protagonists. She is unlikable in a pathetic way which well, isn’t appealing whatsoever when I look back on it, and I literally couldn’t stop myself from blaming her for the events that occurred although I know I’m fully wrong in doing so. Perhaps it’s my own biases that prevent me from truly empathizing with Evie, perhaps it’s that we aren’t intended to empathize with her as a rule. I just became increasingly angry with her that she still looked back on her days with Suzanne and Russell and the rest of them with almost a dewy eyed mentality and that fundamentally frustrated me. Then again, the end of the novel was a dead giveaway (no pun intended) so the suspense was almost nonexistent.

What personally most interested me about the book was the idea of sex as kind of this gross entity to be done solely for the sake of men. I mean, I never got the impression that Evie or really any of the girls in the book ever wanted to engage in any sexual activity except perhaps with each other and yet, it was a commonplace occurrence in their lives. The quote “All the books made it sound like the men forced the girls into it” is well and good, but the whole novel came across to me as if the girls really were forced into sex and I don’t know what to really believe. Is Evie an unreliable narrator unable to see when she’s really being taken advantage of? Or is sex to girls really just something to be done? Personally, I’m inclined to believe it’s the former but at the same time, I can’t shake the impression that it’s truly the latter and I’m just fooling myself.

Megan Abbot on the other hand, makes me believe in the concept of real adult novels about children, if that makes sense. I read the entirety of You Will Know Me in one sitting on an airplane and I well, I liked it. I mean like, liking a book to me is slightly an ambiguous concept because it’s impossible to say what you really like or dislike about it in such a simplistic statement. I found this particular novel far more predictable than her other works but I don’t think that’s really a bad thing. It was far better organized and plotted than The Fever although I think that both it and Dare Me were stronger novels in some way, in terms of how compelling they were. But, You Will Know Me had its charm. There were notable turns of phrase and it reminded me of a Jodi Picoult novel in the best of ways, the artistic decision to write the book from Katie’s perspective and the focus on adult politics when the subject or rather the object, Devon, is a young girl. I found the focus on family interesting because I’m very close to my family but I’d like to think we’re not nearly as toxic as the families explored in the novel. I am slightly proud to say that my parents value me too much to allow me to focus so wholeheartedly on something no matter how much I may love it.

And, while reading this book, I got to thinking about the sexualization of female gymnastics as well when I was reading this book and I don’t know, it fundamentally frustrates me. These are little girls whose bodies are being focused on to an almost extreme level and there’s literally no excuse for the way that people talk about them, the way that even their own parents discuss the girls and the progression of their lives. Their bodies don’t belong to them anymore, they’re a collection of limbs and muscles and skin and bone, glitter and sinew and satin leotards, and well, there’s a reason women’s gymnastics is one of the most watched sports in the Summer Olympics. But I think that I should refrain from commenting on it in detail because I am not part of the inner circle of competitive sports and I don’t and will never know the true details of it.

The only real criticism of the novel that I have is that the characters weren’t nearly as fleshed out as in Abbott’s other novels and it hurt the book in some ways. It was less scandalous, less dramatic, less “OMG” and I strangely enough could predict the twists long before they occurred. Perhaps I’ve read too much fiction, maybe I just know too much about the world as I see it for anything to truly be a surprise to me so I’m possibly biased. Katie in particular was very much a Jodi Picoult protagonist and again I say, I don’t mean that in a bad way. Thankfully there was no dramatic legal trail with background romance to distract form the main plot because I honestly don’t think I could have dealt with that. In particular, Dovon herself served as more of a symbol of a prodigy, of perfection, of something to be strived for and simultaneously feared rather than a character in herself. Even with regards to her relationship with Ryan, it didn’t feel as the sheer tragedy of the affair was about her, a teenage girl involved with a grown ass man but about how everybody else around her was affected by it. Although, perhaps that’s the point that Abbott was trying to make in including it.

I call this piece “Hazy Rotten Musty Evenings” because both these books encompass that part of adolescence we don’t really like to talk about. As I said, I think The Girls is a bit of overkill and overemphasis on the scandal element of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it covers embarrassing, disgusting aspects of youth that nobody likes to consider even when looking back at their own lives. Everything is sort of vague and I think that is ironic given that You Will Know Me is about competitive gymnastics, which is such a precise sport. It reminded me of Abbott’s The End of Everything rather than The Fever or Dare Me, and I think it was all the stronger for it although as I pointed out, it does have its drawbacks. It has more of a crossover appeal, to adults as well as teenage girls and it didn’t hurt to read in the way I think it was supposed to. But again, I’m not a typical reader which I suppose is why you’re reading this blog in the first place.

The Age of Uninnocence

One of my favorite books of all time is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Interesting fact: I wasn’t sure if Wharton was a man or a woman for the longest time and I still don’t know at the time I’m writing this and can’t be bothered to look it up. But I saw this post on Tumblr about how the woman of color is often the love interest who understands the protagonist better, but who’s openly morally ambiguous and presented as the “wrong choice” and often ends up dying. In other words, Marvel’s Daredevil, with Elektra Natchios and Karen Page. I got to thinking about women who are always the wrong choice, who don’t get the guy, and I settled on Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence, played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1993 film.

But Ellen Olenska is someone to write home about. She isn’t described as beautiful but attractive in the way one can’t help but care about her, a divorcee in a time when divorce was entirely unacceptable for a woman, and in my opinion, one of the most memorable characters in English literature. Alana Massey wrote about what it’s like to be a Winona in a world made for Gwyneths and Ellen is the Winona in question while May, Archer’s fiancé, is the Gwyneth. But as Massey realizes, life isn’t exactly easier if you’re a Gwyneth but merely different. I’m not a Winona or a Gwyneth because I encompass ideals from both sides of the debate, I’m a Dhaaruni, but if I had to choose, I guess I’d be a Winona, dark haired and lissome, and entirely the wrong choice, or so it seems.

I don’t regard myself as particularly a bad choice romantically, but I feel that in the past, I’ve often been regarded as such. “I’m the girl you’ll die for/She’s the girl who’ll die for you” in the terms of both Marina Diamandis and Dhaaruni Sreenivas. I mean let’s be real, I’m an Ivy League educated, etiquette class attending rich girl with long pretty hair and flowy tops and bright pink nails. Not really a dangerous choice. But there’s something to me that drives people away and I’m well aware of it. I’m sharp in more ways than one and well aware of it, slightly too thin for it to be natural, and inclined to lash out when I’m hurt, all qualities that aren’t ideal in a good wife. My friend Ben used to say that as men grew up, I’d become more and more attractive as a partner because of what I had to offer to them, a real brain and a wholly empathetic persona but I’m still waiting for that day. I used be wholly stressed out that I wasn’t girlfriend material despite spending far too much of my life as a girlfriend, but I’ve grown to not embrace it exactly but come to terms with it. I’m a person like no other and I’m okay with who I’ve grown up to be, good wife or not.

Society is an important subject in The Age of Innocence. I’m not entirely society obsessed because I’ve never been good at fitting into it but it’s always fascinating to me. Wharton writes,

“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs […] quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents’ tent.”

In other words, Wharton attempts to take an anthropological outlook on New York society. It’s so incisive and insidious, and feels impossible to escape because of its power but Archer almost does it for his love for Ellen. Gossip Girl takes on The Age of Innocence in the form of a school play in Season 2, and it’s entirely apt. The modern adaptation of being constantly watched by an unseen force, unable to escape society’s pull and ultimately, the choosing of love over what’s dictated. That’s what makes Gossip Girl work at least to a point, the unconditional love between Blair and Serena especially but also between Chuck and Nate, and the prioritization of each other over what society expects of them. Anne Boleyn chose love and got her head chopped off for it and her daughter Elizabeth I remained unmarried for her country but Blair Waldorf chooses love again and again, and survives for it because she’s stronger than what is expected of her. I mean, it’s not a perfect metaphor because Dan Humphrey is no Newland Archer but the point remains sound.

The love in the novel is real though, especially between Archer and Ellen but it’s eternally destined to fail because of the time and place where they live. “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” But I was asking the entire time, why not? I cried while reading The Age of Innocence because it made no sense to me when I was 16 why they couldn’t just be together. I’m older now and wiser, I get it but it doesn’t make me any less disappointed. It’s entirely romantic to me, that they can’t be together and Wharton writes better love scenes involving a kiss on the wrist than any romance novel writer with sex and hands everywhere galore. “I swear I only want to hear about you, to know what you’ve been doing. It’s a hundred years since we’ve met-it may be another hundred before we meet again.” I mean, I can’t imagine loving somebody that much, or well, I can but pretend I can’t because it hurts too much to think about it. Either way, I think that it’s a perfect novel to read as a couple if only to give thanks that in this modern age, we’re not constrained by society in that manner, or are we still?

We live in a society that prioritizes male preferences over female needs and that won’t change for a long time. I mean, one day love may prevail but on the whole, I don’t have faith in it. I will take on the position society has dictated for me and so will they, the men that I have the misfortune to fall in love with and that’s just the way things go. But sometimes, I hope, I pray, I anticipate that there could be more to it all but I don’t really have faith in it, at least not anymore. I’ll keep you posted though.

With a Little Help From My Friends

I’m a girl who wouldn’t be where she is without the unconditional support from my female friends. I can’t bring myself to list them all because it hurts me to think about some of them and there are too many of them to count, but I wanted to write about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls From Corona del Mar because those relationships have been some of the most formative in my life. I’ve been very much in love before but when that went south it was the girls (and boys) who I platonically love who got me through it all.

Elena Ferrante is regarded as the foremost writer of female friendship today. I’ll be honest though, I read My Brilliant Friend and simply wasn’t driven to read the other novels in the Neapolitan series. I mean don’t get me wrong, I loved Lila but at the same time, I found Elena herself almost mundane in comparison. People who are wiser than me love these books because apparently that’s reality- there are women who write and who get things done and there are the women who are written about. And I don’t know how I feel about that sentiment. Elena sometimes didn’t seem real to me, not a caricature exactly but rather a construction of what Ferrante believed a relatable protagonist was like. But I didn’t, I couldn’t relate to her. Instead I kept on wondering what was going on inside Lila’s head because she was both more ambiguous and yet, made more logical sense to me.

Ferrante writes:

“Although she was fragile in appearance, every prohibition lost substance in her presence. She knew how to go beyond the limit without ever truly suffering the consequences. In the end, people gave in, and were even, however unwillingly, compelled to praise her.”

I’m not going to come out and say that I’m a “Lila” and not an “Elena” because I’m not interested in simplifying the very complicated nuances of my personality to that degree but perhaps I am not the target audience for these novels or really for any novel. I’m too much, too intelligent, too self-aware, too beautiful to be thinking so much, or at least that’s what the boys say. The thing is, girls like Lila aren’t supposed to waste their time reading novels written about them because they’re like Chuck Bass, “People like me don’t read books, they’re written about.” But as somebody with such a profound level of anxiety, I can’t help but be obsessed with what people are saying about me. Do they want me? Do they love me? Do they understand me? Sadly enough, the answer to all those questions is usually no, but at the same time, they love watching me because I’m entertaining, funny without meaning to be. I’m a show, not a person and that makes me strangely sad but I’ve learned to embrace it to some degree.

I think that the value in the Neapolitan novels isn’t in the characterization itself though but on the observations that Ferrante makes about society and its structure. Italy in the 1970s is a different world than what we live in today but some things remain the same. My favorite quote from the novel is as follows:

“They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.”

I really value women’s anger but Ferrante is unequivocally right. We have been stifled and put down for literally thousands of years we’ve been forced to learn to fight in different ways. Addison Montgomery says it in Grey’s Anatomy: “Oh I intend to fight like a girl. I’ll let them kill each other and then I’ll be the only one left standing.” Things are different if we want to be successful and well, alive and thriving as women. We don’t want to abandon our gender but at the same time, we want to be taken seriously. It’s a conundrum faced by our foremothers and unfortunately, I’m no closer to finding an answer to the problem than they were.

The Girls From Corona Del Mar is in a way an answer to the Neapolitan novels but it’s different, and in my opinion, simpler but harder than them as well. I mean it’s possible to sum it up as two girls’ coming of age story but it’s also just wrong to do so. I preferred the beginning of the novel to the end but at the same time, looking at the novel as an entity I become much sadder than I was as I read it. I don’t really know why that is. Mia and Lorrie Ann are both relatable in different ways and at times, as the reader, I wanted to grab them both by the shoulders and shake them because what they were doing made no logical sense. I’m especially referring to Mia’s abortion but also the events leading up to it. As with many other books featuring young girls, I wrung my hands at their life decisions because in my mind, so much of their pain could have been avoided if they just sat down and thought about what they were going to do before doing it. But then, on retrospect, their age played such a huge role in the events in their lives I was perhaps judging them too harshly.

Lorrie Ann in particular though struck me as somebody who was old from a young age, someone who never got the chance to grow up properly. As it says,

“It wasn’t that Lorrie Ann was becoming a Goody Two-shoes. It wasn’t that she wanted to be perfect or loved or approved of. No.

She wanted something much more dangerous. She wanted meaning. And she thought it could be gotten by following the rules.”

That particular passage was something I marked because I’m the same way although I’m disinclined to respond the same way. I became self-destructive in my search for meaning. I drank a lot, I smoked cigarettes, and I didn’t love myself because I didn’t see the point of it. Nowadays, I’m different, more solid and safe but not the least bit complacent and I like who I’ve become. But I had the chance to grow up because I didn’t do anything unfixable like Lorrie Ann did; I could erase my past mistakes and start all over, which is what I’m in the process of doing. The fact remains though, I’m still in search for meaning and I’m scared that if I think too deeply again like I used to, I will revert to my past antics and so, I refrain from thinking too deeply. I put my nose to the grindstone, I work and I work and I work, I don’t think if I can avoid it about what I can’t understand, and things are okay. They have to be.

Female friendship is such a complicated topic and it’s been discussed to excess in recent times. Everybody and their mother has an opinion on Taylor Swift’s squad (I couldn’t care less who she chooses to be friends with and I refuse to put effort into evaluating whether her friendships are calculated), on the nature of cliques and what it all means for feminism. But I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy lately and in my opinion, nothing exemplifies true friendship more than the relationship between Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang. They’re each other’s person, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Real friendship is simple, like real romantic love is as well. Everything else than isn’t real friendship, or real love is what’s complicated and what makes us fixate and obsess to an extreme degree. In the words of Jacob Clifton,

“Real love doesn’t make you act crazy. The reason we act crazy when we are infatuated is because we want it to be real so badly — we want to jump over the distance of time that makes real love what it is. That’s the trick of romance: The crazy infatuation love is so much brighter and turns so many more corners so quickly. Much more exciting than the real thing. But real love, at its finest, makes you feel like you are bursting open, like this: Like hearing a beautiful song, or reading a beautiful poem, or hearing a wonderful story, and the tears come and you don’t know precisely why. It doesn’t hurt; it hurts in a way that isn’t hurting, that we don’t have a word for. Largeness. Enormity. It takes a real strength, a real grace, to stand up straight in the face of that. Especially if you’re not familiar with it.”

If I remember right, Clifton is talking about Blair Waldorf and Serena Van Der Woodsen, another example of true love. Or friendship or whatever, since they’re basically the same thing when it comes down to it. But honestly, what I’m trying to say here is that as a species, we seem to overcomplicate this whole friendship thing, and I’m including authors like Ferrante and Thorpe in this. There can be relationships between complicated women that are simple, rooted in love and in nothing else. And I don’t know why everything has to be analyzed to death in order to be considered valid.

But I ask you to consider, what makes female friendships tick? From Meredith and Cristina to Carrie and Samantha to Blair and Serena, why are they so important to us and why do we believe that they say so much about society as a whole? Even Jane Austen said that friendship is the only balm to the pangs of disappointed love but is that what all our female friends are good for? To bitch about the boys who don’t love us? I’m over simplifying but you know what I mean.

All I know is that I love my girls to an extreme degree. I can tell them anything, their approval is more important to me than the approval of men, even men whom I love, and my relationships with them are forever. We can not talk for months on end, and it’s all okay in the end and I have faith in those relationships. But I feel as if I need to be more complicated sometimes as a woman, as if I’m behaving more like a stereotypical guy. To me though, it’s simple: love and let love. And that’s that.

I Can’t Stop Watching You Watching Me

For everybody that’s been following my writing for a while, you know that I write about love in a very literarily cohesive manner. There’s the protagonist, the antagonist, but no heroes or villains in the stories that I tell because I’m so intent on avoiding bias when I recount what occurred. I read through what I’ve written and I’m not embarrassed by it but I feel sad looking at it, as if I was in such a deep hole of my own sadness that couldn’t have ever been fixed by another person no matter what I believed at the time. I thought I was compromised in my strength, in my feminism by the depth of my emotionality but I learned as I grew up, that unequivocally wasn’t the case. My activism is more nuanced than anger- it’s rooted in nothing more or less than love. And so, I am considering Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You, a far cry from the heavy and harrowing writing of Lidia Yuknavitch but neither less important or less meaningful to me.

The books tell the story of Lara Jean Song, a Korean American teenager, whose life goes from dull to dramatic when a hatbox of letters she writes to boys she was enamored by goes missing, when they’re mailed out to the boys in question. It’s not that I related to Lara Jean in particular, she’s much younger than me, and I’m more reckless in love but there was something heavy about the lighthearted romances Han writes that drew me in and kept me reading. Lara Jean’s main love interest is Peter Kavinsky, who remains one of the few young adult love interests I don’t want to roundly slap on the face. Lara Jean writes her letters for when she’s no longer in love and I wrote letters to boys for when my love wasn’t enough and I felt obligated to prove it. As if writing down thousands and thousands words of my feelings was enough to validate my love, as if it ever was. But reading the books got me thinking about the letters I wrote to boys, the ways in which I was affected and how I affected others. Was it manipulative to send them those letters? What was I ever trying to achieve in writing such long missives? I don’t honestly know the answers to those questions.

There’s this boy who I was involved with whom I wrote two long letters to over a period of three years. The first was unsuccessful and pensive, sadder than anything I ever want to write in my life and resolutely didn’t work (let’s just say he called another girl while we were in bed together as revenge), but the second was an extended essay about everything that we were and could be, originally intended to be for a book of essays. However, in retrospect I’m reluctant to include it to be published because of how personal it is, for how vulnerable it makes me look, for how young and fragile and even hopeless it makes me look at times. I don’t want the world to realize that I was so bereft at one point because even though it’s so relatable, it also gives up a part of myself that I don’t want to forgo. I value my privacy to such an excessive degree I’m not sure I want to let the world in that much. I did send it to him though, and I don’t honestly know how he reacted to it because I never bothered to find out. I’d be simultaneously flattered and … something else I can’t fully articulate if I was in his position though. In it, I wrote:

I still worry when I see him these days though because some old habits die hard- he looks haggard for 22, slightly heavier than is natural for his frame and he very obviously drinks too much. We are not a tragedy because I refuse to be a tragedy, although he still might be one. It’s not all his fault – he’s not a devil or a saint or a harlequin romance hero, he’s just a boy, a man now I guess, but it’s not all mine either and I refuse to take full responsibility for it. We’re not children anymore and all stories don’t have happy endings; sometimes they just conclude, vivid memories blurred hard with the passage of time and we learn to live with the pain.

And I meant every single word of it. I am no longer hopeful the way that I used to be but I’m more realistic in how I hope. With him, I forgave in a way that I never thought I would have to, at least not at such a young age. All he had to do was stay with me, talk to me and love me, but he couldn’t do that and so, I had to let him go. The last thing I sent him was a row of sad faced emojis (we’re the typical millennial pair) and that’s all I’m ever going to say, except maybe “Happy Birthday” someday far away when we’re both beyond how we’ve hurt each other, if that day will ever come.

Lara Jean thinks, “Why is it so hard to say no to him? Is this what it’s like to be in love with somebody?” And she’s so young in her love; I sometimes believe it’s truer than anything else I’ve ever encountered. It’s not to say she has no emotional or romantic history or anything, but there’s a weird sense of realism to the whole story and the feelings that it evoked that I fully appreciated, especially on reading the books as somebody that’s no longer a teenager. The relationships with the Song Sisters are extremely well fleshed out, their heritage as half Korean is given appropriate weight, and their father seems like a real parent, worried about his daughters’ welfare but not interfering, rather than the conspicuously absent adult figures of other young adult books. Even with Genevieve, the so-called mean girl, she never came across as ridiculously nasty but unfortunately was far more realistic than that. She is both romantic competition and everything that Lara Jean isn’t, sort of the antithesis of Lara Jean and she can’t help but admire her for it.

“It’s hard not to get caught up in her spell. She’s the kind of person you want to like you. You know she can be cruel; you’ve seen her be cruel. But when her eyes are on you, and she’s paying attention to you, you want it to last. Her beauty is part of it, but there’s something more—something that draws you in. I think it’s her transparency—everything she thinks or feels is written all over her face, and even if it wasn’t, she’d say it anyway, because she says what she thinks, without thinking first.”

Lara Jean is envious of Genevieve and it’s obvious but her jealousy never is irrational or untoward but merely what one would expect in a 16-year-old girl in her first real relationship. I felt the same way with my first boyfriend, and honestly, I still sometimes feel the same way today when it comes to people I like. However, I tend to be far less gentle in my sentiments than Lara Jean is but I would give her a few years. But none of the characters is shamed in their emotionality and it all feels genuine despite a profound lack of explanation on the part of Jenny Han. They simply make sense and that’s something that’s definitely lacking in young adult literature.

But most of all, what made me love these books so much was the hope they inspired in me. I’m notoriously cynical these days because as I’ve said, I’ve been hurt in love before, brought down to my knees metaphorically and physically. There’s a Taylor Swift song called “Begin Again” from her album Red that I thought of when reading these books, not to mention “How You Get the Girl” from 1989, both songs that I previously disdained as saccharine, too stupidly euphoric for someone like me to relate to. “Begin Again” is about letting go of people from the past that don’t deserve us and allowing ourselves the strength to start over while “How You Get the Girl” is about forgiveness, most of all of our own selves and about abject joy, of the kind that’s never written about because nobody really knows how to articulate it. Nobody that is, except Taylor Swift.

And I’m okay again, you know. I finally have somebody that makes me keep listening to both those songs on a loop and who makes me smile when he uses emojis in texts and scrunch up in a little ball and smile into my knees. I used to not believe that this day would come but I’m wholeheartedly excited for what the future will bring and rightfully so because I’m still so very young. I deserve to anticipate, I deserve to be loved and wanted and appreciated for all that I am and ever was, and so do you.

I Was Brought Up As A Baby

Pain is something I know a lot about. I spend my days attempting to ignore the searing ache inside of me that threatens the regularity of the life I have carefully cultivated for myself and my nights dreaming, dreaming terrible things that evoke the worst of what I can imagine and cannot stifle in my slumber. I think what drew me in so conclusively into the work of Lidia Yuknavitch is that she is a woman who understands what it’s like to be irrevocably hurt and moreover, to have be forced live with it. See, for some of us, death is an escape of the highest degree, an escape from conflict and heartache and despair but for some reason, it refuses to come. In the last two days, I read both “The Chronology of Water” and “The Small Backs of Children” by Lidia Yuknavitch and I feel like something inside of me has changed. I feel understood and fulfilled in a strange way although compared to Yuknavitch, I’m nothing more than a soft, spoiled little girl.

“The Chronology of Water” is an autobiography of sorts but “The Small Backs of Children” is similarly memoir-like at times. There are recurring events in the two works, a stillborn child, malignant yet occasionally ambiguous abuse, and most of all, the sense that everything is roundabout and comes back to haunt us in the end of things if it isn’t adequately addressed and put down. I think the two books ought to be read like I read them, in quick succession so that when attempting to write about them, I can’t keep them straight without the notes that I meticulously took. In a 2015 interview with the Rumpus, Yuknavitch said,

““I think our identities—the ones we live in the real world—are really made partly from stories that we build up around ourselves—necessary fictions—so that we can bear the weight of our own lives. We like to call these “truths” or “facts” or “selves,” but I maintain that they are fictions. Fictions for instance called “mother” or “wife” or “lover” or “teacher” or “writer.”
I think we understand our own life experiences in narrative terms. If you consider that idea for a moment, we are walking novels. No one has a pure identity. Everyone has an identity made from everyone they’ve ever known and loved or hated, and from every experience they could process and withstand, happy or sad, arranged in memories, otherwise known as stories.”

In other words, the line between fiction and supposed reality is thin in her works, and as the reader, I’m not precisely sure where it’s drawn but I don’t think it matters. I personally keep telling my own personal story as I go along, I write in my diary, in my blog, in my mind and it keeps me sane and I prove to myself that it once was and could be once again.

But as for her writing itself, Yuknavitch is a revelation. The details of her life are strewn about her books but at the same time, the specifics are far less important than the messages that they convey. Despite the lurid nature of the life she led, promiscuity and drug use and alcoholism, there’s something grounded about her, perhaps because she’s looking back upon it as an established writer and mother rather than telling the story as it happened. I’m obsessed with her prose, with the way she words things because she writes as I wish that I could. There’s no sense of cloying self-pity in the most horrifying of events she recounts, there’s no condemnation of either herself or those who have hurt her; she writes with simple candor but maintains a distinct sense of privacy. It was as if she was saying to the reader, “I am inviting you into the depths of my mind but there’s a line and you may not cross it.” She especially isn’t explicit about her father’s abuse, which I found interesting because she was direct and unvarnished about so much else but as I said, it seems as if there was a line and I respect her for maintaining it.

To simplify it greatly, “Water” is a memoir about swimming, more accurately about drowning and the ways in which we prevent ourselves from doing so, drugs, alcohol, men, and everything in between. I would go as far to regard it as the ultimate novel of the wounded woman. I hate the concept of being post-wounded like the girls of Girls as Leslie Jamison detailed in her now classic essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” and I’m not good at being that woman. I’m too fragile, too breakable, too inclined to crumble not because I’m weak but because lying to myself about who I am has never done me well. My story is not as long or as intense as Yuknavitch’s but I’m only 21 and thankfully, I have the family and medical support she so desperately lacked.

The last few months, I’ve been having a recurring dream. I am married to the person whom I love, we’re beautiful and successful and after a saga of not being okay in so many ways, I am finally okay. But the image that keeps on repeating itself in my mind, as if it’s a broken film, is of me kneeling at my oldest son’s hospital bed; he’s dying, sometimes from a car accident, sometimes from a premature heart attack, sometimes from a drug overdose, but at the end of the story, he always dies. In some versions of the dream, he has a baby sister, other times, he’s a golden only child but always, he doesn’t deserve to die even if his parents deserve to be punished for the way they’ve hurt others in order to come together. My husband is watching my vigil, and he’s looking at me not as if he blames me for our son’s condition but as if I should have warned him in the first place that I bring about death in this manner. The picture I’m painting in my headspace is technically beautiful and for some reason, I’m fixated on this element of it, the colors I see in my head, the light blue crispness of the hospital room, the red of the shirt I am wearing, the dark of my husband’s eyes. I don’t think my husband stops loving me even if he believes I ought to have warned him about who I am but as Yuknavitch says, “Sometimes it’s difficult to tell rage from love.” I kept on thinking about this dream when I was reading these books because I’m so fundamentally afraid that I’m going to bring about pain to those I love wherever I go because of the nature of my past, because of my history of violence against myself.

“The Small Backs of Children” is a sister to “The Chronology of Water” but different in a way, so perhaps more of a half-sister. It’s structured around a small Eastern European girl in the depths of warfare and it’s a survival story like no other, about eking out a life when everything is going against you and refusing to abandon hope since the body refuses to give up long after the mind has done so. Yuknavitch writes the novel is a reflection of the self and I grow to think, who is the narrator of the novel at hand? Is it Yuknavitch herself, or the unnamed writer, are they the same person, and does it really matter? My favorite passage in the novel is one of self-reflection of the highest degree.

“Who are we in moments of crisis or despair? Do we become deeper, truer selves, or lift up and away from a self, untethered from regular meanings like moths suddenly drawn toward heat or light? Are we better people when someone might be dying, and if so, why? Are we weaker, or stronger? Are we beautiful, or abject? Serious, or cartoon? Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?”

I believe that we ought to constantly be checking ourselves before we wreck ourselves, to resort to a cliché. My personal favorite line in the entire novel is that last question, “Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?”

I appreciated that Yukavitch was similarly fixated on the concept of death because it made me feel less weird, like I was actually human rather than some distinct aberration from normality. My mother once upon a time, in the words of Taylor Swift, accused me of losing my mind because I lost the will to live when I was barely 17 years old. I sort of like to think that I was too human in a world that preferred robots, more content, more inclined to settle and to not question the status quo because that’s a better perspective than believing I was simply too weak to take it. Yuknavitch says that perhaps it’s an internal desire of all those who can hold life in them to end it, but I can’t help but ask, why am I subjected to it more than others? There are women who don’t feel this way, I know there must be. Was I terrible in a past life? Am I terrible in a way I don’t understand in this one? It doesn’t seem to be fair. Maybe I got it from my parents the way Yuknavitch got it from her mother.

“I didn’t know how wanting to die could be a bloodsong in your body that lives with you your whole life. I didn’t know then how deeply my mother’s song had swum into my sister and into me. I didn’t know that something like wanting to die could take form in one daughter as the ability to quietly surrender, and in the other as the ability to drive into death head-on. I didn’t know we were our mother’s daughters after all.”

I love my parents deeply and without major complications but I sometimes hate them for the mind I inherited from them. I feel overwrought, too much of a person yet simultaneously too little for this world we live in. Something in my head seems to be missing and I don’t know where I’m supposed to find it.

Lastly, Yuknavitch is writing about love. Like Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” Yuknavitch writes about real love, true love that highly diverges from the two person nuclear family and rightly so. I think about the love in my life, the love that I have experienced, and I believe it’s true, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Love is wild. It consumes, it devours, it takes apart and puts back together in quick succession and we don’t have any control whatsoever over it. I’ve been in love and it scares me. I become a person I don’t know and don’t particularly like when I’m in love, volatile at best and destructive at worst, most of all to myself, so I’ve resolved to avoid it to protect myself. But I want to write, I want to create art and I ask, does love make art?

Sandra Cisneros once said, “I want to make art beyond rage” and well, I want to make art beyond my pain. There has to be more to me than what I have gone through, than how I’ve been hurt and how I’ve hurt others and I refuse to believe that isn’t the case. I always have acrylic nails these days because I haven’t been able to shake the habit of biting my nails and currently, the nail on my right pointer finger has broken off. I bite that particular nail down to the skin as I write this, and I can see it bleeding but I can’t stop. Perhaps we’re all addicted to pain, obsessive about writing it down in order to validate it, to prove that it’s both real and worthy of being observed. Or maybe that’s just me and there’s something irrevocably wrong with me. I don’t think I’m ever going to know for sure.

Love Me, Love Me, Say That You Love Me

I was born in 1994, with my Pluto, Venus, and Mars in Scorpio. For those of you who don’t believe in or aren’t versed in the language of astrology, this means that I’m pure water, emotional and volatile and inclined to hold onto things long after I should give them up. I think about love a lot, platonic love and filial love obviously, but obsessively, chronically about romantic love. I’m not theoretically inclined to be obsessed with marriage, since I’m a Modern WomanTM, I’m educated and well brought up and definitely going to work for a living. But when I lay in bed at night, I think about love- who loves me and who I love, the people I used to love and the people that used to love me. Do they still love me? Why did they love me in the first place, what about me was intrinsically lovable? Why do I love the people, or rather the person whom I love? Why, for all his numerous faults and fallacies do I still love him? I’m a reader of diverse books, of memoirs and fiction and of science fiction even, but lately, I’ve been reading Romance novels, of the kind that make it on the Best Romances of 2015 list on Goodreads. The last book I read was “Kulti” by Mariana Zapata and it made me think about the ultimate question is: why do we read Romance?

As I said, I’m not inclined towards gushing about the beauty of love and marriage. I’m rational in the stereotypical way, I don’t doodle boys’ names in my journal and I never did, I wear flowery dresses but I counteract it with coding in Java and Python and C# because that’s the way I have to be in order to keep myself balanced and sane. The reason I disapproved of Romance novels for so long, reading them in secret under my covers, is manifold. First, I was embarrassed about the sex in them because young women aren’t taught to enjoy healthy expressions of sexuality in media. Not that all the depictions of sex are ideal in Romance, but on the whole, they are catered to the female gaze in a way sex scenes in mainstream media are not, focused on the mutual pleasure of both partners. The men regularly go down on the women, bringing them through orgasm with their hands and their mouths, and the women reciprocate obviously because that’s the expectation in mutually beneficial relationships, but it doesn’t feel like an expectation or an obligation. Plus, of course, romance is a typically female dominated genre, and like everything that women love, it’s scorned as pathetic, disingenuous, and inherently inferior. “It’s not real literature”, “Why do women read porn?”, “Anybody could write it so only dumb people would read it.”

“Kulti” is about sports, quite possibly my least favorite topic in the universe. I’m the kind of girl who snapchats her best guy friend if basketball is the sport with the touchdowns almost 100% genuinely, who refuses Superbowl parties in order to get my nails done in bright gold because I’m a real life Disney princess or something, who told my ex-boyfriend I would go to a baseball game with him if he attended a Fashion Week show, complete with black tie after party. But I liked “Kulti” because it was about people who characterized their sports rather than sports that characterized people. There’s a reason as a human race we’re invested in sports, in our fraternities, in our unions- they unite us and bring forth the most elemental characteristics we possess, teamwork, responsibility for others, and the quest for individuality while attempting to bolster a team. Sal and Kulti were both multidimensional characters and not in the way that was contrived, constructed to further a plot or to give the reader some juicy scenes. The progression of their relationship felt natural and their romance felt realistic because it wasn’t really a love story; it was a story about love in life, a life story if you must call it that.

Often in romance novels, the plot is sidelined in order to overemphasize the innate sexuality of the protagonists, their dashing good looks, their long, long legs and perfect faces, but doing so often entirely misses the point of why people, women to be more exact, read romance novels. I might be generalizing and attributing my own qualities to the masses but I don’t read romance novels for the sex, for the fantasy. I’m not represented in these novels, my 5’2” 90 something pound self who worries about breaking nails and self-describes as neurotic and not in the sexy way where I relax and let go through orgasm with some generic looking guy, and for the moment, I’m okay with that- I’ve learned to compromise with the media I consume. I read romance novels for the belief that things will turn out all right, that there’s hope for me to find true love, the kind people write about in the books and immortalize in sonnets and sketches, despite and because of my flaws, and I want proof that happy endings exist. The world is a terrible, miserable place, so I smile when I see things like that imam in Turkey who opened up his mosque to cats because it gives me hope that people are kinder and smarter and more loving than I ever expected in my 21 years of being let down, and romance novels give me that feeling. The sex is simply a bonus. I liked “Kulti” because the novel wasn’t intent on rendering perfect people in a perfect relationship, who go rom bickering sexually to fucking on sheets of Egyptian cotton in 200 pages or less. It was a longer book, over 700 pages and I wasn’t bored with the progression of Kulti’s and Sal’s relationship, from enmity to reluctant friendship to genuine affection to love because I felt validated and rewarded in their romance.

I think love is weird because it’s so miraculous in its very being, the concept that two entirely different people can come together and feel such unity and respect for each other. It requires maturity and understanding and nobody can define or designate it except for the parties involved. I look at the declaration of love in “Kulti” and I feel the same way I do when I listen to “Holy Ground” by Taylor Swift: “Spinning like a girl in a brand new dress/We had this big wide city all to ourselves”: hopeful and young again because I feel ancient in the way only 21 year olds who feel like 40 something divorcees do, and I revel in it.

“What would I gain from telling you the first moment I realized you were meant to be mine? Nothing. You’re supposed to protect what you love, Sal. You taught me that. I didn’t wake up one day and know I didn’t want to live without your horrible temper. I saw so much of me in you at first, but you aren’t like me at all. You’re you, and I will go to my grave before I let anyone change any part of you. I know that without a doubt in my mind. This,” he pointed between us. “This is what matters.”

Love is beautiful, and it’s everywhere if you know where to look for it. I maintain that romantic love is like a unicorn, that it can eradicate any evil in this world if it’s honest and true, and it’s beautiful and people lose their minds over it which is obviously unhealthy, but I’m understanding more and more why they do it. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie once said that only real romantic love can remove racism and that it barely exists and I don’t know if I agree with her but that won’t prevent me from eternally being on the lookout for it. I believe in love, I believe in genuine affection and respect, and I believe that I’m deserving and worthy of it and that’s due in part to my vociferous reading of romance novels.

We Can’t Stand the Thought of Watching Ourselves Die Out

I talk the big talk about reading books by and for young women because we’re the majority minority, starved for representation as not beautiful creatures but as human beings and I’ve read my share of absolutely horrendous literature, which is why I’m so excited about this pair of books I’m reviewing. Amy Zhang was a high schooler from Sheboygan, Wisconsin when she wrote “Falling Into Place,” a stalwart mediation on life and death and what it means to be an adolescent girl in this era, and Brandy Colbert wrote “Pointe” which contains what might be my absolute favorite teenage girl protagonist of all time.

I hate physics and “Falling Into Place” is all about physics, the laws that govern our very movement from the moment we wake up in the grey morning light to the moment we fall asleep at the end of the day. Force equals mass times acceleration, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For somebody who has taken a sum total of three years of physics, it’s downright embarrassing that it’s all I really remember, that the lighter I am, the faster I have to be in order to accomplish what I want and I want so very much, too much. I must be wittier and darker and quicker and play the game of life better than anybody else since I’m so small and thin and fragile, inclined to fall apart at the first hard touch I don’t expect. Liz is not a sympathetic protagonist, but none of the good ones ever are because on the whole human beings are not sympathetic when we know their every ticking thought. We’re mean and petty and selfish, strong and weak in all the wrong ways and somehow eternally wrong in our constructions in a world that doesn’t really seem to be meant for us.

What does it mean to be a bitch? I hate using that word because it feels ugly, and I think it’s supposed to be no matter how blasé it’s become in common culture. This novel explores what it means to be a bitch, to be unfaithful and disrespectful and to not care in a way that bypasses the posit of not caring; “Liz discovered bitchiness, decided selfishness was essential to survival, and became the person she would come to hate. But that was okay, because everyone else acted the same way.” It’s so hard to toe the line between being righteously self centered and wrongfully self-involved and so much of adolescence is coming to that balance, and I personally often erred too far on either side and I paid for it. My personal favorite character in the novel was Julia though because although I’m in reality a combination of Julia and Liz, my best qualities are personified in Julia, “She was a little too smart, a little too graceful, a little too conscientious for this hammered crowd.”

I have a tendency when I’m drunk to be an exaggerated version of myself so it’s never as if I’m a different person but merely inclined to act when I otherwise would snarkily comment on the sidelines. My friend says I’m always nice to girls except if I have good reason not to be and excruciatingly polite but baseline flirtatious to boys, which unfortunately makes them believe I’m in love with them. (Spoiler alert: I’m usually not and if I were, I’d never even deign to speak to them because I’m too proud, read: cowardly, to approach them even for the sake of possible happiness.) In that way, I’m almost a Kennie, “She’s the kind of person who says things that make jaws drop. She likes it when people stare and talk and judge, because it means that someone is always thinking about her.” Or rather I used to be because these days, I’m nicer and calmer and sweeter not because it’s expected of me but because it’s more relaxing for me to not face the umbrage of hate I previously endured for speaking my mind. It’s a form of growing up, and at 21, I’ve realized it’s not a good trait to casually call myself a bitch in the way that means I unequivocally hurt others with and without meaning to because I must coexist with all 7 billion people on this planet and it is better for the health of me and those around me that I at least try to play nice. It’s a novel state of being, and I enjoy it.

“Pointe” was to be quite blunt about it, one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read as both as someone recovering from an eating disorder and as someone who’s a young woman who has learned first hand just how difficult and hurtful men can be on an individual level. The protagonist is a young black ballerina named Theo who had an affair with a grown man when she was only 13 years old, and suffered from trauma induced anorexia after he abandoned her and kidnapped her best friend Donovan. Chris lied about his identity to a precocious 13-year-old Theo, plying her with compliments to her maturity and grooming her in a way that befits only the rapist he was rather than the loving boyfriend he was playing at being, and it was quite surely, chilling in the reality of it. I went through the Goodreads reviews which were, predictably enough, reeking of sexism and racism because how dare a traumatized teenage protagonist show signs of her trauma, compartmentalizing and focusing on silly teenage drama rather than the main issue plaguing her mind, how dare she return to her previous anorexic behavior when faced with the reemergence of the man who triggered her into it in the first place? It says something that the worst thing Theo actually does is sleep with a boy with a girlfriend, not ideal obviously, but absolutely paltry compared to grooming and raping a girl and yet, Theo receives more criticism for the former than Chris does for the latter.

I personally found the dichotomy between Theo’s affection for Hosea and her fixation on Chris to be highly telling, since clearly, her experiences haunted her making her almost unfit for a proper relationship, which she seems well aware of. I didn’t get the impression she even wanted to date Hosea, because she was a very smart girl; she knew she wasn’t ready for it but she was still inclined to sleep with him because she needed somebody and sex is complicated enough to simplify things. At least that’s what it feels like as a confused teenager. But, I can tell you first hand that it never fixes things because sex is never just sex because we have sex with people and even if the sex itself doesn’t matter, the people we have sex with do matter, and we can’t simply forgo humanity just because we’d rather be inhuman and invincible. There was a quote from “Falling Into Place” that I think is appropriate here because substance abuse is the same as sex when it comes down to it, “She could feel the alcohol in her blood, making the world oddly delicate, as though everything had turned brittle and was on the verge of falling apart and Liz Emerson was the only substantial thing on the planet. And it was nice, being invincible.” The tragic part is though, we’re not God, and as somebody that tried to play God for a while as a teenager, it only causes more trouble.

Obviously, the novel is also important in that like “How to Get Away With Murder” on television, it grants the emotional nuance of a white man to a black female protagonist. Theo’s eating disorder was chillingly relatable because like Marya Hornbacher emphasizes in “Wasted,” anorexics never entirely starve. Instead we pick at our food and develop “quirks” that grow increasingly disturbing, only eating fruit for lunch, scraping the inside out of bagels for breakfast, substituting dinner with an energy bar and coffee because we’re studying since anorexics are often high-achieving and competitive to an unhealthy extreme. By deriding eating disorders as poor little rich (white) girl problems, we refuse to acknowledge the diversity of those who suffer from them, rich white girls yes, but also middle class black girls and upper middle class Indian girls because the trauma is universal especially when the world that inspires it isn’t as exclusive as it would like to think of itself. “Trisha is tall and thin, but not the type of thin that makes people want to send you away” is how Theo describes her classmate because those who face a sense of dysmorphia don’t ever really escape from it without actively trying to, since it squats down and festers in every pore of us and refuses to leave. Everything is about thinness, even when it isn’t, and the most tragic aspect of it is the world almost lauds that behavior as a sign of moral self control impossible for mere mortals.

Most of all, Theo isn’t villainized by the narrative the way a lesser author might have derided her because it’s her story and her story matters. She is a victim but she’s not victimized in a voyeuristic way, and she doesn’t win per se but she’s not punished for her sins the way some of detractors on Goodreads would have liked her to be. She doesn’t get the guy but the guy doesn’t deserve her and he knows it; teenage boys make mistakes and they often don’t suffer the consequences for them the way that teenage girls do because society pinpoints and targets girls for the insecurities and magnifies them solely because it can. The most empowering passage I’ve possibly ever read comes from this novel and despite every miserable, harrowing, cringe-worthy thing that happened in this novel, I had to smile when I read it.

“He cared about me but not enough. Hosea said I was special, but words don’t mean anything without the actions to back them up. And maybe I am special, but it’s not because he said so.”

If I could get every single young woman to read one passage, it would be that one. I’m not going to sit on my soapbox and pretend the opinion of boys doesn’t matter because it often does but more than anything, people have to work to earn respect, they have to work to earn love. In the words of Toni Morrison,

“You do not deserve love regardless of the suffering you have endured. You do not deserve love because somebody did you wrong. You do not deserve love just because you want it. You can only earn – by practice and careful contemplations – the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it.”

In other words, words are wind, they disappear into thin air, but people don’t forget what you do for them and how you treat them so make it count.

            These two novels are both relatively short reads, I read them both in one sitting on weekday evenings, and I read fast, but their length and nuance are not related. They both remained with me in ways that thousand page novels did not because their characterization and thematic structure was both impressive and relatable without being pedantic or reproachful. Teenagers drink and fight and do drugs and fall in and out of love and those are facts of life and refusing to acknowledge them in books supposedly targeted to teenagers does nobody any good. I wholeheartedly recommend both and if you read them, please let me know what you think because I’m always interested in talking about books and these were some of my favorites in 2015.